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.
An audio auxiliary input right on the center stack makes it easy to plug in an MP3 player.
Other cabin amenities are also simple but well thought-out, such as an enormous glove box, a felt-lined, driver-side sunglasses storage bin, and clean black-on-orange digital readouts complementing the welcome analog speedometer and tachometer. Unlike some other LCDs of this style, our polarized sunglasses posed no problems in reading them, regardless of our viewing angle. A 12-volt power outlet resides in the center console, which is just behind a cupholder with an effective adjustable divider for one or two beverages. The Intelligent Key feature, standard on the SL, is also very nice and allows you to unlock the doors and the trunk, and to start the engine without having to remove the key from your pocket.
Efficient but small
The 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL is not a performance vehicle by any stretch of the imagination. With a measly 140 horsepower on tap from its two-liter inline four-cylinder engine, acceleration is predictably leisurely. But useful application of two important technologies make this motor impressively fuel efficient: variable valve timing and the continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Neither of these are groundbreaking tech features, but together they help mask the engine's power shortcomings by maximizing efficiency for acceleration and also keeping fuel economy at above-average levels. The CVT, in particular, is a technology Nissan has wholeheartedly embraced, first installing one in a production vehicle in 1992, and going on to pioneer a steel-belt CVT in front-wheel-drive vehicles with engines as large as 3.5-liters. The steel-belt version in the Sentra 2.0 SL is one of the nicest we've tried, operating seamlessly and with less noise than others in recent memory, particularly the Ford Escape Hybrid. Acceleration is not brisk, but is helped by keeping the engine at its power peak as long as the throttle is open. Variable valve timing helps with low-end torque and clean burning under high-load conditions.
EPA fuel economy ratings for the Sentra 2.0 SL are 29mpg in the city and 36mpg on the highway. Among its main competitors, these figures are bested only by cars with smaller engines, and then only barely. The Sentra is generally larger and heavier than these rivals as well, offering as much or more interior and cargo space, so the fuel economy is that much more impressive. During our time with the Sentra, we averaged a hair over 26mpg, but this was strictly in city driving and using a very heavy foot to see what the CVT could muster up in terms of acceleration. A six-speed manual is standard on the lesser Sentras, with the CVT optional.
Handling and driving dynamics in the Sentra aren't particularly inspiring, but don't represent a major drawback. We were anticipating some torque steer from this front-driver, remembering the nearly uncontrollable degree of it we encountered in a Maxima we drove previously. But perhaps due to there not really being enough torque to produce it, torque steer was not an issue in the Sentra. Speed-sensitive steering is standard on all Sentras, another impressive feat of budgeting. It generally worked well, although we could get it to go slack when imitating the zigzagging, tire-warming maneuver of Formula 1 drivers, and wondered if we'd like that lack of feel if it resulted from an emergency lane-change maneuver instead.
Now with curtain air bags
On the safety front, the Sentra acquits itself reasonably well while not going above and beyond the call. The usual array of airbags, six total, are present, including seat-mounted side-impact bags and roof-mounted curtain modules. Active head restraints are standard on the front seats to reduce the chances of whiplash from a rear-end collision. Front and rear crumple zones, side impact door beams, an energy-absorbing steering column, and a system to pull the engine down in a frontal impact all contribute to overall occupant safety.
This adds up to a best-possible five-star frontal crash rating for both driver and passenger for the 2007 Sentra from the NHTSA. The Sentra was not yet tested for side impacts at the time of our review, but it got a four-star rating for rollover worthiness.
The Sentra gets Nissan's standard three-year/36,000-mile limited warranty, with coverage extending to five years/60,000 miles for the powertrain components.
The 2007 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL offers more interior space, better fuel economy, and a fuller set of standard features than any of its near-$20,000 competition in the small sedan realm. The Honda Civic sedan (we reviewed the hybrid version) does offer navigation, missing on the Sentra, but not Bluetooth cell phone integration. At equivalent prices, the choice comes down to whether you want to find where you're going or place hands-free calls.
At a base price of $19,015, including a $615 destination charge, the Sentra 2.0 SL is a great value. Given our druthers, we might have left it so-equipped, as the addition of the audio upgrade, satellite radio, and the therefore-required sunroof package seem to bump the price up more than the additions actually make the car better. But even at a bottom-line sticker price of $20,815 as tested, the Sentra 2.0 SL offers versatility and tech capabilities mostly unmatched at the price.