The Nissan Sentra holds its own in a world of big vehicles. The base 2.0-liter engine puts the Sentra on par with other high-tech four-cylinder engines. Boasting an aluminum block and head, continuously variable valve timing, and electronic fuel injection, the 2.0-liter makes 140 horsepower (same as the '08 Honda Civic, eight hp more than the Toyota Corolla and eight hp less than the Mazda3). However, the real story is its strong torque: with 147 pound-feet, it beats those other cars. Torque is important because it's needed for acceleration from lower rpm, such as when accelerating from an intersection or up a steep grade. Sentra develops 132 pound-feet of torque at just 2400 rpm, so it feels quite powerful around town and in traffic.
Our Sentra 2.0 zoomed up freeway on-ramps, and felt like it belonged in the fast lane. It ran in 80-mph Northern California traffic with ease and had no trouble cruising at 90. The engine wasn't loud and didn't feel strained at that pace, although under full-throttle acceleration it was a bit noisy from 5000 rpm up to its redline of 6500.
Fuel economy for a Sentra with the 2.0-liter engine is an EPA-rated 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the CVT transmission, and 24/31 mpg with the six-speed manual.
The CVT (continuously variable transmission) is now in its third generation, and the technology has improved greatly. The main benefit with a CVT is better gas mileage, a result of less internal friction. With only two ranges, high and low, it's smoother because there's less shifting, though the sound is odd, like the car is winding up like a snowmobile. Floor the gas pedal and the Sentra surges ahead aggressively.
The Sentra SE-R Spec V feels docile in traffic, in spite of the performance from its 200-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder. It makes its best power near redline, from 6600-7000 rpm, so you need to flog it to get the most out of it. It doesn't feel high-strung, however. It's easy to live with and provides that extra bit of oomph when you want to play. The Spec V comes with an easy-shifting six-speed manual transmission that isn't especially sporty. The clutch works with ease, too, making the Spec V feel more like an everyday driver than a sport compact.
The suspension on all Sentras is an independent configuration in front, with a torsion beam in the rear, a compact design with separate shocks and coil springs that allows more room for the trunk that's above it. In its base form, it's forgiving. In its most aggressive state, in the SE-R Spec V (with higher rate springs, shocks and bushings), it's firm in a quality kind of way, yet never harsh or uncomfortable. It feels rugged and inspires confidence, out there in the cruel world of pockmarked roads. It even felt comfortable over a series of Chicago potholes. We haven't driven the standard SE-R, but we suspect it is also quite comfortable.
We had the opportunity to drive the SE-R Spec V at the fast 4.0-mile Road America circuit near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We found it to be fun but not razor sharp. The engine revved predictably, without climbing too quickly to keep up with gear shifts. The brakes didn't fade during our high-speed lap, and the handling gave nice feedback but didn't feel as agile as a Subaru WRX STi or Mitsubishi Evo X.
We also thrashed it around an autocross course. The engine provided good power out of corners, so much so that we spun the inside wheel. We would recommend the optional limited-slip differential for anyone wanting to do parking lot autocrosses or other hard driving in their Spec V. The car leaned more in quick, sharp turns than an autocrosser would like, and wasn't as sharp as the likes of a Mini Cooper S, BMW 1 Series, or even a Chevrolet Cobalt SS. Overall, when it comes to ride and handling, we'd liken the Spec V to the Honda Civic Si: They're both comfortable road cars, with decent handling that provides a lot of feedba