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2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R – Click above for high-res image galleries

The Nissan Sentra has long been the bridesmaid of America's C-segment. Few consider it to be best-in-class, yet it would be a stretch to call Nissan's second-smallest sedan the category's cellar dweller. In the past, the Sentra hasn't been the fastest, it hasn't been the prettiest and it certainly hasn't offered the best interior, but the affordable sedan has quietly continued to sell well enough to keep Nissan in the picture.

Unlike some of its more popular competitors, the Sentra is offered exclusively as a sedan, while other automakers offer coupes or hatchbacks. Nissan makes up for this deficiency in part by offering six different variants of the Sentra, ranging from a base 2.0 model to the 200-horsepower SE-R Spec V. We had the chance to spend a week in the mildly refreshed 2010 SE-R model that slots in just below the Spec V, and with 177 horsepower on tap and quite a few high-end options, we wanted to find out if this upper-middle child could hold its own in what has fast become one of the most interesting and competitive segments in the market.

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

All Sentra models receive updates for 2010, with tweaks to their headlights and taillights, a new front fascia and grille and a lower MSRP. More specifically, all SE-R models also received attractive 17-inch wheels, a standard 4.3-inch color display with USB connectivity and updated instrument panel accents. The biggest news is two-fold: The SE-R's price tag drops by $1,080 versus the 2009 model and Nissan has introduced a new low cost navigation system on the 2010 model.

One glance at the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R, and we were immediately taken aback by its surprising size – particularly its height and length. This "compact" sedan is actually one of the largest entries in its class. It's the widest vehicle at 70.5 inches, besting competitors like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, and it's within a half inch of the Mazda3 in length. The Sentra is so broad-of-beam that it's within two-tenths of an inch of Nissan's own midsize Altima, and the "smaller" sedan is more than a full inch taller. Our SE-R tester is also the second heaviest vehicle among its competitors, tipping the scales at a rotund 3,115 pounds. That's even heavier than the all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza and second in tonnage only to the portly Volkswagen Jetta. Even the Altima comes in only 65 pounds heavier.

We were surprised at how close the Sentra was to the Altima in many dimensions, and shopping for a sedan in a Nissan showroom gets even more complicated when considering the Sentra's downmarket sibling, the Versa. The so-called B-segment Versa is a big boy in-and-of-itself, just three inches shorter and slightly narrower than the Sentra, while coming in (amazingly) one inch taller. Naturally, this causes us to wonder how many Sentra sales are lost to the Versa. Sure the Versa has 55 fewer ponies in 1.8 SL trim, but it's also over 500 pounds lighter, available in both sedan and hatch configurations, and starts at $4,000 fewer bucks to boot.

The Sentra's overly generous height and long wheelbase conspire to create some odd proportions, and to our eyes, the resulting design looks awkward and narrow – there's just no getting around the very tall, incredibly bulbous greenhouse. On the bright side, our SE-R tester did have some nice-looking features that differentiate it from its less sporty siblings. For starters, the SE-R's new 17-inch wheels help give the Sentra's profile some added visual pop. Also added are bodyside moldings and a restrained rear wing that lends the slightest amount of sporting pretense.

Nissan has added more SE-R cues inside the cabin, where a pair of leather buckets await front seat occupants. The thrones are incredibly comfortable and well-bolstered, giving the Sentra a more upscale feel. Unfortunately, that initial impression of quality quickly departed upon closer inspection of the rather bland dashboard laden with low quality, hard-to-the-touch plastics. If the SE-R didn't come with twin pod meters displaying oil pressure and lateral acceleration(!), along with Nissan's new low-cost navigation system, the interior would have looked like a barren landscape of automotive-grade Tupperware.

But while the Sentra's interior is nothing to look at (or touch, for that matter), the layout and functionality of buttons and knobs are well executed. There's something to be said for a vehicle that's incredibly easy to operate from Day One, and the Sentra's large knobs and steering wheel controls are as intuitive as they come. While it's true that the Sentra's overstuffed dimensions make for a pretty bland-looking sedan, once you get behind the wheel, those extra inches work to your advantage.

Nissan's new $400 system was designed for lower cost, high volume vehicles like the Sentra, and while it's not as sophisticated as other systems we've sampled, it's also about a quarter of the price. Despite the discount, it still comes complete with a 4.3-inch, touch-sensitive LCD screen and the ability to interface with iPods and MP3 players while also working with Bluetooth-equipped phones to deliver hands-free calling.

