By on April 30, 2013

Now waiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit a minute!

Didn’t I just review a grey Nissan Sentra on these very (electronic) pages? Yes, I did, but it was the 2013 Sentra that I took on a long, dreary trip to Minnesota. I found it to be pretty decent but not quite ready to do battle with the class leaders.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at LAX just two weeks later and found the infamous Vodka McBigbra behind the wheel of a 2012 Sentra in about the same color, with about the same level of equipment. “I’m a #1 Gold Hertz Person now,” she said, “and I thought that meant I got a convertible, not this piece of crap. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to mean?”

“The ways of Hertz are beyond the understanding of mere mortals. Move it on over,” I commanded, with all the authority of a young George Thorogood, “it’s time for a time-shifted comparison test.”

“Can it be time for In-and-Out Burger first?”

My purpose in visiting Los Angeles was threefold. Purpose #1 was to compete in, and win, the ChumpCar race at Buttonwillow. That purpose was duly accomplished, at the cost of some misery and range-of-motion in my right hand; I’ll tell the story in the near future. Purpose #2 was to eat at the Sunset Grill, something that my friend Melisa had absolutely refused to do when I was last in the city. That purpose was duly accomplished and I really enjoyed chomping on a burger while examining the original 8″x10″ promotional glossy for a little band called Guns N’ Roses. Purpose #3 was to leave the Guitar Center Hollywood Platinum Room without buying anything. To make a long story short, I’m now the owner of a Fender Dale Wilson Jazzmaster. Oops. Two out of three ain’t bad. If anybody is forming a shoegaze band and wants a rhythm guitarist, I’m your man.

Let’s talk about the Sentra. I’m not in a mood to build tension in the audience today so I’ll come real with it: I’d rather have a 2012 Sentra than a 2013 Sentra, and the reason is no more or less complicated than the two hundred cubic centimeters that’s been removed from the latter. On paper, there shouldn’t be any real difference between the old car and the new one; the ten-horsepower deficit should be more than compensated for by the 150-pound weight savings and the trickier Xtronic CVT. There’s also something fundamentally dopey-looking about the 2012 interior, with its dash-mounted shifter and 350Z Upscale Disappointment Edition plastics. Nissan says, and Autoblog dutifully repeats, that the new Sentra is a “class-above” car on the inside and while that will never be strictly true in a world where the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze are in the same class as the Sentra it at least definitely feels a class above the old model.

Between the fishing pier at Venice Beach and the inland dust bowl of Buttonwillow, there’s over a hundred miles of I-5 North. Once upon a time, the “Grapevine” section was an infamous car-killer, given a star turn in the song “Hot Rod Lincoln” and referred to in many a tale of post-war race-car towing. Today, the road’s been straightened out but it’s still steep, hot, and unpleasant. Last year, I pilloried the Daewoo Lacetti UAW Edition for its inability to climb I-5 without resorting to third gear. Faced with the same conditions, but with an additional one hundred and sixteen pounds of spectator on board, the Sentra just monsters it. Only when I call for a pass does the CVT bother to crank the revs past 3500; the rest of the time we’re relatively quiet and serene as we breeze past the “Turn Off Air Conditioning” signs and the RVs stranded on the roadside.

I won’t have a chance to practice at Buttonwillow; my first look at the track will come when I buckle in for my twilight-to-real-night first stint in the Los Cerdos Voladores Plymouth Neon. Best to warm up with a few aggressive approaches to 25mph exit and entry ramps. This Sentra’s no Miata — hell, it isn’t even an SE-R — but it is enthusiastic about trail-braking and there’s no fundamental problem with the dynamics. It feels materially less grown-up than the 2013 model. After listening to my helmet bang around the trunk a few times in what sounds like a potentially expensive fashion, I calm down and finish the drive to the track.

Sharp-eyed readers will recall that I was impressed with the 2013′s fuel economy. I’d like to give you a basis of comparison for the 2012 model, but two circumstances prevented that. The first circumstance was that the old car has no fuel-economy readout. The whole instrument panel is decidedly primitive and crappy-looking. At least it’s legible. The second circumstance was that the Chump Car race was a true 24-hour affair and temperatures in the desert dropped into the high forties at the night ground on. V. McB had brought plenty of “cute, fun outfits” to show off her amazingly singleminded commitment to Pilates, macrobiotic food, and saline enhancement, but none of those cute, fun outfits had long sleeves or pants. So she just fired up the willing engine of the Sentra, which responded with a roar, turned the heat up, and let the car run intermittently for six hours or so.

