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Thread: 2009 Nissan Sentra

  1. #1
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    2009 Nissan Sentra

    It just happened that I road-tested two Nissans back to back - a new Versa 1.6 (at just under $10k to start, one of the least expensive new cars you can buy) and a new Sentra (formerly Nissan's "entry-level" small car).

    The Sentra I tested cost almost twice what the Versa listed for - a bit over $20k.

    But is it twice the car?

    It's a hard but fair question arising, ironically enough, out of the fact that today's "economy" cars are so good they make paying thousands more for the next-up model seem a lot less urgent than it used to be.

    WHAT IT IS

    The Sentra is a compact-sized, front-wheel-drive economy sedan with a starting price of $16,730 for the base 2.0 model with CVT automatic transmission. One of the ways it differs from the typical economy car is that Nissan offers performance-oriented versions of the Sentra, beginning with the sporty S model (starting price $16,960) and topping out with the SE-R ($20,660) and the manual-only SE-R Spec V ($21,160), both of which come with larger 2.5 liter engines.

    WHAT'S NEW

    Conscious of buyer freakout over high gas prices and their increasingly precarious economic position, Nissan has added a Fuel Economy (FE) option that can be ordered with most Sentras (except the SE-R and Spec V) that slightly ups the fuel economy by altering ignition timing and other engine parameters for best-possible economy. "S" models get a new body kit similar to the SE-R's and performance-minded 16-inch wheels and tires - but not the SE-R's larger, more powerful 2.5 liter engine

    WHAT'S GOOD

    Zippy, nicely made, reasonably thrifty; very roomy front and back seats. As much as 200 hp available in SPEC V versions. Looks like a two-thirds scale Altima.

    WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD

    A Versa 1.6 sedan with AC costs almost $5k less, gets better mileage and has about as much room inside - and a bigger trunk. Base version of the Sentra are no longer available with a manual transmission. It's the CVT or nothing.

    Or, pay more.

    ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

    The Sentra's standard engine is a 2.0 liter, 140 hp four-cylinder. It comes with a CVT automatic - one of those new automatics that has just one forward speed that constantly matches engine RPM to deliver the best-possible mileage and a sporty feel, too.

    A six-speed manual is still available but you have to buy the sport-oriented "S" version ($16,960) to get it.

    CVTs are noisy compared with conventional multi-speed automatics that shift up and down through the gears - but the upside is there's no coffee-spilling shift-shock between gear changes and your gas mileage goes from 24 city, 31 highway (with the optional six-speed manual) to 25 city, 33 MPG with the CVT.

    Buyers looking for more performance to go with their economy can choose the SE-R or the even higher-tuned SPEC V - both of which come with larger 2.5 liter fours tuned to 177 and 200 hp, respectively. The SE-R comes only with the CVT (no manual is available) while the 200 hp Spec V comes only with the six-speed manual transaxle.

    Fuel economy dips with the larger, more powerful 2.5 liter engine - an SE-R with CVT is rated 24 city/30 highway while the Spec V with six-speed is rated at 21 city, 29 highway. But in exchange, you get 0-60 capability under 7 seconds (Spec V) vs. over 8 seconds for the base Sentra 2.0 with CVT.

    All Sentras are front-wheel-drive.

    RIDE & HANDLING/DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

    Nothing to complain about other than the slightly wooden feel of the electric-assist power steering - the kind of thing only press car pilots who drive every car like a BMW M3 notice. In ordinary "a" to "b" driving the Sentra is comfortable, quiet and generally feels like a bigger, better car than its price tag would lead you to expect. The only catch is, the same is true of the Sentra's bunkmate, the Versa. Nissan did such good work on that car that it's hard to tell the difference between it and this car - except that the Sentra comes with a radio (the $9k Versa 1.6 doesn't) and a higher level of standard amenities, such as power windows and door locks.

    I don't like the CVT.

    These transmissions are noisier than conventional automatics (floor it and the engine will rev right to redline and hold those revs for as long as you keep your foot down) and the extra cost (a CVT-equipped Sentra runs $16,703 vs. $15,350 for the no longer offered base version with manual - a difference of $1,380) will take years to work off via the slight (1-3 MPG) improvement in fuel economy it delivers.

    Plus, the manual's just more fun.

