SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide
SPECIFICATIONS MODEL: Nissan Sentra SE ENGINE: 2.0-liter inline four HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 145 hp @ 6,400 rpm/136 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm TRANSMISSION: Four-speed automatic WHEELBASE: 99.8 in. LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 177.5 x 67.3 x 55.5 in. STICKER PRICE: $17,000 (est.)
One of the interesting facets about this job is that you're always jumping into different vehicles, one after the other. This week's tester, for example, is a Nissan Sentra SE four-door sedan. It is definitely in the compact, economy class. And there's nothing wrong with that. The surprise is that the Sentra came after a Chrysler Sebring convertible, a Chrysler minivan and a couple of full-size sedans, including the Audi S8. So there has been a variety.
I would have expected the Sentra, therefore, to compare less than favorably with the cars I had been driving. But this wasn't the case. The Sentra's inline four-cylinder engine had adequate power to do all I asked of it, and the four-speed automatic transmission made shifting a thing of the past. My only objection to the package was that the automatic didn't respond as quickly as I would have liked, and when I was downshifting it took a little longer to get the power to the road.
But that's a complaint of a driver who often likes to drive too fast. For normal drivers, the response would have been fine, as it wasn't that much different from a host of other cars in an assortment of classes. An automatic stick shift would have eased the shifting "problem" somewhat, but it would also have added a lot to the bottom line.
Let's talk about that bottom line. The average selling price for a car these days is in the $25,000-$26,000 range. The Sentra tops out at about $17,000. For your money you get the automatic transmission, an AM/FM stereo radio with a cassette and CD player, air conditioning, power windows, a power sunroof, power door locks, all the standard safety goodies in all cars these days, and a solid chassis. I think that's a bargain. If you read my test of the Audi S8, for example, which cost four times the price of the Sentra, you noted that the Audi didn't have power down windows. The Sentra did.
As usual, we took the Sentra over some Interstates and back roads. On the Interstate, it performed well and kept up with all the other cars on the highway. Top speed, I would guess, is near 100 mph, which I believe exceeds every legal speed limit in the country. Acceleration on the highway was decent, so that if you saw yourself being menaced by a big 18-wheeler, you could get out of the way. With its good brakes, you could also stop or slow down.
On winding roads, handling was good. I wouldn't classify the Sentra in the same league as the old 300ZX, but it's a solid four-door sedan that doesn't get in its own way when you push the pedal to the metal. I have this 10-mile stretch where I like to exercise my testers, and the Sentra did a nice job getting me down the road. While I didn't try to set any speed records, I felt safe and secure at the speed limit and slightly above. When the road turned, the Sentra turned and didn't want to lean way over on the shock absorbers.
The Sentra also had a couple of amenities that I found particularly useful. For one, there are two 12-volt power outlets. One is in front of the small center console and one is inside. So you can power up your cell phone and your laptop computer at the same time. With so many drivers and passengers carrying electronic devices with them in the car, power outlets are becoming more and more necessary, and less and less of a luxury. It was good to see them in an economy car.
I also liked the pop-up storage compartment in the dash. When I first saw it, I thought it was a navigation system, similar to that in the Infiniti I30. But of course, an economy sedan doesn't get a navigation system. What it was, though, was a nice flat storage area that was convenient and roomy. I stowed house keys and a cell phone up there. When I was out of the car, I usually left it open to keep temptation away from curious eyes. I'm sure a small CD carrier would also fit there.
A few years ago, Nissan was almost left for dead in the car world. Many journalists had written the manufacturer off, blaming everything from the name change from Datsun to bland cars. I think those days are far behind us. Nissan has shown that, like Datsun, it can build excellent cars that offer value and economy. Don't cash in those insurance policies just yet.