No-one sets out to build a bad car. Or even a not very good one. You can be sure that every effort possible is expended on ensuring that every finished product is as good as it can be given the constraints. And there are lots of those. Time and money are the big ones, of course, as well as available resources. The need to comply with ever more complex and demanding legislation in every market where the car is to be sold does not make things any easier, either. So, few cars are as perfect as their creators probably would like them to be. And so, when the reviews are published, I suspect that most of the time, there is a lot of quiet nodding going on back at base, as in most cases, the proud creators who have tested the product pretty extensively are unlikely to have overlooked something which the ever-critical motoring press pick up on. It is either a case of the fact that there were too many constraints to do it any better, or, in some cases, simply that the manufacturer has a different set of priorities from a press who are somewhat one-dimensional in what they want from any car – “engagement” – to use one of their own favourite words. After all, the press just have to write about cars, the manufacturer actually has to sell them. Even so, you can imagine that there is more than a tinge of disappointment when the new car is subjected to the Group Test, at launch, and it comes ignominiously bottom or very close to it. That is what happened to Nissan, back in 2013, when they presented the latest of a long line of Sentra models, a mid-size car that aims directly at the big-selling Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, as well as a plethora of other rivals. From what I recall, most of the US press placed the Sentra at the bottom of the pile, expressing deep disappointment. I got to drive an example pretty early in the model’s life cycle, at the end of 2013, and I, too, was very disappointed. The previous car had been quite decent to drive, but this one, with a down-sized engine had lots its pep and gained a lot of decibel generation in the process, proving to be unpleasantly noisy too much of the time. A cheap feeling interior did little to help its cause. A lot of extra sound-deadening was added to 2014 model year cars, and then a fairly comprehensive facelift arrived in 2015 for the 2016 model year. It was not just the looks which were freshened, with the latest Nissan style grille, though they certainly helped it look a bit more like a shrunken Altima, but there were also a lot of detailed changes to the suspension, equipment and trim, as well as the addition of more powerful SR and Nismo versions. These changes probably stopped any further slide in sales, but with most of the Nissan’s rivals having received a complete new model, it was only ever likely that the Nissan would continue to struggle against younger competition. On a night when Hertz’ Phoenix Sky Harbor was almost completely devoid of any cars at all, I decided to grab the keys to what turned out to be a 2017 model year car, in the rather appealing bright red colour that Nissan call Red Alert, and to spend a 24 hour period seeing if I was any more impressed by this generation Sentra than I had been five years ago.
Unless you go for the very top spec sporty SR Turbo and Nismo models, which rental car companies do not, you will get a Sentra with a 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engine, which puts out 124 bhp. All bar the base S trim cars come with a CVT gearbox. Last time round, I quickly discovered that this was not a happy combination, with the car feeling sluggish and if you worked the engine even just moderately hard, unbearably noisy. This time, all seemed massively better. Most importantly, all the extra sound deadening which was added a few months after production started has made a big difference, with the result that unless you go close to the red line, engine noise is no longer an issue, and indeed road and wind noise are also well insulated from the cabin. The gearbox seemed better, too, with less of the feeling that the transmission lags in catching up with what the driver’s right foot had been doing. For sure, this is not a fast car, but for ordinary use it is perfectly acceptable. Step off from rest is just about adequate to keep up with the rest of the traffic, and the Sentra did not struggle on the long and relatively steep climbs up into the hills north east of Phoenix, though it was clear that the engine was having to work quite hard to deliver such a performance. Nissan reduced the size, and output of the engine in this generation from the previous car in a bid to improve the fuel economy, something which had been cited as a weak point previously. Although I did not think I’d gone all that far, my day with the Sentra amounted to 215 miles, and I put in exactly 6 gallons to fill it up, which computes to 35.833 mpg US or 42.8 mpg Imperial, which is a pretty decent result, given the fact that much of the test route was on hilly roads and there was not much steady speed cruising. There are both Eco and Sport modes available, with separate buttons for each on the lower left of the dash. l confess that I did not try them, and suspect that they do not make a huge difference anyway.
In all other respects, the Sentra is pleasant enough to drive, without being outstanding in any particular way. SV trim gives you a leather steering wheel to hold. The steering is like you find in so many cars these days: light, but thankfully not so light that you have no idea as to what the steered wheels are doing. Although there is plenty of grip, the handling is not of the tidiest, with body roll evident event at lowish speeds on some relatively flowing bends and the Nissan clearly understeers, again without even driving it all that hard. The upside to this is that the car rides well. There was some bump thump evident, a comment I see I made about the last Sentra I drove, but this was more aural than something you really felt. The 205/55 R16 tyres are relatively high profile by modern standards and would appear to have been selected for comfort rather than anything else. There was quite a mushy feel to the brakes as you first applied pressure, but put your foot down a bit harder and this sensation disappeared, and there was no worry about whether they would halt the car or not. A conventional handbrake is fitted between the seats. Visibility was generally OK, though the door mirrors are quite small, and hence there is a limited view and a notable blind spot. The now obligatory rear-view camera certainly helps when judging where the back of the car is, though the short tail is quite easy to judge even without. After driving plenty of bigger cars, this Nissan generally felt quite easy to place on the road and to manoeuvre.
