Nissan’s green PR is all about the electric LEAF. But at half the sticker price and 34 mpg on the highway, the Sentra deserves a look from the ultra-pragmatist.
The 2011 Sentra is the grandchild of the Datsun 510, a small Nissan car introduced in 1968 that, in its day, was often referred to as the “poor man’s BMW.” The first Sentra arrived on U.S. shores in 1982. Since then there have been six iterations of the little car, the latest of which is represented by the current model. And, like nearly all small cars, the Sentra has grown in size. Originally a subcompact, it crossed over to the compact class in 2000, and today, even though exterior dimensions remain compact in size, the Sentra’s interior is classified by the EPA as a mid-size car.
Outside and inside, the 2011 Sentra is a repeat of the 2010 edition. But kudos to Nissan for equipping all 2011 Sentras standard with anti-lock brakes along with stability control and traction control systems.
While some rivals offer a hatchback or coupe body style in addition to a sedan, the Sentra is only available in a four-door sedan with an unusually broad range of models. The six-tier lineup starts with the entry-level 2.0 model and climbs through mainstream 2.0 S and 2.0 SL models. It ascends to the sporty-looking 2.0 SR and tops off with the raucous SE-R and SE-R Spec V models.
Sentra 2.0 models come with one engine, a 2.0-liter four cylinder, and two transmission options, a six-speed manual and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The fuel-miser of the group is the CVT, and yes, today’s automatic transmissions often deliver better fuel economy than their manual cousins. With this combination, the Sentra achieves an EPA estimate of 27 city/34 highway and a combined 30 mpg. With the six-speed manual, the 2.0-liter engine dispenses 24 city/31 highway and 27 mpg combined.
SE variants and fuel economy is an oxymoron—they are sport compacts with larger 2.5-liter fours that target enthusiast drivers. Connected to the CVT (the sole transmission available), the SE-R is EPA rated at 24 /30 and 26 mpg combined. A step up to the hot rod SE-R Spec V sees fuel economy numbers of 21/28/24—decent numbers for a 200 horsepower engine and a manual gearbox.
Exterior and Interior
Sentra’s exterior styling bears a strong family resemblance to the larger Altima and Maxima sedans. Up front, twin creases cut into a simply curved hood while Nissan’s signature rectangular stacked headlights frame a chrome-trimmed grille. The profile emphasizes the long wheelbase, short front and rear overhangs, and a character line on each side rises toward the rear, accentuating a sporty wedge shape. It is the most like the Altima, logically as that’s the next step up in the Nissan line. But if the shapes are vaguely similar, the Sentra’s proportions are very different, even a little awkward.
Both SE-Rs spiff up their look with different nose and tail treatments, driving lights, subtle lower-body skirting and a rear spoiler.
Despite its exterior dimensions, the Sentra’s cabin feels spacious and airy, courtesy of the arched roof and a 105.7-inch wheelbase that’s among the longest in the compact-car class. Wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear axles and helps determine how much space a vehicle can devote to the passenger compartment.
Sentra’s dashboard doesn’t have visual flair but it is orderly and functional. The instrument cluster features a crisply lit speedometer and tachometer that are easy to read. A round digital information center between the meters provides data like fuel efficiency, engine temperature and fuel level. Radio and climate controls are well laid out in the center stack. The large HVAC dials are easily adjusted, even when wearing winter gloves.
Front seats are a nice balance between comfort and support with a wide range of adjustability, albeit manually. All models have a tilt steering column, however, the base 2.0 lacks a height-adjustable driver’s seat that’s standard on up level offerings. Front head-and legroom is the envy of other carmakers.
As in front, rear seat passengers have generous space with room for two larger-than-average adults. Rear seats are split 60/40, and the rear-seat bottom cushions lift and flip forward against the front seat backs. This allows the seat backs to drop flat, expanding the already generous 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space to an enormous cargo hold in the cabin. If child car or booster seats reside in the back, the Latch anchors are difficult to dig out of the stiff seat cushions. Once this is accomplished, the rest is easy.
Nissan should be given an award for clever and thoughtful places to store all the things we find necessary to bring into the car. For starters, open the glove box and a small space in the lid can hold a map or pair of gloves. Lower the lid and there’s enough room for a small laptop or a woman’s purse. Left of the steering wheel is a small covered compartment for coins. Cupholders in the center console adjust from small to large cups, and behind them is a cell phone holder. Add to this, a deep stowage bin under the center armrest.
Quality of plastic materials is on par for the compact class, with soft, low-gloss surfaces. There are a few faux metal trim pieces, but there are also plenty that look like the real thing as well.
On The Road
In the compact car class, good fuel economy is a must. Featuring variable valve timing, the Sentra’s 2.0-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine has an output of 140 horsepower and 147 ponds-feet of torque. Connected to Nissan’s CVT the Sentra’s fuel economy ratings are 27 city/34 highway and a combined 30 mpg. Not unlike other small cars we have driven, our recorded fuel mileage varied, just as the EPA says. And, like other small cars, the variance was on the plus side. Our week with the Sentra totaled 266 miles—160 miles Interstate, 49 miles two-lane highways, 57 miles in town—netted 36 miles per gallon.
Acceleration is plentiful, and though it takes time to adjust to the CVT’s distinctive power delivery, it works smoothly and is of particular benefit to highway-speed passing response. With a foot heavy on the go pedal, there is noticeable, but not obnoxious, engine noise. Settled in at speed, the cabin becomes close to luxury car quiet.
An independent strut front and a semi-independent torsion beam axle rear suspension are typical of cars in the compact class. Nissan has tuned it in the European fashion, with soft spring rates and matching shock rates for good comfort and control. The setup absorbs the bumps and potholes of everyday driving well. It’s also up to the task of negotiating curvy roads and sudden panic swerves, albeit with noticeable body roll.
Since HybridCars.com is about vehicles that deliver good to great fuel economy, we aren’t going to write about the Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec-V except to say, if a pocket rocket is more your style, take a test drive.
The Sentra’s base 2.0 sticker price of $15,840 is competitive with class sales leaders Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Hyundai Elantra. But, it comes standard with the manual transmission, not the CVT with the 27 city/34 highway fuel economy. The CVT is a $1,180 option, bringing the total to $17,020. Granted, that does include air conditioning, power windows and power door locks. However, for an additional $750, the 2.0S adds cruise control, remote keyless entry, manual height adjustable driver’s seat and an upgraded audio system with redundant steering wheel controls.
The 2011 Sentra has competitive prices, is roomy, provides lots of nifty interior features, possess competent road manners and, with the CVT, delivers good fuel economy at a time when gasoline prices are at the $4.00 per gallon mark and heading upwards. These attributes make the Sentra a good choice for singles and small families. But, the Sentra faces several strong contenders in this extremely competitive class of vehicles, so shop before you buy.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.