It's been 30 years since the first Nissan Sentra was launched in the North American market, competing with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. This mighty trio dominated the compact class in the late 1980s, with the Sentra finding more than 300,000 North American buyers at its sales peak.
The 2012 Sentra still attracted buyers, but its sales are nowhere near those sales heights. The sixth-generation model's distinctive style may be have been a bit too adventurous for this conservative buyer segment.
In reworking the Sentra for the seventh time, Nissan has mellowed the styling excesses, giving this car the smooth, upscale look the company used on the mid-size Altima. Designers reinforced the upmarket appeal by employing a large chrome grille -- a rarity in this segment -- and headlights laced with a strip of LED lights. In the rear, LED taillights are standard.
Combined with its artful side-window shape, which gracefully flows rearward to a point, this seventh-generation Sentra should age a bit more gracefully than the current model.
The premium feel continues once you open the door. Inside, little things give this inexpensive car the suggestion of being more expensive, even if its plastic trim tells you otherwise.
The car's instrument panel features natural organic shapes. Its knobs are trimmed in chrome. There are soft surfaces on the centre console and door panels to rest your arms. The headliner is made of handsomely textured material, rather than the usual uninspired mouse fur. There's even a rear centre armrest, an item usually cut by tight-fisted bean counters to save money.
But the truest luxury here is space, and the car has a remarkable amount, both in the front and rear seats. There's plenty of room to hold my 6'3" frame. More remarkably, Nissan increased the trunk space to a generous 428 litres (15.1 cubic feet), so there's little reason to pack lightly.
Once you fill the Sentra with friends, family, cargo and pets, you'll want to move. For this task, Nissan has designed a new double-overhead-cam 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine for both the S and SV models that produces 130 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque.
Both models come standard with a six-speed manual transmission, but there's also a new optional continuously variable automatic transmission. Known as a CVT, this tranny constantly varies the gear ratios to ensure the optimal fuel economy and performance.
"We don't think the (manual) take rate will be all that significant when we have a CVT that performs like this one," said John Curl, senior manager of product planning.
That might be overstating the case, but it's hard to argue given the revisions Nissan made to this CVT. It's remarkably smooth and responsive, lacking the rubber-banding feel typical of CVTs, although that trait isn't entirely banished. Power seems more than sufficient for the Sentra's daily driving duties, but bursts of speed call for a bit of planning due to the CVT, which lacks a manual-shift mode featured on competitor's CVTs.
But Nissan does allow the Sentra driver to customize the driving experience by choosing from three driving modes: Normal, Eco and Sport. When the car starts, it's automatically in Normal. But choosing one of the other modes does noticeably alter its character. Sport mode livens up the car's steering and throttle response; it feels highly caffeinated.
In contrast, Eco is the exact opposite. Not only does it reduce the air-conditioning draw on the engine, it also tells manual transmission drivers the best time to upshift. Too bad it feels as if you're driving with an anchor trailing behind you. Normal mode splits the two. My guess? Most drivers will rarely switch between modes.
There's more than enough power on tap for most drivers. The engine is fairly quiet except when pushed. Then it moans forlornly, typical of a driveline using a CVT.
Fuel economy is very good, hitting 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres in city driving and 4.9 on the highway with the CVT. Nissan achieved this through a number of weight-reduction measures, including the use of lightweight high-strength steel.
When it comes to taking the Sentra through the twisties, you'll find it to be agile but not sporty, with the wide turning radius typical of Nissans. Body lean is controlled, but it's no sports sedan.
The Sentra's comfortable ride and quiet cabin take precedent over sporting pretensions. Soft, supportive cloth seats and an inviting instrument-panel design mimics some of the exterior's flowing looks.
I sampled both an S and SV models. The SV had standard power door locks and windows, 16-inch wheels, six-speaker audio system, sunglass holder, sun-visor extenders, vanity mirrors, tilt steering wheel and steering-wheel controls for the audio system, although cruise control is optional.
Making this car much more inviting were two option packages. The $2,000 Premium Package adds a 5.8-inch touch screen with a navigation system, vocie recognition, streaming audio via Bluetooth, a rear-view monitor, power sunroof, eight-speaker Bose audio system and heated front seats. Or you can go to the limit with the $4,100 SL Package that adds amenities like dual-zone climate control, leather seats and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Altogether, the SV, which started at $17,548, squeaked in just under 25 grand with the CVT and SL Package. That's not bad for a car that has all of the options one could want in a small car. Still, the SL doesn't feel a lot more luxurious, despite the presence of wood trim and leather seats.
The Sentra is a car whose styling and nimble handling may stir your emotions, while its price and frugal gas consumption will appeal to your practical side. With this new model, the Sentra once more re-enters the mainstream with the space and styling to capture hearts and a price that's sure to please wallets.
The driving experience may not be sporty, but most drivers won't care.
-- The Virginian-Pilot
-- Type of vehicle: 5-passenger front-wheel drive sedan
-- Engine: 1.8L DOHC four-cylinder
-- Power: 130 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 128 lb-ft of torque @ 3,600 rpm
-- Transmission: 6-pd manual / optional continuously variable transmission
-- Length: 462.5 cm
-- Wheelbase: 270 cm
-- Curbweight: 1,268 kg
-- Trunk size: 428 litres
-- Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 7.5 city, 5.5 hwy. (manual) / 6.6 city, 4.9 hwy. (CVT)
-- Base price: $14,848 (S); $17,548 (SV)