When Alex Dykes checked out a pre-production Sentra in Napa, he was favorably impressed.
When I was given a Sentra SV with just 812 miles on it at the rental counter this past Friday, I was unfavorably depressed; I had to cover 1,380 miles round-trip from Columbus, Ohio to Winona, MN in just 40 hours and I’d been hoping for a Grand Caravan, if only for the way the Stow n’ Go makes sleeping at rest stops a genuine pleasure. Still, this was a rare opportunity: a chance to check out a like-new production car for the totes-reasonable sum of fourteen dollars and seventy cents per day.
Regulators, mount up.
What do you get for $18,030? Well, if you liked the design similarities between the Sentra and the G37 before, you will love them now. Inside and out, the kinda-little Nissan pays tribute to the bionic-panther swoops-and-creases corporate template. You might like it, or you might not, but the overall look is considerably further upscale than the previous Sentra could manage, perhaps because the Versa is becoming more expensive and putting some pressure on from below. To my considerable surprise, the SV trim level doesn’t have auto headlights, but it does have those goofy, derivative LED running lights that are becoming standard equipment everywhere from Aston Martin to Volvo. Their implementation here is particularly half-hearted; they aren’t bright and since the Sentra has plain halogen lights the effect when the headlights are on is kind of two-tone. Blech.
The interior has none of the fake wood or nav-screen options of Mr. Dykes’ test vehicle. It’s all silver and grey in here and it is remarkably reminiscent of the dreary first-gen G35. I wouldn’t expect any of the painted trim to stay that way for long. On the positive side of things, every bit of plastic in the car felt higher-quality than what I recently experienced in a Toyota Sienna that cost a solid ten grand more. I’m guessing Nissan has some red-trim tricks up their sleeve for an enthusiast model, as they did for the original six-speed Sentra Spec V. A moment of silence for that underappreciated sedan, by the way, and I say “moment of silence” because the QR25 in whatever SE-R Spec V you’re remembering has probably long since blown up.
Insofar as the Sentra is mostly designed, engineered, and built in North America, it seems odd that the seats are so tiny. The thigh support barely reached past my perineum and of course at this trim level the seat isn’t going to tilt to rectify the deficiency in bolster length. I cannot readily conceive of anyone who would both find this seat comfortable and be of legal driving age. Nor is the rest of the Sentra particularly spacious. A common test that I use in compact cars is to “sit behind myself” by adjusting the front seat for comfort and then seeing how bad the accommodation is in back. The Sentra failed that immediately so I tried a next-generation approach, if you will, seating my just-turned-four-year-old son in his car seat behind me. His legs were trapped against the back of the driver’s seat.
“I don’t like this car, I want to sit in the Por-sha, it’s more comfortable.” When your compact car can’t seat a child as well as an aircooled 911 with the passenger seat jammed forward, that might be a problem. Assuming, that is, you want young families to buy your car.
That’s a reasonable assumption with this Sentra because they sure as hell aren’t targeting enthusiasts. The CVT-equipped 1.8-liter is just adequate in this application. The four-cylinder Altima I drove to Nashville a few months ago had considerably more pep to it. Rather oddly, it was also possible to confuse the CVT with mild acceleration; it would hold steady at a high-torque rev level as it’s supposed to then randomly jerk to a higher or lower rev range. It might have been a quality-control issue.
Which brings me to quality, or lack thereof. The fuel door release broke on the fourth fillup, leading me to pull the cable out from behind the broken release level as you see below:
Vodka McBigbra’s Hyundai Accent has the same problem with the hood release, but that car is eight years old and has been to hell and back under her so-called “care”. The “fix” in both cases is the same: forget the chintzy latch and just pull on the cable. This is barely forgiveable on an old Hyundai. Had I just paid $18,030 for my new Sentra, I’d be inclined to be testy about it.
My Minnesota trip plan called for me to leave my house at 2am and drive the 627 miles to the church in Winona in no more than ten hours and thirty minutes. Taking any longer than that would cause me to miss rehearsal, which would be unfortunate since the sole reason I was going was to perform as the guitarist at a wedding. (Yes, I play Christian music in churches sometimes. Where is your God now?) After an hour in the car I was reasonably certain that leg pain from the mini-seat was going to make meeting that time goal difficult, but after the first fillup I started crossing my legs like LJK Setright, operating the accelerator with my left foot and the brake with my right. That solved the problem and I made the drive in a touch under nine hours and fifteen minutes including the usual septet of stops at Chicago tollbooths.
On the move, the Sentra was more than good enough. Wind noise was low, the stereo was usable, the dashboard was clear and bright, the steering was trustworthy and almost sporty, and the ride was perfectly acceptable. Better still, I averaged a reported 41.6mpg for the first thousand or so miles of the round trip, until a loathsome load of adulterated gasohol dropped me to a 39.7mpg average. My fillup receipts support an approximate 40-mpg calculation. Combined with the low cost of the rental, the Sentra’s remarkable economy of operation made it considerably cheaper to drive to Minnesota than it would have been to take any of the cars I own. Were it possible to rent this particular Sentra again and again for trips, I’d probably do it and just get used to the small seats and the field-expedient fuel door release.
Now for the $18,030 question: Where does this car sit among the competition? I haven’t been able to try out the new Civic yet, but I know the rest of the field reasonably well. Against the Toyota Corolla, I’d take this Sentra and a solid kick to the testicles. Not even close. If you’re the type of person who can only buy a Japanese-nameplate car, don’t consider the Corolla unless you are driven solely by considerations of retained value. Compared to the Focus, which I consider to be the class leader, the Sentra looks and feels cheaper and doesn’t offer the same kind of features. On the plus side, it costs less and might retain value better, to say nothing of the CVT’s likely durability advantage over the troubled PowerShift double-clutcher. Against the Elantra, the Sentra feels simply better in almost every way that matters but it falls behind on power and seating. I’d place my bet on a 150,000-mile Sentra over the equivalent Elantra. It’s quieter, more solid, and it’s vastly more relaxing to drive on the open road.
With that said, if it’s a roadtrip you’re after the ol’ Daewoo Lacetti Democratic Party American Labor Edition is tough to beat. It really is. It’s a bigger, (much) heavier, bank vault of a “compact” car that in the higher trim levels takes a stab at being prestige-esque. During your next GM Red Tag sale it might be possible to get a Verano for a couple grand more than the Sentra. I’d consider that seriously as well.
While I’ll cheerfully rent this Sentra until it is retired from duty, I sure wouldn’t bother to buy it. To get my business, Nissan would need to put Recaros in it, make a six-speed transmission available in conjunction with all the goodies, and maybe butch it up a bit with some big “R” badges. Of course, at that point it would need power to match the looks so a pressurized high-revving two-liter wouldn’t be a bad idea. That would be a poor man’s G37. No, wait. The G37 is the poor man’s G37. It would be a student-level G37. Until something like that happens, however, Nissan will have to be content watching buyers for that car go to Volkswagen, Mazda, Dodge, Honda, Ford… heck, pretty much everybody but Nissan. What’s up with that?