For over two decades, the Sentra name has been a strong seller for Nissan. The lineup is as broad as a powerlifter's shoulders, with cars that range from the very basic to the hyper-sporty. There are a total of five trims that include the base, S, S 2.5, SE-R and SE-R Spec V. Though the SE-R does share its basic shell with the Sentra, Nissan considers it a unique vehicle separate from the other Sentras. For this reason, we will focus this review only on the standard trim cars, the low-priced models that compete head on with such cars as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra.
Nissan offers the Sentra only as a four-door sedan. For 2004, the Sentra has been given a major facelift, with a sporty new front grille that mimics that of the new Maxima and revised deck lid and taillights. Even in its most basic form, the Sentra displays an edgy look that defies its entry-level status. Buyers of the base and S trims get the added bonus of driving a car that meets California's stringent Super Ultra-low-emissions regulations.
A 1.8-liter engine that makes 126 horsepower drives the base and S model Sentras. Nissan designed this engine to deliver much of its torque low in the rpm band. This is an unusual trait in a small four cylinder, but one that makes ultimate sense for the American market. The Sentra's engine allows you to shift gears at a relatively low rpm and still have plenty of power to accelerate and merge. Since most Sentra's go out the door equipped with the optional automatic, the engine's propensity to turn at a rather leisure speed ensures you won't lose much in the way of performancenor will you experience much engine noise while cruising at highway speeds. Indeed, we were very impressed by the quietness and relative smoothness of the Sentra's engine; it sets a new standard in performance, quietness and efficiency for small cars everywhere.
If you prefer a bit more power, you'll need to step up to the 2.5-liter engine that is available only on the S and only with the automatic transmission. This engine produces 165 horsepower and 175 lbs-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. The performance characteristics are much like those of the 1.8-liter, only everything happens a bit faster. With the 2.5 under the hood, the Sentra moves with a bit more authority and displays a more confident attitude when passing or merging. We suggest you drive both cars before you make your choice. On one hand, the 2.5 clearly provides better acceleration and performance, yet the 1.8-liter's five-speed manual can make the driving experience much more fun. We should also point out that the 2.5-liter and its accompanying standard equipment adds a cool two grand to the base price of the S.
The Sentra's performance on the road is right in line with its racy new looks. Using a MacPherson strut front/multi-link beam suspension setup, the Sentra manages to take turns with confidence while returning a pleasant ride. The back end does get a bit shaky over rough and uneven pavement, but the standard 15-inch tires provide enough grip to keep things under control. You'll find the steering to be direct and firm, with good feedback and a nice power assist that does not require you to flex your biceps every time you make a left turn. Braking on the base and S 1.8 is handled by a disc/drum setup that provides adequate stopping power. The S 2.5 gets a much stronger set of four-wheel-disc brakes and comes standard with ABS (optional on the S 1.8).
Nissan has done a nice job with the Sentra's interior. The dash and center console avoid the generic look that plagues so many low-price sedans. We really liked the Sentra's thick, four-spoke steering wheel; it provides a comfortable place to rest your hands while still providing a clear and unobstructed view of the instrument cluster. There are lots of sculpted lines and clever storage bins littered throughout the car and the wide front bucket seats should provide a comfortable position for drivers of all sizes. The Sentra's rear seat is not as roomy as those found on the Civic or Corolla, but you can still fit two people back there so long as they are not too tall (legroom is what is in short supply here). Also onboard are individual cup holders for both front and rear passengers.
Standard equipment on the Sentra S 1.8 includes air conditioning, overhead console, power windows and door locks, tilt wheel, variable intermittent wipers, split-folding rear seats, tachometer, AM/FM stereo with CD, dual power mirrors and remote keyless entry. The S 2.5 adds 8-way adjustable driver seat, upgraded interior cloth, alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel, trip computer and cruise control. Options include a killer Rockford Fosgate audio system, front side-impact airbags and a power glass sunroof.