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2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL Review

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2007 Nissan Sentra SL

SEE ALSO: Compare Nissan Models - Nissan Buyers Guide

2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL
Same old tune played to a new beat.
By: Rex Roy

Sometimes it just feels good to reminisce. It has a way of putting things in perspective. So come back with me to a simpler time, where there were just a few compact cars with names like Falcon and Nova. They came from places with names like Dearborn and Warren, or even Highland Park. These cars offered four-door body styles with room for five, economical powertrains, and basic amenities at affordable prices.

A quick scan of today's compact market shows nearly three-dozen models from five countries ranging in price from the $9,000 to over $47,000. Cars at each end of this cost spectrum have almost nothing in common, making today's compact market a rich, vibrant and somewhat confusing.

Sentra knows what it is… The all-new 2007 Nissan Sentra, however, knows where it fits in the segment. It is not the cheapest, nor does it have any pretensions of being a small luxury sedan. In the author's view, it is a reincarnation of yesteryear's mainstream compacts — Nissan's version of a Plymouth Valiant or AMC Rambler. With four doors, plenty of room inside, and loads of standard features, our Sentra 2.0 SL tester equates to a Dodge Dart Brougham. Less expensive Sentra models are available, with the base 2.0 model starting at $14,750 and the S model coming in at $15,650. The higher-performance SE-R model comes on line this spring.

In line with its $19,015 sticker (including destination charges), our well-equipped SL model carries front, side, and side curtain airbags; ABS with brakeforce distribution; A/C with micro filter; power windows, mirrors, and locks; tilt steering column with radio and cruise controls; and a trip computer with tire pressure monitoring system.

Interior qualities Inside, the quality of materials seemed in keeping with more expensive cars, with pleasant fabrics and nicely textured plastics. Comfort, fit and finish were on par with a recent Toyota Camry that passed through our fleet, while the materials seemed a step above the new Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass. Even during a cold spell where temperatures fell below freezing, the Sentra's interior was surprisingly quiet and free annoying squeaks from the instrument cluster and trim assemblies.

The gauges were easy to read, and the large LCD readout of the combined audio system and driver information center was appreciated by the colorblind and otherwise visually challenged author. This kind of attention to detail—making things easy to use and familiar—showed up in many areas. In addition to how easily the rear seats folded, the cup holders in the center console had a simple adjusting mechanism to tailor its size to the cup you're holding.

Prelude to driving Along with the aforementioned list of standards, the 2.0 SL also included what Nissan calls the Intelligent Key Keyless Ignition & Entry System. It works like regular keyless entry, but handles the ignition sequence a bit differently. Unlike keyless ignition systems that require the unnatural combination of pressing a "start" button while pressing the brake pedal, the Sentra's system has what amounts to an intuitive key/tumbler style ignition switch in the steering column, only you never insert a key. The fob stays in your pocket or purse. When you have the key fob with you in the car, one partial turn of the ignition lets the car know you're there. The car then instantaneously confirms the validity of the key fob, allowing you to turn the ignition tumbler the rest of the way, starting the engine in the normal manner. Smartly, the key fob hides a standard key should the car's electrics die.

Fire it up The ignition fires up a competent engine. At 2-liters, it uses all of today's expected technologies to make 140 horsepower and 147 lb ft of torque. Its twin cams and four valve per cylinder produce decent power for the car's appointed rounds, but like some others in the class, the engine gets noisy as the power peaks between the torque and horsepower summits of 4,800 and 5,100 rpms. The engine is matched to what is becoming the norm in middle-of-the-road compacts, a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Leonardo da Vinci conceptualized the idea around 1490, and the first CVT patent was applied for in 1886. It's been used for decades in snowmobiles, motorcycles and tractors, and sporadically in automobiles since the 1950s. CVTs don't have traditional fixed gears and can therefore deliver stepless power delivery. The design's long-term popularity comes from its smoothness of operation, its simplicity, and its ability to improve fuel economy while reducing emissions. While some may think of it as a new fangled technology, it's not. It's simply been slow to the mainstream automotive party because of the design's torque limitations.

The schizophrenic transmission In the Sentra's application, the electronically-controlled Xtronic CVT "shifts" much like a traditional automatic transmission with individual gears. Under normal acceleration, the CVT electronically "fakes" shifts so that drivers hear and feel what they are used to … the engine accelerates in first gear … the shift into second causes engine revs to drop and then rise again as speeds increase leading to third gear. The process is all quite normal to drivers used to transmissions with 3, 4, and 5 or more fixed gears. However, nail the throttle and the tach zooms up to 5,000 rpm and stays there. Your brain waits for the shift that never comes as the CVT manages its sliding gear ratios to keep the engine in the thick of its power band, maximizing acceleration. Weird…but only until you're used to it. Then you'll love it, as the CVT is a significant contributor to the SL's mileage of 29 city/36 highway.

Around town performance The powertrain performs well, and this performance is matched by the suspension. Fitted with struts up front and a torsion beam rear suspension, it handled everyday driving duties smoothly. Anti-sway bars at both ends keep body lean in check. The Goldie Locks ride strikes an excellent balance and never felt too soft or too firm. The front disc/rear drum brakes performed in kind, delivering sure stops and a very smooth transition into and out of the operation of the anti-lock braking system.

In keeping with its pleasant generalist nature, when we pushed the Sentra SL hard into corners, the SL wasn't at its best. Arcing through high-speed corners, it tended to feel kind of springy — like a hobby horse — a condition we expect will be refined out the high-performance SE-R edition. To our surprise, the electric power steering provided decent feedback without the numbness we've experienced with other similar systems.

All that's happening in Tennessee Nissan's a busy company these days. Along with launching the new Sentra, for 2007 they've also introduced the new Versa and Altima, all while moving the company's US headquarters from California to Tennessee. With all of this action going on, Nissan chief Carlos Gossen and his team have kept their eyes on the ball, and produced a solid compact that should make sense to a huge number of buyers. Just like the Dart, Nova, Falcon, and all rest.

Base Price:$19,015
Engine: 2.0-liter I4 with 140 hp/147 lb-ft
Drivetrain: CVT automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 179.8" x 70.5 x 59.5"
Wheelbase: 108.7"
Curb weight: 2991 lbs Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 29 city/ 36 highway
Safety equipment: Front air bags, side airbags, side curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes, tire pressure monitoring system
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, remote keyless entry, keyless start, rear-window defroster, steering wheel radio controls, power windows, driver seat height adjustment, AM/FM/CD audio system, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper, five years/60,000 miles on powertrain components