Surrounded by four competing sedans, the Nissan Sentra looks like a hippopotamus amongst a pack of grinning velociraptors. It’s as if the old model went on a Haagen-Daz bender after having its heart broken by a Renault Megane LE (Lothario Edition). And talk about late to the party. If you’re young, stylish and sporty-ish, you buy a Mazda3. If you’re young, stylish, play too much X-Box and want a handbrake like a photon torpedo release, you buy a Honda Civic. And if you’re a veteran of the Crimean War or your personality’s been surgically removed, you buy a Toyota Corolla. So what does the Sentra bring to the small car party?
The old Sentra wasn't so much designed as extruded. The new car is no longer just an unidentifiable lump; it’s a lump crammed with Nissan design cues. It’s not a Mini-Maxima; more a “Maltima” with a pair of 350Z ears sewn on. The basic body shape is generic Japanese, with lots of sharp lines, flat wheel arches and anything else Nissan could think of. “Look at me!’ the Sentra shouts, “I’ve been styled!” Thankfully, the taillights are attractive– I get the feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of time admiring them whilst trundling along at exactly the speed limit.
Climb in through the tall doors and the Sentra’s interior is surprisingly spacious (as advertised) and demure (as expected). I could do without the baleful yellow eye of Sauron mounted between the speedometer and tachometer, and dash-mounted shifters always put me in the mind of a delivery van driver, but the basics are sound. From cup-holders capable of accommodating all 4453 types of Starbucks beverages to the oversized, intuitive buttonomics, the Sentra proves that less is sometimes, you know, OK.
Provided you avoid the basest of the Sentras, its Rockford Fosgate stereo proves the theory that the cheaper the car, the more important the ICE. Road noise? What road noise? The Sentra’s rear seats really are adult friendly, and there’s plenty o’ utility, with a wide opening hatch, fold flat seats and a fold-away divider. It’s all quite clever, if annoyingly flimsy. I SAID– oh forget it.
The new Sentra works extremely well sitting still. When you begin to move, everything starts to go a bit pear shaped. Most dramatically, all that clever styling has resulted in huge C-Pillars, tiny side mirrors, a porthole-like rear window and a high rear deck. Visibility is roughly on a par with a buttoned-up M3A3 Bradley.
Fire up the butter-smooth MR20DE (a stroked version of the Versa engine) and it’s so quiet you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn't there. Unfortunately, forward progress does little to contradict this initial impression. Coupling an automatic transmission to a four-cylinder engine is almost always a recipe for slug soup. Past 4000rpm the 140-horse Xtronic CVT-equipped Sentra is as whinily reluctant as a middle school class facing a pop math quiz. The nicely-weighted six-speed stick is much better, with good torque and some higher-rpm punch, but say hello to Versa-tile throttle overrun. Then again, you can’t see where you’re going anyway, so why hurry?
Oh go on. Toss the wee Sentra into a corner, just for fun. (You remember fun.) Suddenly, you’re deep in Playskool territory: the Sentra weebles and wobbles but it don’t fall down. The numb electric power-assisted helm doesn’t help matters (unless you’re parallel parking at the same time). On the positive side, if you back off the throttle (and why wouldn’t you?), the Sentra’s strut (front) and torsion bar (rear) suspension does an excellent job soaking up lumps, bumps and cracks.
Nissan has cut the “sport” out of Maxima’s “four-door sports-car.” The Sentra feels similarly gelded. And that's fine; driven at about six-or seven-tenths, this car makes perfect sense: relaxing to drive without being quite as banana-mush bland as a Corolla. It's not (as everyone keeps saying) a little Maxima. It's a tiny Town Car. Nissan have promised an SE-R version for the spring of 2007, with more power, bigger binders and a stiffened suspension. I’m not sure Nismo can carve a Jack-o’-lantern out of this pumpkin, but I’d like to see them try.
In this I might be alone. For people who will actually want to buy this thing, the new Sentra has got the goods: a perfectly sensible sticker ($15k), some cheap thrills for the cheap seats (standard tire pressure monitoring system!) and unimpeachable fuel economy (29/36mpg with the CVT). Quiet, comfortable, practical and fairly horrible to drive, the 2007 Nissan Sentra knows its audience’s tastes and plays to them well. I’d still rather have floor tickets to the Killers than box seats for Yanni, but we all know which artist has more fans– and makes more money. Rock on!