2009 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL Review
By Chris Haak
Nissan’s entry in the compact segment has long been overshadowed by competitors from Honda (the Civic) and Toyota (the Corolla), and after the launch of Nissan’s own Versa, the Sentra suffered even more indignity as its little brother cannibalized many of its sales. In 2008, the Sentra just missed the 100,000-unit barrier, while the Versa had over 85,000 units sold. Meanwhile, the Civic sold 331,095 units and the Corolla/Matrix sold 371,390 units. So why is the Sentra lost in the shuffle?
The first problem the Sentra has is its looks. It shares many of the previous-generation Maxima’s styling cues, including its grille design and C-pillar shape. Yet, what more or less worked for the longer Maxima doesn’t for the Sentra. The Sentra has the appearance of a full-height older Maxima that’s three-quarters of its length. It’s a tall, stubby-looking car, and its appearance certainly isn’t doing it any favors in the sales race. While the Civic’s looks are a little too spaceship-looking “out there,” at least it has attractive proportions. The new-for-2009 Corolla doesn’t have the Civic’s handsome proportions, but fortunately for Toyota, also doesn’t have the Sentra’s awkward ones. The 16-inch alloy wheels look rather small on the car; I’m not sure if that is due to the tall body or to having only four lug nuts per wheel. Perhaps the issue is the relatively short wheelbase relative to the car’s length.
The Sentra is pretty big for a compact car, with expansive headroom for even the tallest drivers. I haven’t driven a Corolla in about nine months, but the Sentra’s interior felt more spacious to me. I have only sat in a 2010 Taurus briefly, but it felt like the Sentra beat it in headroom. Legroom was about par for the class, with a quantitative comparison against the Civic showing only fractional differences in most length dimensions, but the Sentra having about three inches more hip and shoulder room both front and back than the Civic. The Sentra is also three inches taller than the Civic, though externally they’re nearly the same width. The Sentra is three inches longer than the Civic, but has a shorter wheelbase. Just as the Versa is large for its class, so is the Sentra.
The interior of my SL-level test vehicle had some really nice equipment for its class, but that equipment came at a price. The SL includes 16 inch aluminum wheels, power body-color mirrors, leather seats, power windows and locks, trip computer, intelligent key, Bluetooth, steering wheel mounted audio controls, six airbags, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Cabin plastics were hard, as they are in nearly every other vehicle in the Sentra’s class, but seemed to be reasonably well-fitting. I only wish that the armrest at the center console wasn’t so tough on the elbows and set so far rearward.
Perhaps I’m showing my age (34) by having trouble adjusting to a world where what is basically an econobox equipped with what features that had been in the domain of luxury cars just a few years ago. Nonetheless, my test vehicle was equipped with really everything that you’d hope to see in a car in this class (except satellite navigation, which isn’t available in the Sentra but is in the Corolla and Civic), and probably better-equipped than most Sentras in the real world (as opposed to those in Nissan’s press fleet).
I’ve noted several times previously how CVTs don’t endear themselves to me, and the CVT installed in the Sentra SL did not make me reconsider that position. There is a momentary hesitation when accelerating from a stop, followed by a droning sound that increases in volume and pitch as the engine builds RPMs. There’s no pause or dropoff in the noise as would occur when a conventional transmission shifts gears until the car reaches its desired speed. I’m not alone in my disdain for CVTs; Jeremy Clarkson put it in his review of the 2010 Honda Insight: “Put your foot down in a normal car and the revs climb in tandem with the speed. In a CVT car, the revs spool up quickly and then the speed rises to match them. It feels like the clutch is slipping. It feels horrid.”
Braking felt adequate for bringing the 2,976-pound car to a halt, but I was surprised to see rear drum brakes in what is marketed as the premium version of the Sentra (the sporty – and more expensive – variant, the SE-R, does come with rear discs). Drum brakes are capable of stopping as well as disc brakes in many situations, and I felt nothing in the pedal or in stopping capabilities that gave away the fact that the rear brakes were drums, but in harder driving, drum brakes can’t cool as quickly as discs, and can be more prone to fade. It’s not easy to drive a CVT-equipped Sentra quickly, though, so that may have been Nissan’s thought process on the choice of rear brake hardware.
The Sentra 2.0 SL that I tested was equipped with Nissan’s electric power steering. When there are only 140 horsepower produced at the engine’s peak output, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to save as much of that power as possible for forward motivation rather than siphoning it off in the name of better steering feel. Nissan did a better job with the Sentra’s power steering than Toyota did with the Corolla’s; I felt that the Corolla’s vague steering was nearly unsafe to use.
The base Sentra 2.0 starts at $16,045 (including destination) and includes a six-speed manual transmission, power windows and locks, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, and six airbags. The FE+ 2.0 adds the CVT for $1,380 more (not worth it, in my opinion). The 2.0 S adds anti-lock brakes, 16″ steel wheels, fog lights, remote keyless entry, cruise control (which the 2009 Corolla S that I tested several months ago did ont have at at similar price), and a trip computer for $17,655. Stepping up to the 2.0 SL model bumps the base price to $20,355 but adds 16″ alloy wheels, keyless ignition, Bluetooth, and leather seats. My tester included splash guards ($140), a Rockford Fosgate 340-watt, 8-speaker audio system ($700), floor mats ($165), trunk cargo organizing system ($150), and a power sliding moonroof ($850). The final MSRP on my test vehicle was a somewhat hefty $22,360 including destination. While this sounds pricey, the Sentra is generally between $1,500 and $2,200 less expensive than the Corolla (depending upon trim level) and about $2,500 cheaper than the Civic according to TrueDelta.com – but that is mainly thanks to the Sentra’s current $2,000 rebate, which the Civic does not have. (The Corolla currently carries a $1,250 rebate). Excluding the rebate, the price difference is about $800 less than the Corolla and $500 less than the Civic.
Fuel economy was about what I expected – that is, close to the EPA’s city rating during about 250 miles of mixed driving during my week with the car. The EPA rates the Sentra 2.0 CVT at 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway; I observed about 26 mpg. The trip computer was easy to use and had a very large (perhaps too large) display in the same area that displayed radio information. Had my tester been equipped with a six-speed manual, it would have been rated 24/31. The Toyota Corolla with the four-speed automatic is rated at 27/35 (but has a less powerful engine), and the Honda Civic is rated at 25/36. Chevrolet’s lowly Cobalt – in XFE trim – is rated at 25/37, but the XFE package has limited availability (but unlimited bragging rights by GM in advertisements).
Perhaps I’m a little more style-conscious than I should be, but I almost felt a little self-conscious shuttling around in an econobox like the Sentra (which is hardly an econobox, since it is about as spacious inside as a midsize car was 20 years ago, and since it has amenities like Bluetooth that weren’t even available on luxury cars a few years ago). But when you step up to a larger, more expensive car – whether it be one sold by Nissan or another company – you are paying for not only more elegant styling (the Altima sedan, for instance, is a handsome car) but also more substance. The Sentra doesn’t really do anything to set itself apart from the other entries in a crowded segment. Aside from Bluetooth – which can be added by the aftermarket onto nearly any vehicle that doesn’t already have it – no unique features come to mind. On top of that, the Corolla is surprisingly a more stylish car, and the Civic – in at least some trim levels – is a more elegant design. With a very good Versa and a very good Altima bookending the Sentra’s spot in the Nissan lineup, it needs to be something other than an awkwardly-shrunken previous-generation Maxima, and I’m not sure that it is.
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