2002 Nissan Sentra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
SE-R models bring affordable performance back.
Nissan's Sentra is a nice four-door compact sedan. Starting at just $11,799, it competes with the Honda Civic sedans and offers a good value. Smooth, quiet, and economical, it's stable and enjoyable on long drives.
For 2002, Nissan has introduced the SE-R and SE-R Spec V versions of the Sentra. They are an absolute hoot to drive. The SE-R models take the traditional hot-rod approach of dropping a big engine into a small car, but add brakes, suspension, and tires to turn them into ultimate value sports sedans.
Sentra is available as five models: XE ($11,799); CA ($14,899); GXE ($13,749); SE-R ($15,999); and SE-R Spec V ($16,999).
XE is the base model and comes with a 126-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a short list of standard equipment that includes power front disc brakes, a rear window defroster, dual remote-control mirrors, front airbags, power steering and a tilt steering column, 14-inch tires and intermittent windshield wipers.
CA is a special edition that is the first gasoline-powered car certified as a super ultra low emissions vehicle (SULEV) and to zero evaporative emissions standards by the California Air Resources Board. Its 1.8-liter engine produces 122 horsepower. It has a standard automatic transmission and air conditioning.
GXE is a popular model comes standard with air conditioning, a digital clock, radio, CD player, front and rear cup holders, power windows and locks, and remote keyless entry.
SE-R replaces the SE model introduced in 2000 and revives the name of a famous version of the Sentra. While the SE had a 145-horsepower, 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder, the new SE-R has a 2.5-liter inline-4 that provides 165 horsepower. The SE-R also comes with 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/55 performance tires, special body trim, a rear spoiler, special cloth seats with eight-way power for the driver's seat, cruise control, a 180-watt audio system, sports suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and titanium-colored gauges.
The SE-R Spec V has a 180-horsepower version of Nissan's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual transmission, 17-inch high-performance tires, black and red interior with special sport seats, a performance muffler, a performance suspension, and a Helical limited-slip differential.
Options include automatic transmission ($800), side airbags and antilock brakes ($749), sunroof ($699), 300-watt, 9-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system ($549), and in-dash 6-CD player ($399).
Nissan completely redesigned its Sentra for the 2000 model year and the result was a bigger car than the previous generation: a lot longer, a little wider and a bit taller. The current Sentra was designed by Nissan's California styling studio, the same group that did the exciting Xterra sport-utility and the aggressive Frontier compact pickup truck. Their goal was to eliminate 'entry-level' thinking, to design a car with its own character that happens to be in the right price range for a lot of people. It's robust, rounded and just a little sassy.
Nissan learned that refined and nimble little economy cars don't sell too well if they're homely. It learned this from its 1995-1999 Sentra. There's a lot of competition for economy cars coming from bigger used cars, which are now off-lease and selling at attractive discounts. But some folks, particularly smart female shoppers, prefer new, reasonably priced sedans with warranties to used cars.
This newest-generation Sentra is an attractive car. The term compact is relative, as all these cars seem to grow over time. The new Sentra pushes the boundaries of its sub-compact industry classification. It is longer than other four-door compact sedans. And it looks it: The stretched body isn't tucked underneath the bumpers at the ends of the car, making it look even longer.
At first glance the Sentra's front seats look like normal economy car perches, but once you're in them they feel much roomier and are adjustable. The seats in the SE-R are supportive with big side bolsters. They hold you firmly, but comfortably, in place. One knob on the side adjusts the front half of the seat bottom; another knob adjusts the rear half.
The Sentra interior is roomy, both for people and cargo. The rear seats are able to accommodate grownups, and all seating positions provide good breathing room. All three seating positions in the rear have three-point belts, though three back there is a crowd. The four outboard belts are equipped with automatic tensioners, an important safety feature for an economy car. This is equipment that many bigger sedans didn't have just five years ago.
The trunk is big, with 11.6 cubic feet of cargo space. An available 60/40 split folding rear seatback can be unlatched from the trunk (difficult to figure out without help), making the Sentra a versatile cargo hauler. The available Fosgate subwoofer looks like it could get in the way here, however.
