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The Nissan Sentra GXE (2001), No longer a small car.

SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

By Larry Weitzman

When Nissan decided to reinvent the small sub-compact they call the Sentra, they made a mistake. They made the inside too big so it is no longer classified by the EPA as a sub compact, but a compact. In it's fifth generation, the Sentra has matured from an econobox to a small family sedan and more.

Nissan did it by an overall body stretch of 6.5 inches to 177.5 inches and a body widening of .8 inches to 67.3 inches. Headroom has been enhanced nearly an inch in the front and rear seats by raising the roof an inch with an overall height of 55.5 inches. Wheelbase has remained a constant at 99.8 inches.

The body has been restyled with a Nissan creating a family resemblance to the two other sedans in it's line, the Altima and Maxima. In fact it so closely resembles the Altima, that when I first saw the Sentra, I took a double take. The limited and careful use of ridge lines have created a body that far exceeds anything that precedes it.

There is only one belt or ridge line that emanates from the "A" pillar and works its way rearward to effectively encircle the entire car. It creates a sharp demarkation of the rear deck and the side of the body. A second line runs down the top of the front fenders and blends into the bejeweled head lamp assemblies.

The hood has a second sharp line that intersects the fender line ridge that creates a sharp defined flat hood that mimics the trunk deck. The passenger cabin is a smooth rounded affair which fits with the softened body curves of the front bumper and rear end which uses highly integrated wraparound taillights. Even the door handles are connected by a disappearing line. Very Clever. The Sentra has an upscale look and with the addition of the performance package's rear spoiler and 16 inch alloys, it becomes downright aggressive. The wheel well detail get a sliced off, defined look. Jerry Hirshberg, Nissan Design Institute's President and TV commercial pitchman, calls the Sentra, "Robust, Rounded and Sassy". More on that later.

With the new body comes new found body rigidity. The addition of a third floor pan member and other improvements have increased the torsional stiffness of the body by 30 percent. Noise, vibration and harshness has been improved with the addition of softer mounting bushings and expandable foam in the body pillars ala the Q45 Infiniti (which has a new model coming early next year with a normally aspirated 340 hp V-8, I love competition.).

Also changed is the motive force. Under the hood in the XE and GXE models is a new 1.8L inline four, DOHC 16 valve 126 hp at 6,000 rpm. That's up from 115 horses. Torque is up by 20 percent at 129 pounds at 2,400 rpm (prior engine was 108 pounds). But the rpm for peak torque has been reduced from 4,000. This translates into a much stronger driving feel with a midrange punch that doesn't require down shifting. The engine is running at peak torque when cruising at 65 mph so maintaining speed without a downshift up a steep grade is a piece of cake. This keeps the overall feel relaxed and quiet.

But there is a high performance engine available and standard in the SE model. It is lifted right out of the Infiniti G20. It is a 2.0L inline four with DOHC's and 16 valves that pumps out a full 145 hp at 6,400 rpm and 136 pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm. That's a 5 hp and 4 pounds of torque improvement over the prior generation SE.

New power means a new level of performance. With the standard engine, 0-60 comes up in 10.24 seconds. But that time is with the four speed automatic. When you couple this base engine with a 5 speed manual, the 0-60 times will drop into the high eight second range. Passing performance is also excellent for this overachiever, with 50-70 taking 6.36 seconds with one run below six seconds. Up a steep grade, the not so little Sentra was able to accelerate from 50-70 in an average of 11.38 seconds with no manual holding of the floor shifter. The engine will stay in second all the way to its 6,500 rpm redline.

But there is more. The SE model (maybe SE means "Sassy Edition") has turned into a sports sedan. With the five speed manual cog swapper, it will run 0-60 in less than eight seconds and light up the front tires in first gear even with the standard limited slip differential. It comes with a returned sports suspension and goes around corners like its on rails and at a base price of $15,419, it's a bargain.

When not racing, the EPA projects fuel economy ranging from 26 in the city to 33 on the highway. My tester returned 27 mpg, but I kept the tach needle buried at or near the red zone when ever possible. In El Dorado County expect 28-30 mpg and 33 to 35 mpg on the highway at legal speeds.

But for those who worry about the environment and think that the automobile is destroying it, Nissan has the answer with the Sentra CA. The CA is powered by a 122 hp version of the 1.8L engine of the GXE and XE. But this engine uses double walled exhaust manifolds, new combustion control sensor, a quicker warm up catalyst, new hydrocarbon trap catalysts and use of a special electronically controlled swirl control valve. But most important is the use of three catalytic converters. The Sentra CA also is zero evaporative emissions compliant. This means no fuel vapors from within the fuel system are allowed to enter the atmosphere.

The result is the first motor vehicle that qualifies for zero fuel emission vehicle credits and SULEV (super ultra low emissions vehicle) standards, a feat which was only awarded to electric cars. The Sentra CA also uses a radiator coating developed by Engelhard Corporation called PremAir. As ozone laden air passes over the radiator, the PremAir coating converts ozone molecules into oxygen. The air from the wake of a Sentra CA is cleaner than the air in front of the vehicle. Didn't Al Gore, a man who claims to be extremely knowledgeable of science and technology, say that the internal combustion engine is the greatest threat to mankind? So much for big Al's genius.

Tail pipe emissions are one-fifth the amount of hydrocarbons (HC) and one-tenth the amount of oxides of nitrogen (NOX) of an ultra low emission vehicle (ULEV). The good news it performs like any other Sentra (meaning 0-60 times in 10 second range, a top speed approaching 110 mph, the ability to leap tall hills in a single bound, a range of nearly 450 miles and can be refueled in about 5 minutes). You can run the air conditioner, the lights, the radio and never sweat will I make it home without polluting the atmosphere, if that's what you think cars do.

