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New Car/Review

1998 Nissan Sentra SE

by John Heilig


SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide


ENGINE:                  2.0-liter inline four
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:       140 hp @ 6400 rpm/132 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
TRANSMISSION:            Four-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:            23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, 22.7 mpg test
WHEELBASE:               99.9 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH X HEIGHT: 171.1 x 66.6 x 54.5 in.
CURB WEIGHT:             2315 lbs
FUEL CAPACITY:           13.2 gal.
CARRYING CAPACITY:       10.7 cu. ft. 
TIRES:                   195/55R15
INSTRUMENTS:             Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, 
                         water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:               Power mirrors, power windows, power door locks, 
                         cruise control, power sunroof, air conditioner, 
                         AM-FM stereo radio with cassette and in-dash CD,
                         ABS, dual air bags. 
STICKER PRICE:           $19,516

It's amazing the difference a transmission can make in changing the character of an automobile. The Nissan Sentra has the same 140 horsepower 2.0-liter inline four cylinder engine that's used in the 200SX sport coupe. But in the 200SX I drove, the engine drove the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. In the Sentra, the gearbox was a four-speed automatic. While the performance of the 200SX was what you'd expect from a small sport coupe, the Sentra's performance was more along the lines of what you'd expect from a compact sedan.

This engine is a nice engine. However, an automatic transmission is not the best choice for a gearbox. Why isn't it the best choice? The engine winds up quite a bit before it does anything. There is a significant amount of transmission lag, which I define as the time between when you put your foot down on the floor and the time the car reacts.

The gears are properly spaced, so that when you're going it's a fine transmission. and since this comprises about 90 percent of your driving, it's fine. It's just that when you want to pass someone, or pull away from a traffic light, the engine has to work harder than it should.

But still, the Sentra is a nice car, and the four-cylinder engine is an excellent choice for this compact sedan. The Sentra is a true four-passenger vehicle. You could probably squeeze a fifth passenger in the middle of the back seat if you had to.

It is a comfortable car to drive and ride in. The individual front bucket seats offered decent side support and decent adjustment. I did have trouble adjusting the angle of the seat back to "pure comfort," but it was never uncomfortable. Part of the problem could have been a stiff back from "an old football injury."

Handling is not sporty, but you get the same type of handling with the 200SX. It was compact car capable. We did have an opportunity to try the Sentra on my favorite back country roads and hills. While the gearbox spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between gears, it handled the hills reasonably well and handled the curves reasonably well. Again, this is not a sports car but a compact sedan.

The interesting instrument arrangement that has worked its way down the food chain from the Maxima consists of black-on-while dial faces that covert to white lights on a black background at night. It's easy to understand once you see it work, but you have to think twice about it the first time you see it.

The heating/cooling system did an excellent job of keeping us cool in some hot weather, and the AM/FM stereo sound system, with in-dash cassette and CD players, kept us entertained.

Sentra is probably stuck in the middle of a large crop of compact sedans. It's an extremely competitive and crowded market. And while the Sentra is capable, on a scale of 10 it rates as a 6 or 7. With a little more insulation around the engine compartment and a manual gearbox, it could be far more enjoyable to drive.