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January 18, 2012

Review: 2011 Nissan Sentra 200 CVT

The Nissan Sentra has long been the bridesmaid of the compact car segment. Rarely has it been considered as best in class, but neither has it been dismissed as a cellar dweller. Through its different iterations (including the time it was called Exalta), the Sentra hasn’t really offered anything spectacular in any department be it performance or interior space; nonetheless, it quietly continued to sell well enough to keep Nissan in the picture. It certainly took a while, but after almost a decade, Nissan has gotten its act together by simplifying the Sentra line. With a single engine and a choice of two transmissions, can the all-new Sentra 200 finally bring Nissan into contention in the compact car market?

At a glance, you’ll be slightly underwhelmed with the Sentra’s appearance. It’s a tad plain—conservative considering its rivals feature smoked lamps or shiny chrome bits or racer-type rear wings. Additionally, the Sentra’s proportions look slightly odd with a design that looks narrow and a greenhouse that’s incredibly large. Nonetheless, this initial disappointment turns to surprise as the Sentra’s awkward proportions give it generous size. This compact car isn’t so compact given it’s actually wider, taller and longer than say, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. And while it’s true that the Sentra’s overstuffed dimensions aren’t the right ingredients for a sporty compact, once you get inside, those extra centimeters work to your advantage through more space.

With a well laid out dashboard, the Sentra’s extremely roomy whether you’re in the front or back. In addition, the front thrones are incredibly comfortable and supportive. Up ahead, the twin meter clusters with a digital information display sandwiched in between look great—perhaps the best-looking and easiest to read instrument panel in its class. The rest of the buttons and knobs are well-executed and placed too. From day one, the Sentra is very intuitive to use. Unfortunately, the shades of gray that dot everything from the seat fabric to the dashboard dilute the interior experience quite a bit. And this is despite the generous swathes of metallic trim used.

Like the rest of the interior, the Sentra’s built-in audio system is intuitive and easy to use. Plus, the sound quality is surprisingly good for an OEM system with deep, rich bass and clear treble. There’s a complete array of inputs available too from the usual suspects to a standard Apple iPod connector. Unfortunately, since the Sentra’s imported straight from Mexico, the audio system will find it extremely difficult to catch some AM stations.

As much as the Sentra needs some more dolling up inside and out, everything’s forgiven thanks to its real-world performance. With 140 horsepower and 199 Nm of torque, the 2.0-liter motor propels the Sentra with some gusto, but perhaps not to the level of something you’d call ‘enthusiastic’. With 1,349 kilograms to push, the engine is somewhat taxed, especially considering that the portly Sentra is only 5 kilograms lighter than the all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza. On paper, the XTronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) may not be the sportiest of transmissions, but at least it keeps the engine in the optimal rev range for maximized performance and fuel efficiency. Unfortunately, there are no paddle shifters nor is there a manual shift override to be found.

Despite the less than sophisticated MacPherson Strut/Torsion Beam Axle suspension set-up, the Sentra actually rides sportily through corners without punishing the occupants on less than perfect roads. At slow and medium speeds, the Sentra absorbs bumps pretty well. It rarely gets unsettled. When tackling higher speed curves, there’s some noticeable body roll—not surprising given the high ride height and comfort-oriented 205/55 R 16 tires, but it’s actually less than what you’d expect. The electric power steering provides some nice weight, though there’s almost no driver feedback. There’s also some torque steer when accelerating hard. The Sentra’s braking performance is solid despite its Disc/Drum set-up.

Though the Sentra can tackle the twisty bits well enough, it actually rewards you best for driving it conservatively. Admittedly, sticking your foot down the accelerator will produce a less than stellar audio track; but as long as you keep your right foot away from evil, you’ll never notice anything but ample acceleration and good fuel economy figures (9.0 km/L in the city). Overall, the performance qualities have been chamfered off a bit in return for safe, comfy and thought-free motoring.

In the end, the Nissan Sentra 200 is a great car for those looking for something thrifty or those who might be put off by low-slung seating, space age dashboards or firm rides. From a car enthusiast’s standpoint, the Sentra’s higher price point together with its plain looks and chamfered performance may be a turn off. But for a larger group of buyers, the Sentra has a modest charm about it. It’s safe, comfortable and roomy. Perhaps it’s these qualities that will bring the Sentra to the altar.

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