1997 Nissan Sentra
Competition is good. Competition for buyers is what makes shopping for a compact sedan a worthwhile investment of time. All the players want your business. Which means all of them have to go the extra mile if they want to send you home in one of their products.
The Nissan Sentra provides a good example of how this works. Ranging from about $12,000 to just north of $16,500, the retail price of a Sentra drops it into a slugfest with more than a dozen other subcompacts, an arena that includes pint-size hot rods like the Chrysler Neons and the ingenious variety of the Honda Civic.
Achieving visibility in this realm is, to understate things, a challenge. But the Sentra does so, by the simple expedient of doing nearly everything quite well.
The Sentra is an affordable sedan with a roomy interior. It's fun to drive with better-than-average handling, decent acceleration and good braking performance. It also rides well, operates quietly and provides an attractive, well-appointed interior. And like other Nissans, it's not likely to break.
The Sentra's exterior really sums up its persona. It's not a design that attracts much attention, but it's quietly competent and efficient. And if it's not a head-turner, its lines are smooth and contemporary, which can't be said for all its competitors. The high rear decklid, low hood line and steeply raked windshield slip through the wind with a low 0.33 coefficient of drag, which helps improve fuel efficiency and keeps wind noise to a minimum.
All Sentras are four-door sedans. Nissan also builds a sporty two-door model called the 200SX, which uses the same platform and most of the same running gear. But that's another story.
Nissan's 115-horsepower 1.6-liter dual overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine powers all Sentras. This engine has an impressive EPA fuel economy rating of 40 mpg on the highway, 30 mpg city when paired with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. Naturally, ratings fall off with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, but not by much–36 highway, 27 city. Those figures put the Sentra among the most fuel-efficient compact sedans.
Four trim levels are available: the basic Sentra, followed by the XE, GXE and GLE. They look similar, though lower body side sill extensions lend a sportier look to the GXE and GLE.
Only fleet buyers are likely to be attracted to the $11,919 base model, which comes with black bumpers and skinny P155/80R-13 tires on plain steel wheels. There's only one outside mirror, no radio, no air conditioning and no power steering, and there are no options.
The other models offer increasing levels of comfort and convenience, each model building on the lower model's standard equipment list.
Moving up to the $14,069 XE brings air conditioning and an AM/FM/cassette stereo with four speakers, key features that are separate options on many compacts. The XE also includes power steering, and its rear anti-roll bar reduces body lean in corners. Other small but civilizing touches: intermittent wipers, remote releases for the trunk and fuel filler door, body-colored bumpers and a passenger-side mirror. The last two items do a lot to relieve the cheap-car look of the basic Sentra.
For $15,219, the GXE adds comfort and convenience. Knitted cloth seats replace the woven cloth, and nicer door trim warms up the appearance. Split fold-down rear seats add to the cargo carrying capability. Power windows and door locks, a trunk light and a passenger's vanity mirror make life easier. The GXE can be distinguished by the addition of black body side moldings, which are body-colored on the top-of-the-line GLE.
In addition to its monochrome trim, the $16,069 GLE substitutes velour for the GXE's knit fabric, and also includes a large tachometer and a remote keyless entry system with an alarm.
Tires are another consideration. The XE and GXE replace the base model's cheap-as-possible tires with sensible P175/70R-13 radials. They come on the basic 13-inch steel wheels, but at least they have hubcaps. Handling performance is further enhanced on the GLE model with lower profile P175/65R-14 tires on wider 5.5×14-inch aluminum alloy wheels that improve appearance considerably. Fortunately, these wheels and tires can be ordered as an option on the other models.
Adding a four-speed automatic transmission costs $800 on the XE and GXE, $550 on the GLE.
Our GXE felt well-appointed, though the only option was the $499 anti-lock braking system–a good price for this important safety feature–which raised the bottom line to $15,718.
Climbing in is easy. The Sentra cabin has above-average roominess for its size class, though good materials and a relatively high level of standard equipment keep this compact from feeling miserly.
We found the Sentra's front bucket seats to be on par with other compacts for comfort, and were impressed with the excellent view over the sloping hood.
The instrument panel is straightforward, with white-on-black gauges that are easy to read, though we missed the GLE's tachometer. The climate control dials have a particularly nice feel, and the heating/ventilation/air conditioning system (HVAC) functions were exemplary.
In back, we found plenty of space for two. There's even room for three, but like most compacts rated for five passengers, the fifth passenger should be both small and patient. The source of the Sentra's roominess is Nissan's new semi-independent beam axle rear suspension.
The trunk lid lifts from the top edge of the bumper, minimizing the distance groceries and other cargo need to be lifted when loading and unloading. And like most small cars, the Sentra's rear seatbacks split 60/40 to expand cargo space.
The Nissan Sentra doesn't pretend to be a performance car, but its steering and handling responses reflect the company's sporty heritage. It's agile and competent in avoidance maneuvers, and if pavement-ripping power isn't a priority it's fun to drive, particularly with the manual transmission.
We liked the Sentra's stability at higher speeds, as well as its predictability in slippery conditions, all of which inspire confidence. We also appreciated the car's firm but comfortable ride quality, which enhances the driver's sense of control while simultaneously ironing out potholes and rough pavement.
An independent strut front suspension with an anti-roll bar provides precise, controlled handling. Nissan's multi-link beam-axle rear suspension was designed to provide as much room as possible for rear seat passengers and cargo. It also allowed Nissan to use a relatively long wheelbase without lengthening the car, which eliminates long, wasteful front and rear overhangs.
Beyond these packaging considerations, this suspension works well on the back roads and it offers good high-speed stability.
Keeping noise to a minimum was obviously a priority for the Sentra engineers. The rigid chassis and the suspension were designed to minimize road noise and the 1.6-liter engine sounds quieter and more refined than the Dodge Neon engine.
Nissan's 115-hp engine propels the Sentra from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds–not as quick as a Neon, but faster than most of the compact sedans.
Good low-end torque makes the Sentra responsive around town and in heavy traffic and prevents it from being a slug with an automatic transmission. Much of this torque comes from variable valve timing. This technology helps it squeeze more performance from every droplet of fuel and minimize emissions. The Sentra meets California's stringent low-emissions vehicle, or LEV, standard.
Next year we expect to see the addition of a Sentra sports model with Nissan's 140-hp 2.0-liter engine, the same engine used in the 200SX SE-R sport coupe.
Affordable, practical, comfortable and fun to drive are the words that best describe the Sentra.
This sedan offers an attractive, roomy and comfortable interior. It's quiet underway with little engine, road or wind noise. It soaks up bumps, but handling is precise and controlled. Acceleration is adequate, yet the engine is downright miserly with fuel.
Driving a Sentra is not a chore. It does the job well and even provides a little fun while doing it. These attributes make the Sentra well worthy of consideration when shopping for a small sedan.