Mar 102006
 

An affordable, practical commuter in its 6th year production run, attempts hard to compete in the increasingly intense segment.

Background
This compact sedan was acquired as a rental vehicle with ~16,000 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for three days. We drove approximately ~1,400 miles. The test route included the flat and boring I-5, congested urban I-10 from the Bay Area to Southern California’s Salton Sea. Then thru the 4,000ft high mountain passage where we got stuck in a snow storm for 4 hour in bumper to bumper traffic on I-8 and ended up in the beautiful San Diego. The entire trip in the Sentra was with 2 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 28 mpg.

Introduction
Nissan released its completely redesigned sixth generation Sentra in 2000 (Chassis Code: B15). The Sentra has been competing in the compact/economy sedan segment against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla for decades. With the exciting Mazda 3, and the much improved Korean models in this mix, the current Sentra 1.8s that is going into the 6th model year appears to be to some extent behind the game. Besides the 1.8L engine models, there is the SE-R and SE-R Spec V trims that focus on performance – the uniqueness of the SE-Rs, however, just belongs to a different class. There weren’t much of a change since its introduction aside from the minor aesthetic changes to the exterior and interior. The tester is manufactured by Nissan in Mexico. It equipped with a cast iron block and aluminum cylinder head, 1.8L 16valves DOHC engine (QG18DE) that is also assemble in Aguascalientes, Mexico. The engine pumps out 126hp@6,000rpm and 129Ib-ft of torque@2,400rpm with Nissan’s CVTCS (Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System). Engine is transversely mounted driving the front wheels via a 4 speed electronic automatic transmission with overdrive. Traction is provided by a set of P195/60R15, Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires. Front corners of the chassis are supported by independent MacPherson strut suspensions with stabilizer bar. The rear is supported by Nissan’s MultiLink Beam suspension. Stopping power is generated by front vented discs and rear drum brakes.

Impression
The first impression upon receiving the car in the lot is that, it is hard to believe a car manufactured in ’05 still equips with steel wheels, hub caps, and drum brakes in the rear. We are a bit too used the vehicles in our fleet that has factory alloy wheels and 4 wheel disc brakes, but when compare to the vehicles compete in this same market segment we realized the MSRP and basic amenities on this Sentra makes cost saving, and practical sense. Despite the Nissan’s older design, its driving dynamic is unique to this segment.

The engine emphasized in low end to midrange power, it has very generous torque output at low end for a small displacement 4 cylinder engine – contributed from its stroke longer than bore arrangement 80mm bore vs. 88mm stroke). Power starts to fade off at above 4,500rpm, and engine becomes unrefined and coarse in sound. The low end torque provides sufficient around town power, but seems to labor to propel its 2,625Ib curb weight at freeway on ramps. Engine vibration can be felt thru steering wheel and pedals, perhaps the engine mounts are relatively beefy to enhance power transfer – reduced engine movement at heavy throttle. The Drive-by-wire electronic throttle control has excellent response; there is no apparent lag between the accelerator pedal and the engine rpm response. The fuel consumption ranged from 25 to 31mpg, which is somewhat within our expectation. We would assume better fuel consumption can be achieved with some more conservative driving style that can focus its low end torque characteristic. Overall this 6 year old in design engine is average but distinctive in its class. The CVTCS eliminated the use of EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) system to simplify emission control parts under the hood. This achieve by allowing the CVTCS to adjust the intake camshaft to allow predetermined amount of exhaust gases flow back to the combustion camber to provide the same effect as the EGR system.

The equipped transmission shifts willingly, and efficiently, but sometimes too rapidly when engine is laboring at on ramps, where the transmission required downshift two gears to achieve the desired acceleration. The transmission operation is not butter top smooth; however, this is not a high end car either. Gear ratio is well thought out, especially when traveling at 65mph in 4th gear, the engine is revolving at its torque peak to take advantage of the lazy torque, and reduce fuel consumption.

The chassis and suspension setup is surefooted. Setup is firm and offers excellent road feel compare to equivalent priced Corolla and Civic. Nissan’s MultiLink Beam live axle rear suspension in this Sentra seems to transfer greater than normal body movement at the irregular pavement surface compare to vehicle equips with independent suspension. Body roll is noticeable, and the rear end rolls considerably greater than the front end when pushed hard into the corner – clear evidence of the lack of anti-roll bar in the rear corners. In mid corners when pushed hard, the chassis exhibits mild to severe understeering when the rear outside wheel squats (reduced suspension travel) causing the front end to aloft (reduces tire contact patch). But the situation can be easily corrected by reducing the throttle input or tap on the brake pedal for general driver when they “freaked out”, causing weight transfer from the rear outside tire back to the front, front tires contact patch increased as the result. Overall the car feels rigid, and offers an educated ride over bumpy surface. We consider this suspension setup is enjoyable, and require some skills to drive fast. The same MultiLink Beam setup has been widely employed on the ’94-’99 Sentra/200SX (B14), ’95-’99, ’00-03 Maxima (A32, A33), and ’98-’02 Infiniti G20 (P11) and considering the B14 SE-Rs are quite popular track cars, we have confidence in the identical setup on this base model B15; even the performance oriented B15 SE-R has the same setup but with the help of anti-roll bar, and of course stiffer and properly tuned springs and struts. Benefit of live axle setup compare to independent suspension includes simplicity, increase of trunk capacity, and production cost savings.