Those of you who love the planet are free to sob a little right now.

Naturally, calculating fuel economy for the 415 or so miles I drove the car was impossible after the Night Of The Idling Two-Liter. I will admit to benefiting from Vodka’s amazingly insensitive behavior during a brief ninety-minute nap between stints, in which I found the Sentra’s front seats to be nearly as pleasant and usable for sleeping as they are for driving. It’s a pretty comfortable car, maybe not quite as good as the new one and certainly not as quiet on the open road but not impossible to live with either.

On the way back to Los Angeles, tired and sore from two nighttime stints and a variety of lift-and-carry work after the trophy ceremony, I briefly fantasized that my next Sentra rental might be a 2011, and the one after that a 2010, and so on. It was an exciting prospect, really. The biggest issue facing this Sentra and its successor is that the old Sentras were just better, more enjoyable cars. The 2013 is lighter than the 2012, and that’s a step in the right direction, but wouldn’t it be better if Nissan could find a way to make the car enthusiast-friendly again? Surely the Versa has the biggest-people-box-for-the-lowest-possible-price segment of the market all sewn up. Can’t we have a little joy in the Sentra? Can’t there be a commitment to reduce the size along with the weight?

There’s a market out there for the first compact sedan that manages a return to the early-Nineties fundamentals of reasonable size, lightweight construction, and simple equipment. It might not be a huge market, but it can’t be any worse than trying, and failing, to beat the current Civic at its own game. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a cheap Nissan, consider this: AutoTrader currently lists 541 new 2012 Sentras in stock nationwide. You could do worse than trying to drive a hard bargain on one of them.

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28 Comments on “Review: 2012 Nissan Sentra...”


  • avatar
    Zackman

    On a trip to LA and Phoenix in 2008, our rental was one of these Sentras in Phoenix.

    Compared to the awful Corolla penalty-box we had in LA, this car was a dream come true!

    Not only was it comfortable, but it had some pizazz to it – fancier interior and more bright trim, which scores very large in my book. It made me happy to drive it, unlike Toyota’s offering.

    Now you all know why I “hate” Toyota.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The “Flying Pigs Plymouth Neon”?!! Now, I’ve seen everything! I rented a Sentra a couple of years ago in Florida over New Years’. I thought it was livable, which is more than I could say about the Versa that I rented a year earlier in LA.

  • avatar
    crtfour

    I had one as a rental as well and was pleasantly surprised. It took awhile to get used to the CVT though….the first one I have driven.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    All I can remember about this car is that the glovebox could literally swallow a laptop, and it got expensive quickly so the big-backseat pillow-top armrest Versa hatchback in the next row looked like a far better bargain. Looks like Nissan has been gunning for the Corolla: soft, comfortable, quiet, unengaging.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    “There’s a market out there for the first compact sedan that manages a return to the early-Nineties fundamentals of reasonable size, lightweight construction, and simple equipment.”

    Isn’t that niche called the Mazda3?

    Its a reasonable size, the SkyActive trim is 2870/2950 lbs (which is pretty good for a current car), its unapologetically frill-free on the stereo (its a double-DIN unit), and does focus on handling.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    I seriously considered buying one of these when I was shopping for a new compact car, they are seriously overlooked in the current field of new and used C-class cars. Homely/French design, a rental fleet favorite, unremarkable on the spec sheet, and unloved by enthusiasts for its CVT.

    The former 2011 rental units were on sale for $11k (non negotiable ‘best price’) with about 30k on them. I drove one and found it a very cushy and roomy cruiser. Great seat, torquey engine amd good CVT tuning. Swallowed expansion joints and potholes like a car a class or two above it in size. Reasonably quiet interior, good rear passenger room, good trunk space.

    I’d recommend one to anyone looking for a cheap commuter.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    The forward thick A-pillars make me feel like I’m driving a dustbuster van and I found the handling to be about as exciting in the 2.0L CVT car. I was able to engage in some serious hoonery, but I practically HAD to in order to keep from dying of boredom.

