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Executive wheels: size does matter

Jeff Rundles //September 15, 2010//

Executive wheels: size does matter

Jeff Rundles //September 15, 2010//

2010 NISSAN SENTRA 2.0 SL

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Over the last several years, I have had my issues with Nissan. The overall thing I have noticed in every Nissan model I have driven, including in its luxury division Infiniti, is an amazing amount of road noise and cabin noise, especially vis a vis the competition. I think the company is beginning to listen, as this 2010 model is a little bit more quiet, although I recently drove a new Honda Civic (a rental car on vacation) and the Honda had it beat on the noise issue.

Another issue I have had is the lineup. Used to be that the Sentra was the entry-level model, with the large Maxima rounding out the sedan entrants. Then a few years ago (1993) they added the Altima in between, and then more recently they came out with the small Versa to take on the entry-level spot. So, the Sentra was always a smallish car – until now. Like many models, including the aforementioned Civic, these cars keep getting larger and more substantial. Indeed, I parked next to an Altima in a parking lot when I was driving the Sentra and they seemed to be the same size, or even the same car.

So I did a little research. The Altima is larger – for 2010 the Altima has a wheelbase of 109.3″, versus 105.7 for the Sentra. Length: Altima, 189.8″; Sentra, 179.8″; Width: Altima, 70.7″; Sentra, 70.5″. And they feature different engines: Altima, a 2.5-liter I4 with 170 hp and a 3.5-Liter V6 with 270 hp; Sentra: a 2.0-liter I4 with 140 hp and a 2.5-Liter I4 with 200 hp. But aside for some different trim treatments, the actual street appeal is that they are very similar cars. Personally, I think the differences as you step up in a line ought to be greater; Honda, for instance, only has three in the regular automobile lineup, the small fir, the mid-sized Civic and the flagship Accord.

To me, that means that the four in the Nissan lineup – Versa, Sentra, Altima and Maxima – have too much overlap, at least among the top three, so as market share goes for various sized models, Nissan, I believe, competes with itself, and may not compete well at all with the competition. The Honda Civic sedan, I believe, is priced in the same range as both the Sentra and the Altima – the Civic sedan goes from $15,655 to $23,805; the Sentra, $15,420 to $20,080, and the Altima $19,900 to $24,520 – approximates the size and carries a better reputation. The Honda features only one engine, a 1.8-liter I4 with 140 hp, so maybe that is the difference to look at, but as I said, I just drove the new Honda and did not find it wanting.

I say all this to urge readers to compare themselves via test-drives. I have the advantage of extended test drives, and my experience is that the Honda is a better car overall, but there were things I liked about the Sentra that might tip the scale for some people in the Nissan direction. They are essentially the same size automobiles – nearly identical wheelbase, length and width – but the Honda Civic felt smaller. The Civic also has the aerodynamic look of the Toyota Prius, with the huge dashboard, while the Nissan Sentra is more of a classic sedan which, frankly, I prefer. The Sentra felt as though it had more headroom, legroom and rear-seat room, although comparisons of technical specs don’t bear that out. It’s really just a style thing: the Civic feels more like a hatchback, the Sentra a classic sedan, inside and out.

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I was all set not to like the Sentra, what with my Nissan experience of late, but I had the opposite experience. I liked the size, where in the past I thought it was too small. Years ago I was seriously considering a Sentra, and I rejected it in favor of a larger Chevrolet (The Corsica) on the basis of size alone; I wish now I had made the Nissan my car, as the Chevy proved to be very poorly made. But today, the Sentra is a very substantial size, and it drives like a very smooth, mid-sized auto. I felt safe driving it around.

As for power, well, it wasn’t a speed demon, but it was relatively zippy in city driving and it got great gas mileage – it’s rated at 26 mpg city, 24/highway, and while I didn’t specifically measure it, I believe I did that well or more. The engine is a 2.0-liter I4 engine, with some 140 horses, and my only complaint was on the highway. The Sentra motors along okay, but surges when passing or hitting the steep roads like on Floyd Hill. Nothing terrible, mind you; I expected that a car like this, with a small, eco-friendly engine, would huff and puff in areas of pressure. If I was doing a lot of highway driving, particularly in the mountains, I would want more power. But around town, this is indeed an economical, comfortable car with plenty of get-up-and-go.

Given its size, I would prefer to have a Sentra as a city commuter car than, say, the smaller Versa or Honda’s Fit. More substantial feel, and the handling is far superior. The Sentra doesn’t jerk when turning or changing lanes, and has a great center of balance.

Inside the car, I was impressed. My recollection of the last Sentra I drove, several years ago, was of a lower-end vehicle; quite plastic-y. But this newer Sentra is much more like the Altima I drove a couple of years ago, with a very upscale interior. I drove the SL, middle of the road in the lineup (the base model, the 2.0 carries a base price of $15,420; this SL bases at $18,560), and found it very nicely equipped. ABS, and very good, brakes; traction control, tire pressure monitoring, power door locks, windows and driver’s seat, and Nissan’s Smart Key (basically keyless entry and no need to put the key in the ignition spot; there is a knob there to turn). The stereo is excellent, with all the hookups for toys and Bluetooth, and equipped with XM satellite radio; it is operated through a 4.3″ color screen in the dash.

The back seat is one of those 60/40 split jobs, and I used it for golf clubs, as my set wouldn’t fit in the trunk alone. This is not to say the trunk isn’t ample; it is. It’s just a little narrow for my set.

On my test-drive model they added $140 for splash guards, $110, for four floor mats, $850 for the Premium Plus package – including a power sunroof, illuminated vanity mirrors, and heated seats in both front seats – and $700 for leather appointed seats (quite nice). I must say that the Premium package and leather seat additions are priced a lot better than many competitors.

Add $720 in dealer handling charges, and the bottom line on this car is $21,080 by sticker. I’m not sure I would pay over $20k for a Sentra; as I said, I recently drove a new Honda Civic and liked it more. On the other hand, I’d have to look at the extras in any of the competition and then make the choice because, frankly, a similarly equipped Civic might be more. In fact, I tried to build one online and couldn’t even get a sunroof. Hmmm.

The point is, the Sentra deserves to be in the mix when considering a midsized sedan. Nissan, I believe is in the midst of upgrading its offerings, and the 2010 Sentra shows some of this progress.

RATING: 3 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

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