Nissan launched an innovative, reality TV-style ad campaign for the all-new Sentra wherein intrepid young owner Marc Horowitz lives in his car for a week. While we're not quite ready to encourage that sort of extreme loyalty, we're hard-pressed to suggest many $20,000 cars that would make doing so as comfortable.
Thanks to an enviable roster of standard features, the 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL makes for a very nice base of operations in the modern urban rat race. Bluetooth cell phone integration is standard with the SL package, which is virtually unheard of at this price point. A continuously variable transmission helps make the most of the relatively meager power, working with variable valve timing to return very good fuel economy in all types of driving. A few less tech-centric features, such as a clever CD holder and the "Divide-N-Hide" rear cargo system, speak to thoughtful design and the potential of inexpensive enhancements to improve overall usefulness.
The Sentra doesn't offer anything approaching the performance of some other cars in its price range that have come through the CNET garage, most notably the Acura RSX Type-S and the Honda Civic Si. But, of course, the Sentra is a four-door vehicle, is better-equipped at the price than those pumped-up competitors, and deliberately trades outright speed for economy.
The 16-inch alloy wheels that come as part of the SL trim level spoiled the otherwise pleasant if unremarkable exterior for us, floating visually as they do in wheel openings that really need more filling. Otherwise, the styling both inside and out was generally well-done, in keeping with the mostly successful corporate design language we've seen from Nissan of late, the strange and ultimately ineffective cues in the interior of the last Quest minivan notwithstanding.
A car for the MP3 generation
The Sentra is all new for 2007, and this sixth-generation car continues the model line's tradition of offering affordable value in a reasonably sprightly package. No sporty equivalent of the once-revered Sentra SE-R is yet offered on this iteration, the new Sentra appearing to cater more to the real-life Marc Horowitzes of today's multitasking world than the mythical "Bob" of advertisements gone by, who received special toll-booth and parking privileges by virtue of his Sentra ownership.
But Bob had never heard of an MP3 file, let alone had any need to play them from either home-burned CDs or his trusty iPod. The new Sentra values flexibility and economy over handling and pseudo-celebrity, and delivers successfully more than it fails in terms of keeping its occupants happy. Perforated leather seating surfaces, standard on the 2.0 SL, provide comfortable support, if lacking the kind of bolstering required for spirited driving. The steering wheel is pleasantly thick and offers Bluetooth activation and buttons for cruise control: audio mode, preset up/down, and volume.
The phone button on the steering wheel accesses the voice-command Bluetooth cell phone integration.
Unfortunately, our inability to speak any but the most rudimentary Spanish precluded us from testing the Bluetooth functionality, as this was the only language our Sentra spoke or understood. We're not sure whether the car's language was due to some kind of early-production glitch or a setting we just couldn't adjust (our test car arrived without an owner's manual), but pressing the phone button on the steering wheel just muted the audio and produced a pause while the car awaited a (presumably Spanish) command before eventually launching into a lengthy Spanish explanation of whatever it was it wanted us to do. The Infiniti G35 sedan we reviewed recently used a similar voice-activated Bluetooth phone system, and if that one is any indication of how the Sentra's system works, then the Sentra's will provide good functionality.
On the upside, the rest of the interior gadgets performed flawlessly. The optional Rockford Fosgate six-CD in-dash audio system didn't win us over on sound quality, and unfortunately this $750 package is the only way to get MP3/WMA capability in the Sentra. Despite eight total speakers, including two 8-inch subwoofers, the sound didn't seem enveloping or particularly lush. We did appreciate the burned-CD playback (including folder and track/artist information) but given the fact that the sunroof package (another $750) is required with the audio package, we'd have to question checking those option boxes were we ordering a new Sentra. The audio package also includes the choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio prep, although the actual receiver is another $300 option (with the subscription extra beyond that). Our car was outfitted with Sirius, which we enjoyed, although as usual we wished for a larger screen to display full artist, album, and title information. We used the auxiliary audio input to play music files off our Sony Ericsson k790a, although in this mode AUX is the only thing displayed on the head unit's readout.
Two nice touches in the Sentra's interior are the aforementioned CD holder, which affixes magnetically to the driver's sun visor and the Divide-N-Hide trunk separator. We wondered if the magnetization of the CD sleeve might pose some problems with stashing other things such as parking garage cards or office security badges up there, but for CDs it's a feature you'll wonder how you ever did without (or perhaps why you had to buy one of the ubiquitous elastically affixed aftermarket versions). Similarly, the Divide-N-Hide system seems like something every sedan should have, especially given its simplicity. A flip-up divider creates a space behind the rear seats that's just deep enough to hold a row of grocery bags, or it could be used to keep something more valuable from being noticed should the trunk be broken into. The space is accessible from the cabin by folding down the 60/40 split rear bench (no, officer, that beer is in the trunk), while from the trunk side, a few hooks built into the divider provide a nice way to keep things where they belong during road trips.