2008 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL Review

by Ian Grasso

05.17.2008

I learned to drive a stick shift on a 1987 Nissan Sentra. When I was finally of age, and my parents gave me the privilege of summoning horrible odors from its clutch, the old blue Sentra had over 200,000 miles of hard Michigan driving on the odometer. The car was blue at one time, but was built in an era before advanced sealants, and had oxidized to a pale grey pockmarked with ugly red blisters.

The interior wasn’t much better. The seats were awful 80’s vinyl, the kind that nearly gave you frostbite in the winter but remorselessly burned your behind in the summer. But I swear that car is still running somewhere today, because it would just not quit no matter what you threw at it.

Two decades of automotive evolution are apparent in the 2008 Sentra. It is, without a doubt, the most comfortable, spacious, and usable small car that I have ever driven. At 6 foot 6, I felt like I had too much room after years of ducking into my friends’ Civics and Golfs.

Of course, as I am sure some readers already know, the Sentra is no longer Nissan’s small car. That title was taken over by the hot-selling Versa, which has been successfully doing battle with the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris for some time now. The Sentra, now officially a midsize car, occupies an interesting position in Nissan’s American line-up. With its continuously variable transmission and extensive standard options, it bumps hard into the base Altima’s territory – a fact brought into clearer focus by the price: MSRP for the top of the line SL I drove is only $2000 less than an Altima 2.5S with CVT.

Corporate Design

To say the Sentra looks just like the previous generation Altima, which looks just like the current Maxima, is not an insult to the designers at Nissan but rather a criticism of the risk-mitigating ethos of the car industry today. It is necessary to convey, through design, a clear corporate image so that a manufacturer’s cars are distinguishable from its competitors at a glance, without regard to the segment.

The creased shoulder, oversized front fender, square sweeping headlight look aims for muscularity but comes of as overly conservative and somewhat cheesy when applied to basic transportation in the case of the Sentra. Nissan’s clear shift away from their current design paradigm is apparent in the refreshed Altima and 2009 Maxima and demonstrates that not only I think it was time for a change.

Comparing the Sentra to my own stable of cars, a 2005 Volvo S40 and a 1994 Volvo 940, is surprising. The Sentra is larger than the S40 in every dimension except for wheelbase, and is only about 10 pounds lighter. The Sentra beats the Honda Civic on comfort any day, but I would say that the build quality and materials in the Civic on average are better quality.

From a distance, the Sentra looks almost tall and narrow, its incredible interior headroom exacting a penalty on its meager attempts to look athletic. The standard 16 inch alloys help, but it’s large “Fast and the Furious” clear tail-lamps do not. Overall, the Sentra’s looks pay a price for its functionality, which is tremendous.

Interior

The interior of the Sentra is simply the best part of the vehicle. Stepping into the car, one first notices the upright and crossover-like seating position and the comfortable perforated leather seats, which are standard in the $18,680 SL trim line. Visibility is outstanding, the arched roof and large windows make the car seem bigger than it is, and the highly adjustable seats allowed me, at 6’6”, and my girlfriend, at 5’9” to both achieve a comfortable and safe position in the cockpit.

The Sentra can easily sit four adults in comfort, and the trunk is large and can be expanded with 60/40 split rear seats. Airbags are everywhere; the Nissan Advanced Airbag system provides driver, passenger and side impact curtains mounted in the roof.

Nissan is good at steering wheels. The Sentra’s has great hand positions and has a smaller than average diameter and larger than average thickness along with controls for cruise, stereo, and Bluetooth phone – fantastic functionality that makes taking your hands off the wheel a rare occurrence. It is obvious the first time you step in the Sentra that this car has been lavished with options that are usually reserved for luxury automobiles. Little things like push button automatic windows (that work in the up and down direction thankfully) and electroluminescent instrumentation add to the feeling that you got a great deal for less a less-than $20,000 dollar automobile.

Yes, Bluetooth phone connectivity is standard on the SL and it works without incident. My Apple iPhone immediately found and connected to the Nissan system through voice prompts from the car, and I could control basic functions of the phone, such as calling and hanging up right from the steering wheel. People I called could not tell I was on a hands-free system until I pointed out the fact.

While calls sounded great through the stereo, audiophiles will not be pleased with its performance. The six speaker system was not at all crisp in the highs and very muddled in the lows. However, standard CD/MP3 disc, XM satellite radio, and Aux jack for an MP3 player made the weak sound easier to bear. The iPhone is the perfect for this car, the system made the transition from playing music through the Aux jack to Bluetooth calling with ease.

As is standard on newer cars, the stereo is combined with a trip computer and system displays, so there is no chance of an upgrade without severe modification. Controlling the stereo and displays is easy with large, clearly labeled knobs and buttons. The display is Nissan Standard burnt orange and very readable. My only knock on the system has to be the control for XM radio – it is a pain finding a station, and once you are there the stereo doesn’t display much information.

The stereo also has speed sensitive volume, which is good because noise inside the Sentra cabin is so excessive that I often times wondered if a door was open. The rain in Maryland last week produced a psyche-rattling tin roof effect that made me wonder if Nissan cut corners on insulation and sound-proofing to provide for more options. Driving through an unavoidable deep puddle, I actually wondered if water had entered the cabin or trunk – a quick check at my destination revealed that this wasn’t the case. As you can probably surmise, road and engine noise was definitely an issue at high speed and during acceleration.

