Like other cars in this segment, the 2010 Nissan Sentra isn't much to look at. A small sedan body style doesn't allow much room for flourishes, and unique touches are not necessarily desirable in this car segment. As such, the Sentra's design only stands out for its flat-sided front fenders, which have a curved drop-off in front. The high curved roofline is pretty standard among small sedans, practical for the headroom it affords in the cabin.
The car is front drive, of course, and Nissan powers the Sentra with a 2-liter four-cylinder engine. Tuned for twist, its power plant delivers 140 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque. An aluminum block and double-overhead cam make up the most advanced aspects of this engine, but those features have been standard in engines for years.
Nissan's CVT works exceptionally well in a small car.
Where the power train begins to step out from the crowd is the continuously variable transmission, something Nissan makes particularly well. In the nature of CVTs, acceleration is smooth and linear, and the vehicle's fuel economy benefits from the transmission always finding the optimum ratio.
However, the Sentra's CVT stands out for its responsiveness. Whether on a city street or on the freeway, a stab at the gas pedal made the CVT switch quickly to a power ratio. This gear change occurred more quickly with the CVT than it did with most cars that have automatic fixed-gear transmissions, and without the attendant clunkiness, just a quick power change and the sound of the engine running up to higher revs.
The Sentra proved easy, if not exciting to drive. In city traffic it moved along effortlessly, its torque tuning allowing for reasonably quick starts. But its ungainly body kept us from any attempts at fast cornering, even though Nissan fits it with stabilizer bars front and rear. Its suspension was unremarkable, which is what we would expect from a car of this class. We had no problem with its stopping power, even with the rear drum brakes.
The car didn't show much willingness to exceed freeway speeds, which could be a problem if a high-speed pass is called for. But the CVT kept the engine speed low, which is part of the reason it earns a 34 mpg high fuel economy rating from the EPA. The agency gives it a city rating of 26 mpg, but we only managed 24 mpg, a surprise as most cars we test usually show up near the center of the EPA range.
We find it a little disturbing that Nissan makes traction and stability control an option on the Sentra--its part of the VDC package. But the package only costs $370, so we highly recommend it. Nissan includes antilock brakes standard.