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By Justin Pritchard
Crossovers might be all the rage these days, but for those who prefer cars, some very compelling sedans exist at some very compelling price points.
The new Nissan Sentra is notable among these. After about 1,500 kilometers of testing over a highway-intensive route spanning central to Northern Ontario, I found this latest eighth-generation machine to be an instant favorite — and the best small car I’ve driven in Northern Ontario in the past year or so.
With several decades on sale and more than 6 million units sold, Nissan’s latest Sentra is another example of an automaker throwing everything they’ve got into a package priced for the sweet spot in the market, where shoppers are looking to buy something between about $20,000 and $30,000. If you’re after something in a smaller sedan that’s fresh, modern, and jammed with the latest must-have tech and safety kit, you’ve got many good choices — and for where and how I drive, the latest Sentra stands easily amongst the best of these.
The Sentra is batting its chiseled eyelashes in the direction of sedan-curious shoppers. Nissan’s designers created quite the angry little mug; it looks like a ticked-off baby Maxima. Styling from all angles is decidedly sharp and athletic. Not many cars at this price point get my camera shutter clicking away so busily.
The Sentra starts in the high teens with six-speed stick, and in the very low twenties with continuously variable transmission The SR model comes with plenty of goodies from about $24,000. My tester, the top-line SR Premium came in a tick past $26,000. For that investment, you’ll likely find the Sentra delivers strongly on four specific attributes that combine nicely for a satisfying experience.
The Sentra has a generous trunk that’s wide, deep, and easy to load. Rear seats fold down when needed, and upright, they’re adult-friendly even for longer trips. At about five-foot-10, I had no problem sitting behind myself with ample room to spare. I’ve been in numerous crossovers with rear seats that were neither as easy to access nor as roomy as the Sentra’s.
The cabin and interfaces
The SR Premium’s cabin used subtle touches like round centre vents, metal accent trim, contrast stitching, and various textures to dial up sophistication. Soft-touch materials are flaunted generously, and the cabin’s look and feel convey some upscale flair working towards a laid-back atmosphere.
Even often complex interfaces like the advanced safety systems and central infotainment are approachable and easy-to-learn. First-time users should have both systems learned quickly, and safety systems can be toggled on and off easily as drivers learn how they work. For easy reference, handy on-screen graphics in the instrument cluster keep the status of the safety systems on display.
If the Sentra will be your first car with some of these features, you’ll appreciate how easy the various systems and features are to monitor and manipulate as you learn them. In summation, the Sentra surrounds you with an upscale atmosphere and plenty of easy-to-use tech.
The effective use of technology helps enhance the Sentra’s drivetrain, suspension, and chassis, all with an eye for a smoother and more refined drive that wouldn’t feel out of place in a bigger, pricier car.
On the driveline front, Sentra’s 149-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission work nicely together to deliver off-the-line starts that are snappy and eager, and smooth performance up the rev-range.
With no gears to shift, performance is smoother and quicker, and even a little touch on the throttle gets Sentra gliding ahead quickly. From here, the transmission and engine work in sync to smoothly ooze the Sentra up to speed with no gearshifts, and the engine revs locked steadily in place. Here, the little engine is quiet and unobtrusive. If you’re a light-footed driver who primarily uses Eco mode to save fuel, you’ll hardly notice the engine at all.
Sportier drivers will wish for more high-end jam to match the snappy starts, though. The Sentra feels more responsive in city driving than it does on the highway. If you’re not shy with the throttle, there’s adequate power and the engine stays refined across the rev range, but it’s nothing special to listen to if you get it spinning fast enough to really hear it.
Under heavier feet, the transmission uses trick programming to mimic the operation of a very responsive automatic transmission, kicking down and shifting up in response. When you drop the pedal, the Sentra kicks down, accelerates, and upshifts quickly and precisely — just like high-performing automatic with stepped gears. It’s the best of both worlds: a snappy, high-performing feel when needed, and a smoother and more efficient drive when you don’t.
The big-car ride
Noise levels and ride comfort mean the Sentra proved itself a suitable long-distance cruiser on my watch. It handles highway driving with less noise than I expected, and the ride comfort and stability at cruising speed are very good. Specifically, I found no need to raise my voice to chat with a nearby passenger at 110 km/h, and the Sentra feels more dense and solid than I usually expect at this price.
That’s partly thanks to slick tech that uses miniscule pulsations of the Sentra’s brakes in certain situations to help smooth out the ride. It works very well; to this high-mileage writer, the Sentra rides on most highway surfaces like a bigger and pricier machine.
On rough roads in town, I’d still say the Subaru Impreza is a personal favorite. Badly beaten sideroads do see the odd unwelcomed whack or smack from the Sentra’s suspension, which knocks back refinement and ride quality on those surfaces. It’s one of the best highway cruisers you’ll find for the money, but you do have smoother-riding options for frequent rough-road use.
Other gripes include Sentra’s seat material, which is a powerful pet-hair magnet, and the square cupholders that seem clumsy and awkward in the centre of such a nicely executed cabin.
Aside from a few gripes, the Sentra is solid combination of the stuff you probably want, in a machine that looks and drives very nicely. On style, equipment, space for the dollar, and especially driving manners, this is about as good as a $26,000 sedan gets these days.