    On the other hand, the SE-R and Spec V versions of the Sentra offer what the Versa does not - a dash of sports car elan along with a still-reasonable price and decent gas mileage. The only nit here is (once again) the CVT - which you have to accept if you buy the SE-R. Otherwise you have to pay more and buy the six-speed equipped Spec V. You do get a 23 hp bump-up in engine power with the Spec V - but it'd be nice if Nissan offered buyers the opportunity to buy the 177 hp SE-R with the six-speed manual or the CVT (their choice) instead of the take-it-or-leave-it CVT.

    Both the Sentra SE-R and the Spec V have some tough competition, however, in the form of pocket rockets like the MazdaSpeed3 - a 263 hp turbocharged hellion with a base price of just $22,740 - only about a grand more than the 200 hp Spec V.

    STYLING & UTILITY

    The Sentra's shape and general appearance is very similar to the current Altima's - just on a smaller scale. One potential detraction is the sedan-only layout given that there are other cars in this class/price range that are offered in multiple bodystyles,, including two-door coupes and five-door wagon forms. On the upside, the Sentra has a large, 13.1 cubic foot trunk (big for this class) and its interior is generously sized - comparable to some mid-size cars, in terms of rear seat head and legroom.

    On the other hand, the Versa actually has a bigger trunk (14 cubic feet) and significantly more rear-seat legroom (38 inches vs. the Sentra's 34.5 inches). The Versa also has more backseat headroom (37.9 inches vs. 37.3). Front-seat space dimensions are nearly identical, head and legroom-wise.

    The Sentra does have more hip room for front and back seat occupants (53 inches vs. 47.2 in the rear; 54.1 vs. 48.8 up front) due to the fact that it's a wider car (70.5 inches vs. 66.7 inches) but in terms of usable space and real-world comfort, the Sentra faces some tough competition from its own lower-priced sibling - a car that should offer less across the board, not the same or more.

    At least, when it comes to spreading out space.

    The Sentra does come with considerably more standard equipment than the Versa 1.6 - a "stripper" that in base price form lacks even an AM radio - in its place, there's a plastic block-off plate where the radio would go if it had one. The base $15,250 Sentra, meanwhile, comes with power windows and door locks, an AM/FM stereo with CD-player and AC - pretty much everything that most buyers would consider essential. You can also buy higher-trim versions and order features unavailable in the Versa, period - such as heated front seats and all the high-performance stuff offered with the SE-R and Spec V versions.

    However, GPS is not offered in the Sentra - an omission given that similarly priced cars like the Honda Civic do offer this increasingly popular feature - and most of the available options are "bundled" into expensive packages rather than available as individual options. For example, if you want keyless ignition you also have to buy the "S" sport package. if you want the premium Rockford Fosgate stereo, you've got to move up to the SL.

    This strategy boosts Nissan's profits on each car sold, but undercuts the Sentra's ability to offer consumers exactly what they want - and nothing more.

    QUALITY & SAFETY

    Like all current Nissans, the Sentra looks and feels like a well-built car. Unlike the otherwise appealing Versa, the Sentra (even the base 2.0 model) has no cheap-looking plastic block-off plates and next to no whiff of the Blue Light Special about it. This is its chief card to play against the otherwise hard-to-ignore Versa.

    ABS is optional - but only on the base Sentra. Higher trims come standard with this feature. All versions come with front-seat side-impact air bags and curtain air bags for both rows.

    One thing I really like about the Sentra - about all current Nissans - is there's no annoying "Belt Minder" buzzer. Just a dash light that stays on if you fail to wear your seatbelt.

    THE BOTTOM LINE

    The Sentra's only real problem is that cars like the Versa - supposedly Nissan's "entry level" model - offer so much for so little. They have made it possible to consider an economy car as a real choice, not a sign of penury and desperation. But if you want more in the way of power options - or want performance on a budget - the Sentra still has a few boasting points over its low-cost cousin.

  2. #2
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    While on a business trip to KY, I rented one of those. I couldn't stand the CVT in this otherwise competent car. I would recommend it to some, however, the sticker price is not worth it. It should cost about $13k, not nearly 20.

  3. #3
    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by swamprat View Post
    While on a business trip to KY, I rented one of those. I couldn't stand the CVT in this otherwise competent car. I would recommend it to some, however, the sticker price is not worth it. It should cost about $13k, not nearly 20.
    My impression exactly.

    The CVT is awful - but they (Nissan and others) continue to peddle them because they can get a slight mileage uptick over a conventional automatic. I'd still much rather have a $12k Versa with a manual....

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