The steering feel and control offers another noticeable uniqueness compare to the Sentra’s competitors. The steering ratio is quick, and responsive. The power assisted rack and pinion steering provides excellent road feel thru the steering wheel, and the effort required to turn the wheel is also great in car enthusiasts’ point of view, but maybe consider a bit harsh, and heavy for some. This tester exhibited some memory steer and required some attention to maintain a straight travel line at freeway speed, perhaps with the number of miles on the car; an alignment adjustment may potentially solve the problem. The equipped Bridgestone RE092 also enhanced some of the sportyness of this Sentra while provides muffled road noise and communicative squeal when approaching the limit.

Braking power is linear. Brake feel is solid, and balanced at lock up that offers confidence even without ABS, and with proper amount of freeplay in the pedal. The braking distance is within our expectations, and we didn’t notice any brake fade in the lengthy decline on I-8.

The 1.8S trim of the Sentra has the basic amenities being an economic commuter. The equipped 4 speaker sound system is surprisingly good. Bass output is rich and free of distortion. Midrange and high note is properly sounded. The 8 way adjustable seat offers the driver with the at home feel. Leg support however is lacking, especially for taller drivers, in which is a common trait for the cars in this segment. Dash has good appearance even though it is made out of hard plastic. The steering wheel is not leather-wrapped, but it offers good feel. The gauge cluster is extremely easy to read regardless day or night – the instrument cluster and center console emit mellow orange illumination which is eye pleasing and unique. Controls on the center console are self explanatory, easy to use and within reach. The combination switches on the steering column, and all of the interior buttons operate with quality feel. The main complain is the cramped leg room in the back seat.

Workmanship is not where this Sentra shines. From the moment you open the gas filler and glove compartment doors, you can probably realize this is not a vehicle built with pride. Not that the doors are not operating properly, but it just doesn’t emit the quality sound and feel. Wind noises are muted. Road noise intrusion is properly tuned. However, there are various rattles throughout the interior. It is disappointing that it seems to have more rattles than our 15 year old ‘91 Infiniti G20 (P10), perhaps it is mainly due to issue with workmanship where this Nissan is produced in Mexico versus my Japan built P10. Notice on how most Japanese manufactures still insist on building they higher end models in Japan instead of overseas? Hopefully, my observation between my P10 and this Sentra provide you with some indication. Despite the short comings of the Sentra, the Sentra is still one solid automobile with unique characteristics from the feedbacks transmits thru the steering wheel to the stiffer suspension setup.

To us, this Sentra belongs to a different category than the mainstream Civic, and Corolla that are crowding the market. They also contaminate the general public’s view on econ sedan, and cause them to think the car has to drive like one of Civics and Corollas. So the general public may criticize about the Sentra for not being as refine as the Corolla and Civic but not realizing that the slight harshness can be a positive trait. In car enthusiasts’ point of view, a perfectly smooth and silent drivetrain, floating chassis is not what we are searching for. With the skills and involvement in driving as car enthusiasts, a proper and controllable kick in the steering wheel in mid corner, or the feeling between the road texture and your butt are the things that keep our hearts pumping faster for enjoyment. The Sentra exceed others in this category, and this econ commuter is willing talk back to driver – a unique characteristic that also found commonly in exotic sports cars. But we do agree that, this Sentra needs an overhaul to keep up with this increasingly intensive segment. However, the also offered Sentra SE-R Spec V is a completely different beast.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 5.5
Comment: Not performance oriented. Slightly lacking in highway speed passing power. Ample around town torque.

Drivetain: 6.5
Comment: Thrashy engine note and jerky transmission when pushed hard. Otherwise, exhibits proper composure.

Handling & Cornering: 6.5
Comment: Fun to toast around, and communicative control but requires some bravery for common drivers to push hard – ideal for car enthusiasts.

Brake Feel: 7
Comment: Basic setup that offers confidence, and good pedal feel.

Ride Characteristic: 6
Comment: Firm ride that offers proper road feel but with occasional excessive body motion.

Interior Comfort: 6
Comment: Sufficient room and support for average sized driver. Lacks legroom in backseat.

Workmanship: 5.5
Comment: Disappointing rattles, and feel on import standard.

Functionality: 7
Comment: Very user friendly especially with 60/40 folding backseat.

Technology: 6
Comment: Nothing out of ordinary, with basic technologies that works in harmony.

Afterthoughts:
The mainstream import economic compact sedan segment is currently under major evolution. With the Hyundai and Kia start to gain popularity and reliability. This segment is getting more and more competitive. Most manufacture attempts to “Out Do Each Together” when it’s time for the routine 4 year model overhaul is to increase interior spaces by increasing exterior dimensions. Currently to a point that a ’06 Civic is bigger than the Honda Accord built in the ’80s. With the also increasing oil prices in US, drivers start to realize (hopefully the SUV drivers should also realize) that fuel economy is relatively important consideration for new car buyers. This year, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan are offering the Yaris, Fit, and Versa (a.k.a Tiida) to the US market. These sub-compact economy sedans are smaller, more affordable and fuel efficient than the compact economy sedans. To further differentiate the model line up, manufactures are now tending to replace its current compact size sedan to an even bigger size, for instance, the ’07 Nissan Sentra is ~2.5″ longer, 3.5″ wider, and 4″ higher than the current model, and is close to the dimension as a ’93-’97 Nissan Altima. The introduction of the subcompact segment in the U.S., however, is good news to everyone, especial to those who have never been exposed to subcompact cars prior. END

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.