    On the flip side, the SE-R Spec V version of the last body style was actually quite sprightly and fun. I can’t say I’ve ever seen one on the road since the bright blue one that I drove though.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I know I’ve probably had a sheltered life. Tend to keep my cars a long time so haven’t owned as many as most. I’ve never owned a Nissan or Mazda that I didn’t really enjoy driving. The little rotary Mazda and anything with a NAPSZ engine take turns standing out from the rest. I drive a cube and an old S10 right now. The S10 would not have been here if a mechanic hadn’t screwed up a rebuild on my 87 Nissan truck.
    Retired it with 320k on the clock but it’s setting where I can get if it starts to itch.

    I am never surprised when someone drives a Nissan and likes it. I normally hear criticism from those who haven’t.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    I remember it to be roomy and comfortable compared to the Civic. Then again I don’t hate the Corrola either, so what do I know. I’d sure put it on my list if I was interested in a larger compact car.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Always enjoy reading your tales, Jack. And thanks for working some Red Barchetta lyrics in.

    We’ve been looking at options to replace my wife’s 2000 Jetta and she’s dismissed all Nissans for various reasons. Tried to get her to check out a 2013 Sentra but she hates the design. So it’ll probably be a Jetta of some sort to replace her existing Jetta.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      Wouldn’t the Focus or Cruze be a better match? Now that the Jetta has grown and been cheapened, the Ford and Chevy feel more VW to me than the VW. Solid, quiet, nice materials, the general feeling of the car being worth more than you paid for it…

  • avatar
    zaxxon25

    Maybe you should have tracked down Brad Laner for a jam session while you were in LA …

  • avatar
    carguy

    I had that model Sentra on a trip to Philly and I didn’t much care for it. The ride was bouncy, the engine agricultural and the interior was barely Corolla quality. I also found the seating position to be problematic and the car never felt confident changing direction. I can, however, confirm that the fuel economy was very good.

    If you’re looking for a compact car – look elsewhere. The Cruze, Focus, Elantra and Civic are simply much better cars.

    • 0 avatar
      gtemnykh

      “Simply much better cars”

      Would you care to define that? I think that for a typical consumer that wants a fuel efficient car to get to work to, on a budget, the Sentra’s cushy ride and low price (comparing used vs used) might be just the ticket.

      Not everyone needs the Ford’s Germanic handling, or its need for new wheel bearings and transmission reprogramming. Not everyone likes the Elantra’s swoopy styling inside and out. Not everyone wants to pay a huge premium for a Civic.

      They aren’t the latest and greatest, but they have their place in the market as competent commuters. I’d say it’s like a slightly more interesting and more comfortable corolla without the price premium.

      • 0 avatar
        carguy

        If price is what the determining factor is then a slightly used vehicle is a better choice. In terms of quality, the Sentra simply doesn’t deliver great value.

        When I said the ride was “bouncy” I meant it was floaty but would still crash when encountering even minor potholes. The worst of both worlds.

        The Kia Forte rental I had the next day was a luxury car in comparison to the Sentra.

  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack

    “Sharp-eyed readers will recall that I was impressed with the 2013′s fuel economy. I’d like to give you a basis of comparison for the 2012 model, but two circumstances prevented that. The first circumstance was that the old car has no fuel-economy readout. The whole instrument panel is decidedly primitive and crappy-looking. At least it’s legible.”

    Oops. The old Sentra has one, but it’s buried in the central all-digital gauge between the temp and fuel readouts. It utilizes the same space as the odometer/trip meter, outside temp display, and trip time. This can be accessed by pushing the trip/reset pin that also functions as the gauge dimmer knob to cycle through the different readouts.

    Also, if yout think the ’12 gauges are ugly, go ride in an ’07. I remember when they updated them in ’10 or so. They were a godsend compared with the old completely orange ones.

    I’ve been in too many rental Sentras, clearly…

    Jack, did you notice any squeaking from the wheels as you slowed to a stop? I’ve noticed it on multiple CVT-equipped rental Sentras and Versas at various mileages, some as low as 15k. I’m trying to figure out if it has something to do with the CVT. The brakes seem to work fine on most of the ones I’ve experienced it in.

    I find the ride in these far too buoyant, the interior is quite crappy, the seats are too barstool-esque, and good lord is the rear 3/4 view fugly. And, like most Nissans, the faux-luxury-towel interior coverings (in various cars, seats, door panels, arm rests, dashboards) are magnets for airborn flotsam, lint balls from clothes, and stains. My coworkers and I have a running joke about Nissan covering the next-gen Maxima’s wiper blades and keyfobs with towel material. Perhaps the tires’ valve stems, too.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Hmmmmm I wonder how this test would have come out if the two cars in question had been manual trans equipped? Although I recall that the new Sentra only has a manual in the lowest trim level.

