The 2014 Nissan Sentra performs adequately in all respects, but offers very little to entice anyone who craves behind-the-wheel excitement—or even charm.
What's missing here (and what you'll find in many other competing models like the Ford Focus or Mazda 3) is anything close to zippy performance. You won't find the refined, tactile reassurance of refined compacts like the Chevy Cruze or VW Jetta, either, and overall, the Sentra's driving experience might prove too small-car retro for some shoppers.
With a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and an Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the Sentra puts its best foot forward in typical commuting conditions (at up to 40 mpg highway, it's economical, too). And while that might seem like a low power number, it's just fine as Nissan dropped 150 pounds of curb weight this past year.
The CVT doesn't include much driver appeal; ask for a quick burst of power—especially at city-traffic speeds—and you'll catch the system flat-footed almost every time, seemingly requiring a second or two to realize that you need a much lower ratio than what it's allowing. Push the accelerator to the floor and the revs rise rather raucously and dramatically into the engine’s upper ranges, with the Sentra not at all pinning you back in your seat but definitely moving brisk enough. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most drivers who commute on mostly level ground—and you can work around it sometimes by keeping the shift lever in ‘L,’ which keeps revs higher to begin with.
There's a six-speed manual transmission available, too, but it's only offered on the base Sentra S and it feels a bit like an afterthought, with a notchy, loose, and imprecise linkage [Nissan engineers, you need to go drive a '90s Sentra five-speed]. The manual also serves to show that despite the variable valve timing, this isn’t an engine that makes much of its torque below 2,500 rpm (peak torque of 128 pound-feet comes at 3,600 rpm).
For an extra $400, you can specify a FE+ (fuel economy) package on the Sentra that adds a rear spoiler and low-rolling-resistance tires, as well as a few other aerodynamic improvements, so as to obtain the better 40-mpg highway rating.
The Sentra gets no kudos for its handling, but again, it's enough for everyday-driver, commuter-style needs. The setup, with a torsion-beam rear axle and rear drum brakes—plus standard steel wheels—again treads the base line for cars in this segment. Push it a little too hard and the body leans excessively, with the suspension then unloading in a rather sudden way that would interrupt a smooth line through tight esses.
The nicely weighted, confident steering is a bright spot; it's speed-sensitive and much like what's used in the Altima. Ride quality is pretty good too.
As in most budget-minded compacts, you'll find that rear disc brakes are available only on the SL or the SR, and they may provide stronger braking in higher-demand conditions like on mountain roads, but the rear drum system on the rest of the lineup stopped well enough—albeit with lots of nosedive and body motion. Ride isn't significantly different whether you go for the base wheels or the low-profile 17-inch tires that do improve responsiveness somewhat.
One further note: No matter which model or trim level you get, all Sentra models include Normal, Eco, and Sport modes, through small buttons that are located in the lower dash, out of the driver’s line of sight (the assumption is that you’ll pick a mode and stick with it). They affect throttle response and transmission tuning, while Eco mode also reduces air-conditioning draw. On fast-moving back roads we actually preferred Eco mode, as it had the transmission running the engine in a less-raucous rev range, while we were able to move nearly as quick.