– Superb fuel economy
– Cabin space and features
– Fairly comfortable ride
– Droning engine at full throttle
– Steering too light
– Some hard cabin plastics
It may have become obvious by now that we generally try to avoid testing “economy” cars, unless someone asks us really nicely. So it may come as no surprise that we weren’t too keen on spending a weekend with the Nissan Sentra, the Japanese carmaker’s new Thailand-built compact offering in the GCC. However, we were indeed asked nicely, and coupled with the fact that we were among the first media to test it, we took one in. After one weekend, let’s just say this is one “economy” car that didn’t feel like one at all. It could compete with midsize sedans!
On the outside, the new-for-2013 Sentra looks like a squished Altima in length, but is almost as wide and actually taller than its midsize sibling. The top-heavy styling won’t sit well with those looking for a “sporty” ride, but from what we gathered, the general consensus among its target market is that it looks good. It even grew on us eventually, somewhat.
Our test car was one grade above basic, but we didn’t find it lacking in terms of cabin trim. The big brown dashboard is made up of soft-touch materials, while all the door inserts and and armrests are generously padded with cloth upholstery that matches the seats. The upper door sills are hard plastic, as is everything below elbow-level, but that’s acceptable for its class. The car may be built in Thailand, but the build quality is better than the likes of the Korean Chevy Cruze, and on par with at least the Hyundai Elantra.
If we had any complaint, it’d be that the brown dash reflects a little too much onto the windshield. The entire cabin design is also a bit generic, and the grey-painted centre-console looks a bit cheap. But we’re nitpicking here.
The most astounding feature of this car is its cabin volume. It is immense in there, with possibly more legroom and headroom in the back than the Altima even. The front seats offer moderate bolstering, while the rear bench has three headrests and a pull-down centre armrest. The rear floor isn’t flat like in the Civic, but it’s manageable.
Features-wise, our car is decently equipped, with power windows and mirrors, trip computer, two airbags, LED tail lights, average 4-speaker CD/MP3 stereo, AUX port, steering-wheel buttons and Bluetooth phone even. Our car had a manual a/c, which had no trouble handling January afternoons, but more importantly it even came with rear vents, which is a rarity in this class. There’s also rear parking sensors, useful considering the car’s high butt. Up front, the halogen headlights look like they’re lined with LED running lamps, but there’s no little bulbs in them. To get the LEDs, you have to move up to a higher trim level. Moving up also adds such upscale goodies as dual-zone auto a/c, sunroof, touchscreen navigation, smart key, fog lamps, cruise control, USB port, better stereo, ESP, more airbags, and all that.
The Sentra can be had with either a 1.6-litre or a 1.8-litre engine. We thankfully had the larger engine, although the specs suggest it isn’t up to class standards, making only 130 hp at 6000 rpm and 174 Nm of torque at 3600 rpm. However, Nissan manages to extract the most out of the limited juice with the help of a CVT automatic. We timed it in the 0-100 kph run at 9.7 seconds while burning fuel at an indicated rate of 7.9 litres/100 km, which is impressive considering the 1.8-litre Chevy Cruze took two seconds longer and burned much more petrol in our previous tests. It helps that our Sentra tips the scales at only 1239 kg, keeping weight in check rather well for its size.
We generally hate CVT-equipped cars, but truth be told, it is largely unnoticeable in casual driving. In the Sentra, the gearless CVT makes itself very known under full throttle, when the engine drones loud enough to wake the neighbourhood, and it doesn’t sound like a sweet-revving Honda Civic either. Sometimes it can be lazy to respond even. However, its advantage becomes obvious when, at 120 kph, the Sentra’s silently doing only 2000 rpm, when that same Civic would be doing 2300 rpm. The Sentra accelerates quicker too, whether from a standstill or overtaking. The CVT’s occasional laziness can be overcome by shifting to either “low” or “sport” mode, both of which seem to do the same thing, namely pump the revs high at the slightest touch of the throttle, while embarrassing yourself in the middle of traffic with all that engine noise as you hustle away.
But the Sentra still offers relatively-good refinement on the highway, with a ride almost as smooth as any popular midsize sedan, and almost as quiet too. The only car better than it would be the less-spacious Ford Focus, which uses much-fancier suspension than the Sentra’s front strut and rear torsion-beam setup.
The Sentra’s focus on ride quality on the cheap means that the handling cannot be as sharp as that of the class-leading Focus, but it still manages to be better than a Toyota Corolla. Body roll is noticeable, but not particularly excessive, and there is no bouncy rebound as you straighten out after a sharp turn. It is very easy to reach the grip limits of the 195/65 tyres on 15-inch steel wheels, then safely understeer and go wide, with no weird snap-oversteer on sudden directional transitions.
The power steering offers decent feedback, but that doesn’t do a whole lot for enthusiastic driving due to its overly-light and springy nature. Still, that makes city-driving a breeze, especially in parking, that too with the aid of rear sensors, which some pricier cars don’t even have. We also liked how responsive the foot-controls are, with no throttle delay in most cases, and a brake pedal that offer a little weight and nice linear application. The standard ABS-assisted brakes themselves are also surprisingly good, even with only rear drums backing up the front discs. There is a tendency for the rear to snake around by a bit under hard stops, a characteristic of cars with rear drum brakes, though it is less so than in, say, the smaller Honda City.
Repeating ourselves again, we hate economy cars, but we love to be surprised by ones that don’t feel like economy cars. The all-new Nissan Sentra falls in that latter category. It is among the quickest in its class, probably the most spacious, packed with features, trimmed decently inside, drives well enough despite the CVT, and priced to compete. What’s not to like? This one is going on our recommended list.
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