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March 10, 2004

Review: 2004 Nissan Sentra 180GT and GS

The last time a Nissan Sentra set foot on the Subic International Raceway was when the dollar exchanged for 26 pesos and the president still totted a cigar.  During this time, I was literally wearing shorts and learning about girls for the first time.  This clean-slate attitude probably makes me the most qualified in writing about the 2004 Nissan Sentra.

Tossing all the heritage stuff out the window, what mattered to me was what the nameplate stood for.  I’ve had the privilege of sampling each front-driving Sentra since 1988.  I’ve concluded that the car stood for was unparalleled real-world performance wrapped around in a convincingly thought-of engineering package.

Think about it: each Sentra model had something new than all the previous generation Honda Civic had.  They offered diesel engines for a time; they were the first to offer power amenities, anti-lock brakes and a rear beam suspension than road better than most independent ones.  Of course, let’s not forget it was the first to offer leather seats, a sun roof and even back-up sensors.

So, it’s easy to see why I think the new Sentra has a tough act to follow.  Nissan’s not just resurrecting a name here; they’re bringing a heritage back from the dead.  Have they done it? Well, yes—sort of.

From a glance, it’s apparent that this isn’t Sentra version 5, rather it’s just 4.5.  Like the Ford Lynx, they’ve upgraded both ends making it modern.  However, unlike Ford, Nissan’s refreshing makes the Sentra up-to-date with current design themes.  Those who know about the Teana, the Cefiro’s replacement, will surely appreciate the Sentra’s new look.

Personally I like the front end especially the attention grabbing headlamps and the thick, chrome horizontally slated grille.  However, I’m not too fond of the rear--it looks like the rear end of a beached whale.  The head-on side view also betray the car’s age, but I’m not blaming them as it’s one thing that can’t be changed in a mid-life facelift.

Inside, the story’s mostly happy.  The two-town black/beige scheme is tastefully executed--a real eye candy compared to the overused faux wood trim used by most.  In addition, I just adore the carbon fiber paneling and accents, making the Sentra send youthful vibes, something that a Toyota Corolla could only wish for.

Of course, having youthful appeal is important to the Sentra as this is one personal transport device.  The small dimensions do make it easier to park, but it means this car can only swallow four adults in comfort; three if your friends need a lifetime membership at Gold’s Gym.  The trunk isn’t pretentious as well.  It’s there and it will swallow bags, just don’t expect it to carry your Labradors.

On the road, the Sentra feels like a 7/8th scale Cefiro, which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s luxurious and capable, but detached and the least bit sporty.  Like it’s big brother, steering effort is hopelessly light and numb, uncommunicative of the car’s limits.  Still, I give it high marks for real world responsiveness and maneuverability (it does have a tight turning circle).

The versions which I drove, the 180GT and the range-topping 1.6, the GS, don’t feel rocket ship fast, but they’re good cruising companions.  The 1.8-liter, which is basically a bored-out version of the 1.6-liter engine, is eager and smooth, but it doesn’t turn on the senses like a VTEC motor can.  In fact, the extra horses and torque aren’t instantly felt unless you read the tachometer.  The 1.8 is more relaxed, shifting early than the 1.6, which require a bit of thrashing.

Speaking of the tires, the B306 are of the low rolling resistance variety returning better fuel economy as well as lasting longer.  However, the trade in is that the Sentra suffers from high degrees of road noise.  It’s unbelievably noisy at 80 km/h--so I’ll do you a favor in telling you to ditch the tires for the softer kind.

In terms of value, the Nissan Sentra pumped up the price while removing all the audio visual toys and the sunroof.  Bad move?  Probably, but for me, it’s a gutsy way of showing that Nissans aren’t just unsubstantiated toy-riddled automobiles.

Which brings me back to my first question: is this car finally worthy of the Sentra name and all that it has stood for?  Not yet.  Admittedly, it feels a bit like a stop gap model, offering nothing new and nothing spectacular in its class.  However, extreme changes can’t be done overnight.  Real effort was put in re-thinking the Sentra, and I commend that.  It makes me think what the all new version would be like.  Coming from the Sentra name, it must be pretty radical.

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