The red markings on black gauges are difficult to read on bright days with sunglasses on (there's a surprise), but they look cool at night. Stereo controls are positioned high on the center console, making them easy to adjust, and the metallic trim of the faceplate matches the latest in European Continental design found on the trendy Ford Focus. Other controls are straightforward and easy to use. A compartment on top of the dash is useful for storing a wallet or sunglasses. The cup holders work well for standard size cans and cups.
No matter the model, the Sentra hums right along. We drove a GXE with a five-speed manual to 100 mph quite easily in the desert, and it was revving at a relatively calm 4500 rpm. It felt stable at this speed, and wind and tire noise were low. At the legal speed limit of 70 mph, the engine turns just 3100 rpm in fifth gear; the automatic-equipped model revs even lower.
GXE and XE models run smoothly and quietly. The new 1.8-liter engine revs easily to its 6500 redline. The EPA rates it at 26/33 mpg city/highway with an automatic transmission, and 27/35 with a five-speed manual. This engine uses a timing chain instead of the cheaper and quieter timing belt. You don't notice the extra noise generated by the timing chain, however.
The 1.8-liter engine is designed to deliver its power relatively low in the rev range, where most Americans shift. Most Americans opt for automatic transmissions in their Sentras, making the new five-speed gearbox a rarer item. Low-rpm torque and carefully mapped gearing allow GXE and XE models with automatics to accelerate quickly from intersections yet cruise at highway speeds in a relaxed manner. Big motor mounts isolate the engine, deadening noise and vibration.
The SE-R and SE-R Spec V models rekindle memories of the famed Datsun 510 and the original SE-R that succeeded it in Nissan's lineup from 1991-94. Based on the architecture of Nissan's V6 engines, the SE-R's 2.5-liter four-cylinder has variable valve timing and uses a silent chain drive and compact balance system to reduce vibration.
Throttle response is immediate and strong torque propels the SE-R quickly. The power band is very linear. The more powerful Spec V adds to the fun. Weighing in at 2,743 pounds, the Spec V has a 15.2:1 power-to-weight ratio (it's 16.0:1 for the standard SE-R). Nissan claims 0 to 60 mph acceleration times of less than 7 seconds for the Spec V.
Handling is even more impressive than acceleration. It's easy to rotate the car in corners using the throttle, making it a lot of fun to drive. The rack-and-pinion steering provides quick and direct control. The SE-R uses larger front and rear stabilizer bars and front suspension tower bracing.
The big brakes slow the SE-R quickly. We found them easy to modulate at Laguna Seca Raceway and on the Pacific Coast Highway. Braking is provided by large four-wheel disc brakes; the SE-R's front rotors measure a full 11 inches, larger than many so-called sporting machines. A four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock braking system is also available.
Thanks to the helical limited-slip differential, the Spec V is much more fun on an autocross course or a twisting mountain road than it is in a straight quarter-mile. This special LSD allows the front wheels to rotate at different rates, greatly reducing understeer in corners. This lets the driver get back on the power much sooner in turns. This special limited-slip front differential improves the Spec V's balance when accelerating out corners.
SE-R Spec V builds upon the SE-R's handling capabilities. Front spring rates have been increased 15 percent and rear spring rate has been increased 16 percent and there is improved shock absorber tuning. High-performance 215/45ZR17 tires on special 17-inch wheels complete the suspension package and give Sentra a tough, sport-compact look.
The Nissan six-speed manual tends to be notchy. Fifth gear can be almost hard to find, but the gearbox isn't nearly as balky in the second-third-fourth up- and downshifts, and that's where this car is the most fun to drive.
While the Spec V gets the most immediate attention, many auto enthusiasts will opt for the standard SE-R with its five-speed manual and will use it as a base for their own aftermarket modifications.
Nissan's 2002 Sentra is a willing sedan with a smoothness that leaves you feeling it's worth more than its price. Cruising along an interstate is a peaceful experience in the GXE, while the new SE-R and SE-R Spec V versions provide sports car performance on an economy car budget.
Our sense is that Nissan is in the position that Volkswagen was a decade ago when its cars were very good, but nobody noticed, and few purchased. If you're in the market for an affordable sedan that's easy to look at and tons of fun to drive, then you shouldn't wait for Nissan's fortunes in the mass market to improve as a result of this new Sentra.
XE ($11,799); CA ($14,899); GXE ($13,749); SE-R ($15,999); SE-R Spec V ($16,999).
Options As Tested
SE-R Spec V ($16,999).
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