All would be forgiven if the SE-R lived up to its sporting ancestry.
Like the rest of the Sentra interior, we found the system to be intuitive and easy-to-use, offering all of the gas station and restaurant-finding capabilities we've come to expect. Unfortunately, our pre-production tester apparently had a glitch that inhibited its route guidance abilities, but Nissan assures us that the system will work as-advertised once it reaches mass-production. We'll reserve judgment until we can test another example.

As much as we'd like the Sentra's interior quality to improve, all would be forgiven if the SE-R lived up to its sporting ancestry. After all, we adored the original B13 SE-R of the early Nineties, and the $4,000 premium over the base Sentra means that this model ought to live up to once-formidable badge. Dolling out 177 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque from its 2.5-liter four-cylinder, the SE-R had enough power to push 3,115 pounds of sedan, but it never managed to set our blood to boil – or really get it much above room temperature. Redline comes at a pedestrian 6,000 RPM, with maximum torque available at 2,800 RPM. The 2.5-liter mill delivers smooth acceleration (we'd estimate 0-60 at between 7.5 and 8 seconds) that's a bit better than what you'd expect in a C-Segment sedan, but it doesn't sound or feel race-inspired and the SE-R's XTronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) dashes any hopes of enthusiastic driving.

The CVT – essentially a gearless transmission – keeps the engine in the optimal RPM range at all times in order to improve performance and efficiency. But unlike other CVT-equipped vehicles, we found ourselves using the paddle shifters to provide six forward shifting points and avoid the feeling of the shiftless transmission for performance purposes. It worked, but just barely. To compound matters, the CVT didn't appear to do much to improve fuel economy either – we only managed a marginal 23 miles-per-gallon during moderate to heavy driving with a 60/40 highway/city mix.

But the story got a bit better when it came to ride and handling. The sport-tuned suspension offered a bit of an edge, without punishing the SE-R's occupants on imperfect roads. And while the speed variable electronic steering has a nice heft to it, the tiller lacks some feedback for our tastes. When tackling turns at higher velocities, we noticed more than a little body roll – not surprising given the Sentra's high ride height – but for a vehicle billed as a sporting runabout, there was more lean than we expected. Coupled with the aforementioned vague steering, the SE-R doesn't exactly offer a recipe for confident backroad carving. Beyond sport-tuned spring rates, the only other major hardware update for the SE-R is up-sized 17-inch wheels mated to P225/45VR17 Continental ContiProContact tires that aid in keeping this up-level Sentra connected with the road.

We did experience a few bouts of torque steer when accelerating hard from a stop, and in each instance the SE-R pulled to the right on dry pavement – again, not confidence-inspiring. Braking was solid thanks to standard four-wheel disc brakes (11.7 inches up front and 11.5 inches in the rear), but you may want to step up to the Spec V model with its larger 12.6-inch front rotors to keep braking distances and rotor temps in check if you're into canyon runs or track days.

After a few days behind the wheel of the Nissan Sentra SE-R, we found ourselves somewhere between uninterested and nearly satisfied. Not the sort of emotions that attract us to a new car. The Sentra scored points for comfort, ease-of-use and general spaciousness, and we commend Nissan for offering an inexpensive in-dash navigation option. But does a cheap navi and WYSIWYG functionality enough to justify a $22,000 price tag for this Sentra SE-R? Not really. The Sentra's interior materials are just too cheap and the SE-R's performance too pedestrian to justify its higher price tag (let alone its once-storied SE-R badge). From where we sit, Nissan either needs to get serious about the Sentra or its compact sedan will never end up at that altar; unless it's in charge of fluffing the bride's dress.

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Second Opinion: 2010 Nissan Sentra SL

Even with the light once-over it received for 2010, the Nissan Sentra doesn't have a sporting bone in its body. While that may prove disappointing to those considering the above SE-R (or the even pricier Spec-V), for a large segment of the population, there's no shame in pursuing that game. All of this is to say, SE-R buyers, wouldn't you rather just save some coin and have an SL?

In addition to the boy-racer SE-R, we spent a wintery week with a loaded-up Sentra SL in Michigan and Ohio, and while no pulses were raised during our time with the car, it acquitted itself well and received a surprising number of compliments while ferrying people about.

