2009 Sentra: compact-car values, Nissan character

May 16, 2009/Autosdirect USA


Most people buy a compact car to get a job done: namely, traveling economically from point A to point B. Just because a compact car often is a utilitarian purchase doesn’t mean it has to be generic.
With the 2009 Sentra, Nissan injects character without forgetting the small-car manifesto: the car has to be inexpensive to buy and operate.
With a base price of $17,760, the 2009 Nissan Sentra 2.0S is the middle-of-the-line trim level and that’s just about where you want to be. For one thing, it means you get 16-inch wheels (the $350 for the optional aluminum jobs is money well spent), and the Sentra rides with satisfying, big-car suppleness on the 16 inchers.
The S trim also brings anti-lock brakes as standard. I’d never buy a car without ABS. Unfortunately, the added safety enhancement of electronic stability control isn’t available for the 2009 Sentra. Stability control is beginning to become more widely available in the compact-car segment, and I’d expect the next-generation Sentra to offer this valuable safety feature.
Nissan’s brand character really comes out in the Sentra’s drivetrain. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine feels a little disinterested at first, but its 140 horsepower soon gets into the act; the 147 lb.-ft. of torque is reasonably generous, too, and Nissan says 90 percent of that shove is available at just 2,400 rpm.

The company’s signature power-transferer, the Continuously Variable Transmission, is optional for the Sentra 2.0S and it’s probably the transmission most will buy. If you don’t know the CVT doesn’t use actual gears, you’ll probably never realize.
It’s only on the occasion when you shout down to the engine room for max power that you become aware of the CVT’s quirky mannerisms — keep your foot mashed to the carpet, the CVT winds the engine to its utmost and just keeps it there until you finally relent and back off the throttle. Not everyone finds this behavior comforting or natural.
Let me just say this: I don’t think the Sentra’s styling is a home run. Although there’s an overall impression of substance — the car doesn’t look wimpy — there’s a little too much weight in the flanks and the grille and front bumper area are too simple. The trunk appears truncated, killing any chance of proportion with the blocky front. But the Sentra’s high-arch roofline delivers acres of headroom to a spacious interior.
The architecture of the dashboard and center console is superb, highlighted by clean round gauges directly in front of you and a logical and well-executed radio and climate-control site plan. It all works in plain and easy fashion.
For all this sensible design, the Sentra’s interior is let down by the plastics that abound, even in areas where cost-cutters should know better, such as the door armrests and center stack. When will they learn that a 19-cent piece of rubberized mat to line a storage tray goes a long way towards imbuing a quality perception when it prevents sunglasses and coins from scraping and grinding in the tray with every turn of a corner?
Yet make no mistake, the Sentra’s fine four-cylinder engine and CVT make for an efficient combo in this modest compact. The CVT allows the engine to run at ridiculously low rpm on the highway, for example. The Sentra and I put in many miles of 75-mph cruise-control time, and even at that speed I was rewarded with the car’s EPA-rated highway fuel economy of 33 mpg. Impressive.
The Sentra does exactly what you expect of a modern compact car: getting you to point B economically and in reasonable comfort. And the Sentra has some character — Nissan character — to keep point-A-to-point-B from being a totally uninvolving experience.

VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 5-passenger compact FWD sedan
BASE PRICE___________________ $17,760 (as tested: $19,960)
ENGINE TYPE__________________ 16-valve DOHC I-4
DISPLACEMENT_________________ 2.0-liter
HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 140 at 5100 rpm
TORQUE (lb.-ft.)_____________ 147 at 4800 rpm
TRANSMISSION_________________ CVT
WHEELBASE____________________ 106 in.
TRACK (front/rear)___________ 60/61 in.
OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 180 in.
OVERALL WIDTH________________ 71 in.
HEIGHT_______________________ 60 in.
TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb) 35 ft.
CURB WEIGHT__________________ 2,967 lbs.
FUEL CAPACITY________________ 15 gal.
EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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