The Sentra goes back to 2013, and that is perhaps most evident in the cabin design. You may even think that in some ways this is no bad thing, as there is a refreshing simplicity to it all, and it all proved very easy to use. These are not necessarily attributes of more recent products. It has changed only in details since 2013, as Nissan has upgraded some of the standard features, such as the infotainment system and needed to incorporate the rear-view camera. The main dash moulding has not changed. In the test car, it was all black, with very limited use of gunmetal inlays. There is some cloth used on the door casings, and although some of the plastics are quite hard to the touch, the overall effect is just on the right side of looking a bit cheap. There are two large dials, a speedo and a rev counter with water temperature and fuel gauges set in the base of them. The position of the wheel meant that for me, part of the fuel gauge was obscured unless you peered over it, and it was the part you would most want to see, the bit that was nearer to the empty mark. Otherwise the dials are neat and easy to read, with their traditional analogue style. Between them is an rectangular space for trip computer data, which you cycle through with a button on the steering wheel spokes. You will also find audio repeaters and cruise control there. There are twin column stalks with lights operated by twisting the end of the indicator stalk. The centre of the dash contains the infotainment unit, which is decidedly old school. The screen is one of the smallest you will come across these days and you operate it with buttons on either side of the unit, or the on/off and tuning knobs below it. All of which proved very easy to do and utterly intuitive in a way that many more recent devices just are not. The same is true for the air conditioning, which operates from a couple of knobs and a series of buttons in an area positioned below the radio unit. Basic it might be, but it was effective, and on a day when the temperature hit 109 degrees, that was most welcome. There is keyless starting, which is always a useful feature.
Seats are trimmed in a hard wearing cloth trim, and were black in the test car. Adjustment is manual, as you might expect, with a bar under the seat for fore/aft movement, and two ratchet levers on the side for backrest rake and seat height. There is plenty of adjustability, though, so I was soon in the right position relative to the pedals, and there is a telescoping in/out on the wheel, as well as up/down, so I could get comfortable. I did not spend prolonged periods of time on the seat, but it seemed well enough shaped to suggest you could sit there without feeling it for longer periods of time.
Those in the rear get a good deal in the Sentra. This is one of the most spacious cars in its class, and indeed technically, it is rated by the EPA as a mid-size rather than a compact because of the amount of space it offers. The centre console unit does protrude back quite a long way, but otherwise, there is ample leg room, even when the front seats are set well back. The Sentra is wide enough for three adults to fit across the rear seat. There is a drop down central armrest with a pair of cupholders in the upper surface, Reminder that this is a relatively cheap car comes from the fact that there is only a map pocket in one of the front seats, and the mouldings on the door are shaped to accommodate a bottle but are not really full door bins, and there are certainly no rear air vents.
The boot is a good size, too, comparable in capacity to those of many a car a class bigger than this one. There is a space-saver spare under the floor and you could tuck quite a few bits and pieces around it. More space can be created by folding the split rear seat backrests forward, and you can even fold the front passenger seat forward to give an especially long load platform. Inside the cabin you get a capacious glove box, bins on the front doors, and a cubby under the central armrest, though this is set a long way back, and was awkward to reach (and no use to me as an armrest!). There are cup holders in the centre console.
There are more Sentra models than there used to be. Six in total. The 1.8 litre 130 bhp four-cylinder engine comes standard in S, SV, SR, and SL models, while a turbocharged 1.6 litre engine powers SR Turbo and Nismo trims. A manual transmission is standard in S, SR Turbo, and Nismo models, and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) comes standard in all other trims. The base S trim starts at $16,990 with a manual transmission or $18,275 with a CVT. This trim comes standard with cloth upholstery, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, a 5-inch touch screen, Bluetooth, a four-speaker audio system, and a rearview camera. Models with the CVT also have forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. This price makes it one of the cheapest cars in its class, but the reality is that few will buy it. Thankfully, not even the rental car companies. They go for the next version up, the Sentra SV, and this was the spec of my test car. The $19,085 SV model makes the CVT standard and also adds dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker audio system, satellite radio, and push-button start. The SV Premium package ($990) comes with an upgraded 5.8-inch touch screen, navigation, NissanConnect smartphone integration, and a moonroof. The All-Weather package ($300) gets you heated front seats and heated side mirrors. Neither of these Packages were fitted to the test car. The SR trim costs $20,500 and is equipped with heated front seats, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, heated side mirrors, and unique styling elements. The Technology package ($1,020) adds an upgraded 5.8-inch touch screen, navigtion, NissanConnect smartphone integration, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. The SR Premium package ($3,560), has all of the features from the Technology package, plus leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system, and a moonroof. The SR Turbo – starting at $22,490 – has the same features as the SR, plus a more powerful turbocharged 188 bhp four-cylinder engine, a CVT automatic transmission with a manual shift mode, and a moonroof. The SR Turbo Premium package ($2,590) adds leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, an upgraded 5.8-inch touch screen, navigation, NissanConnect smartphone integration, an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert. The performance-oriented Sentra Nismo is priced at $25,790 with either a six-speed manual transmission or a CVT. The Nismo is equipped with the same features and turbo engine as the SR Turbo, plus unique Nismo trim pieces, an upgraded 5.8-inch touch screen, navigation, NissanConnect smartphone integration, and an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system. The top-of-the-line SL trim starts at $23,440, and comes with leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, an upgraded 5.8-inch touch screen, navigation, NissanConnect smartphone integration, an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert.
It would be stretching a point to say I enjoyed my day with the Sentra. It really is not that sort of car. But whereas my conclusion after the 2013 test that it was one of a few that I put on the “avoid” list, thanks to the unbearable noise levels, that no longer applies. It is now a perfectly acceptable and competent enough small family saloon. Its chief virtues are the amount of space inside, the ride comfort and the refreshing simplicity of the controls. On that basis, it may just be worthy of consideration, but the reality is that the Sentra competes against some very strong rivals, almost all of which have been completely refreshed since this car’s 2013 launch, and for anyone looking for a family-sized sedan, I would recommend most of them over and above this Nissan. That means that it sits pretty much at the bottom of the pack, just like it was on launch. The only difference now is that as the class oldie rather than newbie, that is more understandable, and the reality is it is not a bad car, just that standards are high and keep getting more so.