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.
No satellite reception
Although we weren't exactly thrilled by the driving experience, two things made the Sentra desirable for running errands around town: it offers iPod integration and an excellent Bluetooth hands-free phone system, two features that are core to any tech car. Nissan has a navigation system available, but only for the top trim SL version.
The Bluetooth phone system seemed basic at first, as it operates entirely by voice command. But after pairing an iPhone with it, we were able to make calls not only by saying the phone number, but also by telling the car to call a specific person from our phone's contact list. For entries with more than one phone number attached, the car went down the numbers sequentially, asking us for a yes or no on each.
Scrolling through an iPod music library takes a lot of button pushing.
Seeing prominently marked iPod buttons on the Sentra's stereo, we searched until we found the iPod cable in the console. We've come to count on iPod integration for our test-driving soundtrack, and were pleased to find it in the Sentra. But its interface, which relies on the single line radio display, is tedious to use. After selecting a category, such as album, artist, or song, we had to scroll through one entry at a time using a rocker switch. A dial would be much better, as we could have scrolled through entries faster. With the rocker switch, finger fatigue kept our music selections near the beginning of the alphabet.
The radio can play MP3 CDs, but the interface also uses a rocker switch to navigate folders. Satellite radio is only available on the top trim SL version of the Sentra.
The six speakers in the Sentra is a pretty average count for modern cars. However, their audio quality wasn't what we expected. The system's bass was surprisingly sharp, with enough power to shake door panels. The high frequencies could get annoying shrill, depending on the track. Its midlevels get lost in the mix, making it difficult to understand lyrics.
The 2010 Nissan Sentra's CVT gives it an edge for performance, with its economical and smooth power delivery. For a small car in this class, we much prefer the CVT to a fixed-gear automatic transmission. The Bluetooth phone system and iPod integration were the car's saving graces as we were tooling around town, even if we did hate trying to select music using the car's interface. But the lack of satellite radio or a navigation option really hurts the Sentra's cabin tech score. Its bland looks would have made it average for its design score, but we had to knock off points for the poor iPod and MP3 CD interface.
|Model||2010 Nissan Sentra|
|Power train||2-liter four-cylinder engine|
|EPA fuel economy||26 mpg city/34 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||24 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Auxiliary input, USB drive|
|Audio system||160-watt six-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$19,370|