First things first – this car is easy to drive. Given that tiller steering and external brake levers have long since disappeared off the face of the automotive landscape, that may not sound like a particularly big accomplishment, but it is. Not only are all the major controls where they should be, all the minor ones are as well. The rotary HVAC controls are the very model of efficiency, the Bluetooth was easy to pair and use, and the SL's new 4.3-inch color display on the audio system head unit (with USB integration and satellite radio) wasn't just crisp, it may have been the most intuitive iPod interface we've ever used. Admittedly, the dashboard is a sea of hard plastics, but with the right color interior (tan), it doesn't look particularly cheap, particularly when paired with the optional leather seating surfaces and with the aforementioned slick stereo display drawing one's eyeballs. One well-heeled rear-seat passenger even commented that the interior was surprisingly luxurious and almost Lexus-like.

That might sound like a bit of ridiculous hyperbole, but he has a point: Like, say, Lexus' ES350, the Sentra SL is an utter snooze dynamically, and all of its edges have been chamfered off for safe, comfy, thought-free motoring. Those exact qualities are important to a lot of people, even if that sort of priority list is alien to most Autoblog staffers and readers.

Admittedly, if you stick your boot in the 2.0-liter in-line four, the Xtronic CVT gearbox will produce that dreaded stretched rubber-brand drone as it surges to make the most of 140 horses and 147 pound-feet of torque. But if you drive as conservatively as we imagine most Sentra drivers do, you'll never notice anything but the handsome fuel economy figures (26 city/34 highway). The rest of the SL's dynamic envelope is as safe as houses – and about as unremarkable.

What we have here, then, is a great car for thrifty seniors and non-car types who might be put off by a Honda Civic's low-slung seating and spacey two-tier dashboard or a Mazda3's firm ride. Are those competitors better? From an enthusiast's standpoint, no question. But for a large group of buyers, the Sentra will still have a certain modest charm about it.

- Chris Paukert

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Months Ago
      I have the 2010 Nissan Sentra SE-R and that car is not a bad car of it's class. I am reading a lot of whining and complaining and not sure if people just have a bad pick of the lot, but what I can tell you from my experience is that I haven't had ANY mechanical issues what so ever, the interior of the car is in great shape and its just like any other car. I do enjoy the extra feature this car has and the handling is not bad, specially for the price I paid for this car. Now if I wanted to get a car with more horsepower, more handling, 4 wheel drive, or that can float on water, then I will be looking in getting something else. In all this car is very specious inside and it drives well. However, I only have two disappointments though. The back seat of the SE-R model doesn't come down and I can't use the trunk to put longer stuff and the car it self is not the prettiest design but functionally and comfort I give it 5 stars. I don't work for Nissan nor do I get paid to say this. I am just a happy Nissan driver.
      • 5 Years Ago
      "One well-heeled rear-seat passenger even commented that the interior was surprisingly luxurious and almost Lexus-like."

      Wha??? Did that particular passenger happen to have dark glasses and a red-tipped cane? The only thing that interior has in common with a Lexus is that they both have steering wheels.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This is the most hideously ugly car in its segment.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Made the mistake of buying a Sentra last year. What a piece of CRAP! Had the transmission replaced at 2,500 miles and the problem still persists. Nissan USA claims everything is fine even though I have proof of the same issue being fixed for other Sentra owners.

      Already had an axle seal rupture and leak as well. Breaks are making weird noises now and the stereo has had a pronounced "buzzing" sound when the input is set to "AUX" and the headlights are on.

      The interior platic trim is cheap and scratches real easy. The designers didn't apparently test their cabin design either - the AC outlet is at the bottom of the center console and plugging iPod/GPS power cables in leaves the cables dangling over the shifter (I have a 6sp which makes it borderline dangerous). They also apparently didn't open the arm rest storage compartment lid with the back seats down because there is too much intereference and the lid barely is able to swing up 20-30 degrees.

      This was my first Nissan and will most certainly be my LAST!!!!
      • 5 Years Ago
      "The Nissan Sentra has long been the bridesmaid of America's C-segment.".... Um UGLY bridesmaid.... and she has an ugly personality too....
      • 5 Years Ago
      Looks just like Honda's Vios

      • 5 Years Ago
      I had an '06 Spec-V a few years back. Good little car. Would spin 1st, 2nd and chirp 3rd-- even with z-rated rubber. Would turn and stop on dime as well (had brembo brakes on it from the factory).

      Unfortunately, I wouldn't buy another one. The engine ate about 1qt. of oil every 2,000 miles and also had difficulty starting at times. Was at the dealer many times trying to troubleshoot, but they never found anything wrong... Also, the interior screamed "CHEAP" even thought he car was 20k....