On the Road

As I previously mentioned, the Sentra is now a Midsize car, and its interior room and trunk space are very competitive in that category. However, the 2.0L 140 HP DOHC four attached to the CVT does not provide anything more than average, somewhat economical performance. The stats on this engine are somewhat better than the competition, with 140 HP and 147 lb/ft of torque compared to the Civic’s 140 HP and 127 lb/ft VTEC, but the character of the Nissan with the CVT did not work for me. The Sentra’s powerplant seemed buzzy and out of sorts more often than not, and while I usually love Nissan engines I was not impressed. I am currently driving an Altima with the more powerful, more refined 2.5L four and the difference in performance is startling – the bigger engine is better in every way and available, for a price, in the Sentra SE-R.

That fantastic steering wheel promises agility, but the independent strut/torsion beam suspension and 205/55HR tires do not deliver. The high center of gravity and narrow stance guarantee a good amount of body roll, and the tires will make embarrassing noises around corners when your speed indicates they shouldn’t.

Although I prefer manual transmissions, I give credit to Nissan for providing a CVT technology throughout its line. The CVT does provide seamless shifts, but the engine seems to always be working hard – providing an added unmelodious sound to the already noisy cabin. I have mixed feelings about the CVT. In many situations it was fine, but in when quick acceleration was needed the program did not dig deep to find the pull that my foot was asking for. Other reviewers have stated that the CVT attached to Nissan’s VQ V-6 in both the Altima and current Maxima is much better, so perhaps better things are on the horizon for the Sentra.

Over a week of mixed city and highway driving I achieved 24 MPG and used all 14.5 gallons available in the tank, good for about 340 miles between fill-ups. This is below the EPA estimates (25 city/33 Highway) but in line with what a heavy small/midsize car should get with an underpowered engine.

Powerful Enough to Compete?

The number of people buying the Altima, which gets similar mileage out of a more powerful and refined 2.5L 174 HP four with CVT and is infinitely better looking, outsells the Sentra 3 to 1. The Versa, while not yet outselling the Sentra, has faster sales growth. The Sentra SL has great standard equipment and is a very functional car, but on the showroom floor economy buyers are going to pick the Versa and those who want a comfortable midsize car are going with the Altima. The Sentra needs a better niche.

The evolution of the Sentra from the days of my 4-speed stick-shift trainer to now being a reasonably large, 3000 pound midsize car with a continuously variable transmission is quite impressive. But frankly, Honda has Nissan beat on this round – the Civic is the better looking, more economical car and is attracting most of the sales in the market. Honda also offers more powerplant choices with the Civic including a hybrid and a top performance model, the Civic Si. To compete, Nissan needs to push more than just the CVT and Bluetooth in the Sentra – it needs a better engine (maybe electric) and better looks.

Like I said earlier – the Sentra is supremely useable and is definitely the choice for taller and bigger driver. Although Nissan probably doesn’t care about my opinion that much, I would suggest a wagon version of the Sentra – this, along with a more economical powerplant, would make it a competitor for young couples and families whose Crossovers are killing them at the pump.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. Can’t see the Sentra winning out in too many contests with the Civic. I’ve driven both and the Civic is a better car in just about every way, including the way it looks. I don’t own either one but next year I’m buying a samll car and it will be the Civic definitely. I’m not saying the Sentra is a bad car because it’s a good car, but it’s not as good as a Civic.

  2. I agree that the Civic is a little better, and more to my liking personally, but compare the Sentra to the Corolla, and the Sentra is a clear winner. It just stomps it.

  3. The Sentra does not sell for several reasons. The fuel economy is not good (most Civics and Corollas in real world reports get 8-10 more MPG), the selling price is the same or higher than the Corolla and Civic, the Corolla and Civic have better resale value, Nissan is not putting any marketing effort into selling this car, and if you insist on walking into a Nissan dealer, the payments on an Altima will be not much more if you purchase, and will be the same or less if you lease(because of better projected residual value).

    The only time I ever see any of these is with an Enterprise e on the back. Wonder how little they pay for these. Wonder where they go after the rental companies are done with them, maybe back to Central America where they are built, because I don’t see older Sentras, and I live in an area where domestics are rare and every fourth car is a used Corolla.

    If Nissan wants to move any of these it had better realize that years ago the Sentra stopped being considered competitive against the Civic/Corolla. Reliability, MPG and resale value are the 3 primary factors that buyers of Compact cars who are buying Corollas/Civics are looking at, and it does not have any. It is competing against the Focus and the Cobalt which get better mileage, some Kias, Hyundais, Suzukis, Mitsubishis, all of which put lots of cash on the hood and low financing for people with little credit. Nissian should pay attention and price the car accordingly.

    One bit of advice would be to sell to the public these cars for the low prices that it is giving to the rental agencies.

    But then, the last time I was on a Nissan lot I saw very few of these, perhaps Nissan really does not want to sell them.

  4. I just purchased a 2008 sentra SL and I absolutely love it. The only issue I’m having right now is the intelligent key its a little bit confusing considering my 1998 nissan 200sx SE R had regular keys and no keyless entry at all. I love the drive and the comfort in the sentra and I own a 130 lb pitbull/american bulldog mix and he is very happy and comfortable in the back seat. I’d say if you looking for something sporty yet sophisticated to get from point A to B then go with the sentra. If your looking for sport drive and speed and not to mention more stolen parts go with the civic.

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