This new Sentra hums right along. We drove a GXE with a five-speed manual to 100 mph quite easily in the desert, and it was revving at a relatively calm 4500 rpm. The car rode as stable as the larger Altima at this speed, and wind and tire noise was very low. This is the kind of car that can get even choir teachers and librarians lots of speeding tickets. At the legal speed limit of 70 mph, the engine turns just 3100 rpm in fifth and the automatic-equipped model revs even lower.
We were enthused by the more powerful SE models. The SE has terrific, sensitive brakes and stops as confidently as the big Maxima or even a BMW or Audi. That performance is due to the rear disc brakes, and a well-damped suspension. The difference in brake pedal feel is broad: The drum-equipped GXE had a soft-feeling, almost spongy brake pedal compared to the SE versions. The sportier models' pedals feel firm, and while pedal travel is short, there's no loss of sensitivity. It feels like you end up using less leg muscle to stop the SE models.
Holding the Sentra up are the familiar struts in front and a coil-spring beam axle in the rear. The softest-sprung version of the suspension comes on the XE and GXE, while the SE models get two progressively stiffer setups for folks who like to feel the road. SE models also get larger wheels and tires and rear disc brakes, as well as a substantial-looking tubular strut tower brace.
SE's high-performance 2.0-liter engine is shared with the pricey Infiniti G20. Nissan increased power slightly buy using a larger intake, lighter crankshaft, coated pistons and a variable restriction muffler. At its 6750 redline, the exhaust note is notably quiet, and there's no buzzing or rattling as you would expect of an economy car. This familiar engine endeared us to the pre-'95 Sentra SE-R, only this time around it's in a more substantial body. We're impressed with the refinement of this car, even at its acceleration and handling limits.
Shifting the five-speed manual is more of a fluid motion than you'll make in a VW, but it's still a long-travel sedan shifter, and you can feel the rod linkage move as the engine rocks on its mounts. It's not a Miata-like sports shifter. SE manual transmissions get a nifty viscous limited-slip front differential. Nissan also tuned the SE's optional automatic transmission for smoother shifting.
You'll like whipping along a challenging two-lane road in the SE. The Sentra feels bigger and more grownup than a Honda Civic, and it feels more hunkered down and less top-heavy than a Ford Focus ZTS. The SE has notably heavier steering at low speeds than the GXE, so a day of parking in New York City means you can skip the health club. On bumps in the GXE there's a bit of steering column shake that isn't present in the SE (or in the Altima or Maxima). The suspension travel feels adequately long on rough roads, and on really big bumps the jounce bumpers actuate gradually, like a Honda's.
GXE and XE models run smooth and quiet. The new 1.8-liter engine revs easily to its 6500 redline. The EPA rates it at 26/33 mpg city/highway with an automatic transmission, and 27/35 with a five-speed manual. This engine using a timing chain instead of the cheaper and quieter timing belt. You don't notice the extra noise generated by the timing chain on the GXE, however. Four big engine mounts isolate the motor, and a welcome list of sound-deadening treatments keep noise and vibration very low. The new 1.8-liter engine is designed to deliver its power lower in the rev range, where most Americans shift. Most Americans opt for automatic transmissions in their Sentras, making the new five-speed gearbox a rarer item. Low-rpm torque and carefully mapped gearing allow GXE and XE models with automatics to accelerate quickly from intersections yet cruise at highway speeds in a relaxed manner.