      I bought the car originally for gas mileage, although, it never really did well in that department.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I have an '04 and also had the starting problems you mention. Whenever I took it in to have it checked they would always replace some crank sensor and sometimes a cam sensor - prohibitively expensive after multiple times. Apparently oil can get on it or it can get out of whack, and if you ignore it, it eventually grows until the car starts less and less reliably and you HAVE to bring it in. I think there's a service bulletin, but no recall. They say the 03-06 models can just eat these sensors and the problem goes away for about a year after replacement.

        • 5 Years Ago
        Hey, I had a similar starting issue with my 04. The dealer was great in how they handled the issue, but there was never a good solution. I suspected that running the car for a short time and then needing it to restart was when the starting problems cropped up. For example, moving the car to let someone out of the driveway and then shutting it off caused the issue at least twice and resulted in a rollback ride on one occasion.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The SE-R hasn't been good since the B13, but it hasn't been particularly bad either. Most people I talk to seem not to realize that they even make an SE-R model still. It's as anonymous as they get, & In my opinion I don't think many people cross shop these with MS3s & the Civic Si etc. mainly because they don't even know it exists.
        • 5 Years Ago
        We had a B15 (2003) Spec V and I gotta say, it was pretty nice looking, and ran pretty well at the drag strip. Handling wasn't bad but you could always tell you were driving a FWD car. Pretty hard to do much better at that price point I think. Also, there's just so much you can do with a FWD car.
        • 5 Years Ago
        i agree with you. but after driving this vehicle, i totally agree with the review. it isn't sporty. granted, i drove a Cobalt sport which has comparable specs, and the sentra SE-R was no where near entertaining as the Cobalt sport. and remember how the cobalt is unadorned for its ergonomics. that said, the Sentra never makes it on my list of choices for my SL1 replacement.
        • 5 Years Ago
        ... and because it's decidedly less sporty than either the Civic Si or MazdaSpeed 3. Heck, it's less sporty than the regular Civic and Mazda 3. If you want sporty, you get one of these high performance models; if you want a nice ride, you get a Mazda 3, Ford Focus, or VW (not the jittery Civic).

        The SE-R is like the equal mix of two opposites. Perfect is not in the middle between Good and Bad.
        • 5 Years Ago
        No arguments with either of you guys... very valid points. I just personally feel that the SE-R (post B13) has been a classic underachiever. It's never been a particularly bad car, just not particularly good either. Pretty much every other car in this segment has been the best at something: whether it was the cheapest, fastest, best fuel economy, best looking (largely subjective... I know, but there's no denying some are uglier than others). The SE-R has quietly soldiered on, all the while being as anonymous as dirt & not really standing out at anything.
        • 5 Years Ago
        This car is dreadful for the price. Actually, the whole Sentra line is dreadful period. Just save your money and buy the Versa if you want a small Nissan or go shopping at a different brand for sport compact car that actually provides sport and fun for the cost.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It looks like a fat kid who is wearing clothes that are too small for him. Too bulgy for my tastes.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The problem is they're forcing a Renault Megane sedan to try and look sporty. Given that the Megane II design is from 2002 (and never looked good even back then), it made the Sentra ugly and undesirable from the get-go.

        The regular SE-R also seems to sit in a non-mans land of niches, being between the SE-R Spec V (the closer competitor to the MS3/Civic Si/GTI and the regular model.

        Now the B13 Sentra was awesome. You'd think they'd try and go back to those roots by now, sigh.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The heir apparent to the crown of the ugliest car in this segment, when the Cobalt retires later this year.

        It should have been brown, usual color of turds.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The problem is they should be getting a LOT more out of that 2.5....but then there comes a point to where you have a good engine in a $hitty car. Right now it is about a $hitty car wrapped around a ho hum engine. even though the 2002 SE-R was ugly, it was light and had plenty of torque.
      • 5 Years Ago
      They should have tried the Se-r Spec V (worst name). Not the best looking car, but has decent 0-60 times (http://www.performancecarnews.com/Fastest-Cars-0-60.asp?Process=ShowTable):

      Sentra Se-r Spec V: 6.7
      Civic Si: 6.8
      VW GTI: 6.7
      Mazdaspeed3: 5.8
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think the second part of the article says it best. The SE-R may not match up with a GTI Si, or Speed3, but the regular Sentra is good solid basic transportation.
      • 5 Years Ago
      "... the SE-R had enough power to push 3,115 pounds of sedan, but it never managed to set our blood to boil – or really get it much above room temperature ..."

      If your blood is at room temperature, you're either in a really hot room, or probably not healthy enough to be driving a car. Or reviewing one, for that matter. Hard to blog while hypothermic.
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