Review: 2012 Nissan Sentra

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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3 of 28 comments
  • Michaelhagerty Michaelhagerty on May 01, 2013

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

    • Lorenzo Lorenzo on May 01, 2013

      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.

  • Sector 5 Sector 5 on May 04, 2013

    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.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.