    If the Sentra was a true drivers car I could see a reason for its existence but with the Versa squeezing it size wise, I sure hope Nissan’s sales targets for this model aren’t too high.

  • avatar
    Demetri

    This car flat out sucks. A relative owns one and I’ve driven it several times. The interior is ugly and cheap. The styling is awful. The handling blows. No feel in the steering at all. The suspension is like Jello and never settles down. It rolls all over the place. Handling is almost as bad as the previous generation Elantra, which was really bad. As lame as the Corolla is, I’d still take it over this.

  • avatar
    corntrollio

    At 116 lbs, she’d almost surely need saline enhancements to befit her name. That seems to be the opposite of the description you gave in Tennessee, talking about Herr Schmitt’s sensibilities.

    This past weekend, I didn’t see any stranded RVs on the Grapevine, but I did see a few Chevy trucks, one of which blew a rubber-band tire on massive cheapo rims. For all the jokes, I rarely see the “complex” machines that Get Off My Lawn-types constantly assert are actually on the side of the road, and mostly see trucks, beater minivans, and beater American and Japanese cars instead.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    I rented a sentra last year for our disneyworld trip around florida. It was the worst, most annoying car I’ve ever driven.

    I am not sure you could pay me to drive one on a daily basis.

    29mpg mostly highway
    no acceleration
    crappy trunk space.

  • avatar
    Mark in Maine

    “Fired up the willing engine of the Sentra, which responded with a roar” – saw what you did there, Jack. Great piece!

  • avatar
    Joss

    Dull-as-dishwater, low-maintenance & reliable.. Sentra don’t burn a hole in the wallet. That’s about it.

    2007-2012 SER/Spec V the back seat didn’t fold owing to some ridiculous brace. I think there was an ongoing problem with the visors installed wrong – clipping the rearview?

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    The 2012 Sentra doesn’t have a fuel-eoconomy readout? All the better not to be lied to. You know those things rarely report what’s really going on. Even the fuel gauges themselves are gamed to make it look like you’re getting better fuel-economy than you are…

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    In looking at the specs, the 2012-13 Sentra is basically the first generation (’93-’97) Altima. Overall, the same dimensions, but the original Altima had a bulletproof 2.4 with 150 HP. I guess Nissan moved the Altima up to midsize and the Sentra up to compact, for the Versa to occupy the B segment. Too bad they downsized the engine.

  • avatar
    bkmurph

    I, too, have rented this particular generation of Sentra, and it is one of the worst 2012-era vehicles I’ve ever driven. No amount of seat adjustment leads to a comfortable posture, and besides, the driving position is awkward, and visibility in most directions leaves me wanting. The fabric on the seats seems designed without regard for dirt/wear resistance. The ride feels pillowy and compliant, yet the shock absorbers feel overmatched to the unsprung weight of the optional alloy wheels (which aren’t even that big). One imagines large wheels distantly crashing over bumps: You hear bumps more than you feel them. The CVT is, perhaps surprisingly, not bad: Engine noise is so hushed that the droning revs are nearly inaudible. Acceleration builds in a linear, predictable fashion.

    But seriously, the seats alone are so terrible that I’d rather have a Smart Fortwo.

  • avatar

    Why was the rear license plate altered (I’m assuming Photoshop)? The front plate wasn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Are you sure it’s not the other way around? The front plate is bent, and may have been damaged and repaired by the rental agency, but not accurately. Both plates are required in California, but the rear plate gets the month and year of registration stickers, and is more important. For a rental car, I see no reason why Jack or anyone at TTAC would bother with photoshop, but I can see an agency mechanic splicing a torn front plate so nobody notices the damage at a glance.

  • avatar
    Joss

    If you want a 2012 the larger 2.5 is a better power balance. Also you’d nab stronger brakes with standard rear discs. Doubt you’ll find a SPEC V. The down side of the SER is your stuck with CVT and a non-folding rear seat. The ride is a firmer tune than the regular Sentra but the handling is no better.

    When I looked at the 2013 in the showroom the sheetmetal struck me as more tinny and the trunk & doors felt flimsier & lightweight. I could smell where they’d cut the weight.


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