Small But Significant
From the reinvented Mini to the newly introduced FIAT 500, little is bigger than ever in the automotive world. Nissan, Japan’s number-three automaker is again bringing its little Sentra sedan to the big American market for compact 4-doors. The 2012 Nissan Sentra is a carryover from last year; it features a wide range of trim levels and available options on this classic long-wheelbase, but short-profile vehicle. Prices start at $16, 060 and range up to $19, 390 for a 2.0-liter SE version with a CVT; SE-R versions start at $20, 120 and top out at $20, 620 for a sports-minded 2012 Nissan SE-R Spec-V, with a 2.5-liter engine and manual transmission. You can expect fuel economy that averages 24 city/31 highway with the manual and 27/34 with Nissan’s continuously variable transmission (CVT). Among Sentra’s competitors are the Ford Fiesta, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Chrysler 200.
A full lineup
Think of the 2012 Nissan Sentra as two cars--each with its own lineup. On the one hand, there is the 140-hp, 4-cylinder Sentra that is available in four trim levels: the base 2.0-liter model, S, SR and SL. And, on the other, there is the 2.5-liter SE-R, a high-performance version that offers up to 200 horsepower in a more potent 4-cylinder motor, as well as all sorts of options and features, inside and out; there are three versions. For this review, we’ll leave the SE-R versions out of the mix. But, check them out, as they are sized and priced for young and young-at-heart drivers that want to make more of a performance statement with their ride. These models also have some attractive sports-styling cues and start out at an affordable price to be “tuned”.
What we drove
The 2012 Nissan Sentra is a capable and practical 5-passenger, front-drive compact, although it’s clearly in need of a makeover to upgrade styling, power and fuel economy. Many competitors in its segment are newer or have been refreshed; Sentra gets points for its keyless start technology and wireless cell phone system. A number of competitors are available at a lower price point, like Ford’s Fiesta and Sentra’s 3year/36,000 mile warranty is notably shorter than the Elantra’s 5 year/60,000 mile warranty.
We drove the 2.0S, which gets the only change to the lineup, a new technology option package that adds a navigation system, satellite radio and an iPod interface. While its exterior looks are somewhat bland (we did like the rear spoiler with integrated brake light!), the interior is attractive and comfortable overall. Front seat room is more than ample for its small foot print, but rear riders get a somewhat cramped back end that’s clearly best for two; trunk room is adequate. Its ride and handling are average to good, although its short wheel base and suspension dynamics can make the ride more choppy over less-than-perfect pavement.
Functional can be fun
The peppy 4-cylinder under the 2012 Nissan Sentra’s hood delivers 140 horsepower and 147 lb.-ft. of torque, which is adequate for around-and-about driving, but not sprightly. Since 90 percent of its torque is available at just 2400 rpm, it does, however, make everyday passing and maneuvering a bit more accessible—and safe.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard for all base models; available as an option on base Sentras and standard on all S, SR and SL versions is a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Fuel economy is rated at 27/34 miles per gallon city/highway with the CVT and 24/31 city/highway miles per gallon with the 6-speed manual.
A ride on the mild side
The 2012 Nissan Sentra isn’t made for the track, but it is well-suited to city and suburban streets. An independent front suspension and power-assisted steering make for easier three-point turns in supermarket parking lots; ABS, brake force distribution, vehicle dynamic control, and traction control are standard on all models, as are front-seat side airbags, full-length, roof-mounted side curtain airbags, and active front head restraints. Also onboard is a LATCH system for child restraints.
Sentra has been given four stars (out of five) on government crash safety tests; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded the compact with its highest score of "Good" for both frontal-offset and side impacts.
Aw, how cute
The 2012 Nissan Sentra has the dipped-low shoulders and high tail that is a bit like the image of a puppy that has dropped a bone at your feet and is looking to play. Slanted headlamps and a grinning wide grille complete the look.
Although Sentra’s looks border on ‘cute’, the overall design is balanced by a long wheelbase that helps make the interior more roomy, as well as large doors that make getting in and out a breeze.
The interior of the 2012 Nissan Sentra seats five, though that would make for a rather cozy ride. However, room for adults is ample in here, with good headroom (40.6 inches in the front, 37.3 inches in the rear) and somewhat decent cargo space in the trunk (13.1 cubic feet). The rear seat splits and folds 60/40 to make room for long items like snowboards.
Overall, the interior is comfortable and welcoming, with soft-touch surfaces such as the suede-like cloth on seats (leather is optional on the top-end Sentra). The rear seat armrest has cupholders that can accommodate a big water bottle and a Big Gulp; there is extra instrument panel storage next to the driver’s door and a large glove compartment that can fit a 8x11-inch writing tablet or a large-sized map book. The center console incorporates an adjustable cup holder design and cell phone space.
What You Get For Your Money
The 2012 Nissan Sentra lineup includes the base Sentra 2.0, S, SR and SL models. Standard on the base-model ($16,060; $17,240 with CVT transmission) are features that include electric power-assisted steering, 15-inch wheels and tires, cloth interior, oversized glove compartment, power windows and door locks, 60/40-split folding rear seat, 4-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with auxiliary input and more.
Sentra 2.0 S ($17,990) adds 16-inch wheels, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3 CD playback capability, Interface System for iPod, Vehicle Security System (VSS), trip computer, cruise control and remote keyless entry.
The 2.0 SR (which also starts at $17,990) takes its sporty styling cues from the high-performance Sentra SE-R, adding a unique exterior treatment including sport front and rear fascias, sport side sills, fog lights, rear spoiler and 16-inch 7-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels.
The top-of-the-line Sentra 2.0 SL ($19,390) is available with standard cloth seats or optional leather seats. Standard equipment includes fog lights, 16-inch 8-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels, Nissan Intelligent Key with remote trunk release, Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio, leather-wrapped steering wheel and 4.3-inch color screen.
Little car, big options
The 2012 Nissan Sentra has options and packages for 2.0 S and 2.0 SR models that include the Convenience Package with keyless entry and ignition system with remote trunk release, Bluetooth, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cargo net and hooks; and the Technology Package with a navigation system including 5-inch color touch-screen display, as well as USB connection port for iPod interface and other compatible devices. A Moonroof Package is also available on the 2.0 SR model.
A Special Edition Package for SR combines all of the features of the Moonroof Package, Technology Package and Convenience Package at a discount, and includes special badging.
Sentra 2.0 SL options include a Leather Package with leather-appointed seats and heated front seats; and a Special Value Package with power sliding glass moonroof with tilt, dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors, cargo net and hooks, 5-inch screen nav system, RearView Monitor; and Audio Package with 8-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system.