But meanwhile returning to the ranch from the race track and "clean air", Nissan expects that 80% of its sales will be my test car, the GXE. Handling is nimble and the ride is supple. The Sentra uses MacPherson struts up front and a multilink beam in the rear (which is patterned after the Maxima) with coil springs at each corner. Antiroll bars at each end finish it off.

Quelling the washboard on Ponderosa Road was an easy job for the Sentra and the two 90 degree bumpy corners were handled at speed with aplomb. In the twisties of Green Valley, Latrobe and Bass Lake, the Sentra exhibited accurate steering and grooved through the corners effortlessly. Part of the cornering ability was helped with optional 15 inch five spoke alloys shod with 195/60 tires. Standard rubber is 185/65X14. It could handle nearly every twist and turn at maximum legal speed without feeling pushed. Some understeer is evident but it's very controllable. It's not a Corvette or BMW Z3, nor is it race ready for Laguna Seca, but in the real world of El Dorado County, it will give you an entertainment factor (I am not talking about the standard CD player) that isn't as prevalent in other econoboxes.

On the highway, the Sentra demonstrated its quality engineering with a quiet ride, absorbing all the tar strips and minor irregularities. The engine only spins 2,550 rpm at 70 and is inaudible. Under hard acceleration, the Sentra can be heard, but so does every other econobox. The Sentra, however, remains refined and composed.

Braking is by power assisted front ventilated discs and rear drums. Antilock brakes are a $699 option and comes packaged with side impact air bags. This is an option to carefully consider. In the SE model braking is performed by four wheel discs.

Inside, the Sentra feels rich beyond its meager cost (everything is relative). The materials for the seats and door paneling have a quality feel. The front seats are very comfortable and seem to envelope and hold the body in place. Very nice.

The dash well done with a European two tone look. The driver's instrument pod contains a large 150 mph speedo and 8,000 rpm tach with smaller fuel and temp gauges flanking left and right. There are the various and sundry warning lights set in two annunciator boxes.

The center pod holds the fine sounding radio with standard CD and environmental systems (heating and cooling). But on top of the pod is a covered storage area that is handy for electronic gate openers, stop watches or pencils. In the center console behind the floor shifter is another storage area below the arm rest.

The rear seats offer plenty of room for two adults or three children with comfort. The legroom is very adequate and the extra headroom is welcomed. My test car had the $150 Convenience Package which adds a 60/40 fold down rear seat and keyless entry. It adds to the utility of the reasonably large, well shaped trunk.

Aggressive pricing of the Sentra is a bonus to the consumer. The base XE 5 speed manual starts at $12,169 with destination of $520. Only two option packages are available, an AC package with an AM/FM cassette stereo for $1,199 and floor maps for $79. Unless you live in Alaska and have a walkman or a boombox for the right seat, you buy this car with both options, so the real price is $13,447. For automatic add $800.

But who would by an XE when for $14,019 (less than $600 more) you can have a GXE with a 5 speed that comes standard with AC, power windows, power locks, cruise control, AM/FM stereo with CD, dual vanity mirrors, cargo light and other niceties.

My test car came with three options, all of which I recommend, the convenience package ($150), the luxury package which includes bigger alloy wheels and tires, upgraded 180 watt stereo, lighted vanity mirrors, overhead console and more is a bargain at $649 and finally the obligatory floor mats for $79. Total price was $15,697. To that I would add antilock brakes for $699 which adds side impact air bags as well.

The SE maybe the performance bargain. Sticker for the 5 speed is $15,419 with destination. Add the performance package for $899 which includes 16 inch six spoke alloys and 195/55 performance tires, upgraded stereo, lighted vanities, spoiler and more plus the restraint system ($699) which includes antilocks (four wheel discs are standard) and side air bags, and you have got yourself a super slick, people moving pocket rocket that carries four very comfortably for about $17,000.

Shingle Springs Nissan, Subaru, Kia has a large selection of this high value offering from Nissan. Going through the gears in an economy car will never be as fun.


Price                  $12,169 to $18,993

1.8L DOHC 16 valve inline four   126 hp @ 6,000    
                                 129 lbs-ft of torque @ 2,400 rpm

CA version                       122 hp @ 6,000 rpm         
                                 122 lbs-ft of torque @ 2,400 rpm

SE version
2.0L DOHC 15 valve inline four   145 hp @ 6,400 rpm
                                 136 lbs-ft of torque @ 4,800 rpm

Four speed electronically controlled

5 speed manual

transverse mounted front engine
front wheel drive

Wheelbase              99.8  inches
Length                 177.5 inches
Width                  67.3  inches
Height                 55.5  inches
Weight                 2,627 pounds (GXE auto)
Track (F/r)            58.1/57.3 inches
Trunk capacity         11.6  cubic feet
Fuel capacity          13.2  gallons
Wheels-standard        14    inch steel
     optional          15 and 16 inch alloys
Tires-standard         185/65X14
     optional          195/60X15 (GXE)
     optional          195/55X16 (SE)

0-60                   10.26  seconds
50-70                  6.36   seconds
50-70 uphill           11.38  seconds
Top Speed              Well over 110 mph, so there is
                         no need to find out on your own,
                         although the CHP does have radar
                         guns for accuracy.   
Fuel Economy           EPA 26/33 mpg city/highway,
                         automatic, 27/35 mpg
                         city/highway, 5 speed.  My
                         estimate is 28 mpg in El Dorado
                         County driving and 33-35 mpg on
                         the highway.