2003 Nissan Sentra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Add some fun to your life.
The Nissan Sentra is practical and frugal, roomy and comfortable. It looks handsome and solid. The sporty SE-R models are terrific cars, fun to drive, with responsive suspensions and a bigger engine that's strong and smooth.
With prices starting at just $11,799 for the XE, the Sentra is a good value. Perhaps a better value is the GXE model, which comes loaded with popular equipment for just $13,749.
For 2003, the Sentra GXE is available with the SE-R's bigger, more powerful engine. For its part, the 2003 SE-R gets bolder styling in front. There's a killer stereo available, making these cars a great choice for people who want more than basic transportation in their lives.
The Nissan Sentra comes in a range of trim levels: the basic Sentra XE ($11,799); the more luxurious GXE ($13,749); the sporty SE-R ($15,999); and the track-tuned SE-R Spec V ($16,999). New for 2003 is the Sentra 2.5 Limited Edition.
XE comes with a 126-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a short list of standard equipment that nonetheless includes power front disc brakes, a rear window defroster, dual remote-control mirrors, front air bags, power steering, a tilt steering column, 14-inch tires and intermittent windshield wipers. Options offered on other models are not necessarily available on the XE.
GXE adds air conditioning, power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, AM/FM stereo with four speakers and CD player, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, rear heater ducts, and a digital clock. Fog lights and a rear spoiler are optional.
An automatic transmission ($800) is available. Side-impact air bags and antilock brakes come as an optional package ($749). Nissan scores an A for creativity in naming option packages for the GXE: The Road Hugging Package ($499) adds 15-inch aluminum wheels, 195/60HR15 tires and fog lights. The Road Trip Package ($359) adds cruise control, a 180-watt CD stereo with seven speakers, map lights and an overhead sunglasses bin. The Synergy Package ($999) combines the Road Trip and Road Hugging packages and adds a rear spoiler, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
SE-R brings a sporty personality into the Sentra. It offers great handling and there's lots of power available from the 2.5-liter engine. Rated at 165 horsepower, the engine uses compact balancers keep the power delivery smooth. 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, cruise control, a 180-watt audio system, sports suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and titanium-colored gauges that glow orange at night.
The SE-R Spec V uses low-restriction exhaust to boost output to 175 horsepower. To this, it adds a six-speed manual transmission, a helical limited-slip differential, 17-inch wheels with 215/45 Z-rated high-performance tires. The Spec V comes with a hot lava-red interior featuring sport seats and black and silver accents.
SE-R and SE-R Spec V options include the Audio Fanatic Package with a 300-watt nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system ($549), an in-dash 6-disc CD player ($399), and a power sunroof ($699). An automatic transmission is offered for the SE-R, but not in the Spec V.
New for 2003 is the 2.5 Limited Edition, essentially a GXE model powered by the SE-R's 165-horsepower engine, and stopped by four-wheel-disc brakes. Automatic transmission, ABS, and side-impact air bags are standard. Think of it as a high-performance luxury model.
All Sentras are four-door sedans with front-wheel drive. For 2003, all California-certified 1.8-liter Sentras meet SULEV (super low-emission vehicle) and zero-evaporative emission standards.
The Nissan Sentra was designed by Nissan's California styling studio, the same group that penned the exciting Xterra sport-utility and the aggressive Frontier compact pickup truck. The goal for the current-generation model was to eliminate the entry-level look, to design a car with its own character that happens to be in the right price range for a lot of people. The result is robust, rounded. We think it's sassy. (That's 'sass-eee.')
Nissan learned from its previous-generation (1995-99) Sentra that refined and nimble economy cars don't sell too well if they're boring. Economy cars face a lot of competition these days from bigger used cars, which are now off-lease and selling at attractive discounts. But many folks still prefer new, reasonably priced sedans with full warranties.
The term compact is relative, as all of these cars seem to grow over time. The Sentra pushes the boundaries of its industry classification. It is longer than other four-door compact sedans, and looks it.
The SE-R features an aggressive look all its own, with side-sill extensions, a rear spoiler, and chrome exhaust tips. New for 2003 is a bolder front fascia with large, integrated fog lights and a mesh grille, modeled after Nissan's legendary home-market Skyline sport coupe. The SE-R is particularly striking in Sunburst, a bright yellow that's also new for 2003.
The Sentra interiors are well-designed and everything seems to fit well. The interior is roomy, both for people and cargo. The rear seats can accommodate grownups, and all seating positions provide good breathing room. All three rear-seat positions have three-point belts, though three back there is a crowd. The four outboard belts are equipped with automatic pretensioners, an important safety feature for an economy car. This is equipment that many bigger sedans didn't have just five years ago.
At first glance the Sentra's front seats look like normal economy car perches, but once you're in them they feel much roomier than they look. In the GXE, the seats adjust for height with dual lifters.
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. Leather covers the SE-R's steering wheel and gearshift knob. New fabric upholstery for the SE-R Spec V features silver accents.
The trunk is big, with 11.6 cubic feet of cargo space. The 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.
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 trendy Continental design. 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.
The optional Fosgate stereo sounds fantastic with crisp bass and clear highs and no clipping at high volumes, but the controls are on the small side.
The Sentra is a terrific car and we love the sporty SE-R and Spec V models. They offer lots of power and great handling. We instantly felt comfortable in them, feeling like we could drive them right to the limit the first time we climbed in. The SE-R and SE-R Spec V rekindle memories of the famed Datsun 510, and of the original SE-R that appeared in Nissan's lineup from 1991-94.
Throttle response is immediate, and strong torque propels the SE-R quickly. Based on the architecture of Nissan's V6 engines, the SE-R's 2.5-liter inline-4 features variable valve timing, silent-chain cam drive and a compact balance system to reduce vibration. The power band is very linear.
The Spec V adds to the fun with even more power and it sounds really cool with the low-restriction exhaust. Weighing in at 2,708 pounds, the Spec V weighs only 15.5 pounds per horsepower, compared to 16.4 for the standard SE-R. Nissan claims the Spec V will squirt from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds.
Handling is even more impressive than acceleration. It's easy to rotate the SE-R in corners using the throttle, making it a lot of fun to drive. Tossable is the word that comes to mind. The rack-and-pinion steering provides quick and direct control. Handling is aided by larger front and rear stabilizer bars and front suspension tower bracing.
Big disc brakes slow the SE-R quickly. Whether we were lapping Laguna Seca Raceway or blasting along the cliffs on Pacific Coast Highway, we found the brakes easy to modulate. The SE-R's front rotors measure a full 11 inches, larger than in many so-called sporting machines. A four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock braking system is also available. While the Spec V gets the most immediate attention, many enthusiasts will opt for the standard SE-R with a five-speed manual, and will use it as a base for their own aftermarket modifications.
Spec V builds upon the SE-R's handling capabilities, with tighter shock tuning and spring rates 15 percent stiffer in front, 16 percent stiffer in back. High-performance 215/45ZR17 tires on special 17-inch wheels complete the suspension package and give Sentra a tough, sport-compact look.
Thanks to its torque-sensitive 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 differential allows the front wheels to rotate at different rates without slipping, greatly reducing understeer in hard cornering. This lets the driver get back on the power much sooner, and improves the Spec V's balance when accelerating out corners.
The six-speed manual shifter tends to be notchy. Fifth gear can be almost hard to find, but the gearbox isn't nearly as balky in second, third, and fourth; and that's where this car is the most fun to drive.
Sentra XE and GXE models run smoothly and quietly. We blazed through the desert at 100 mph in a GXE, its 1.8-liter engine turning a relatively calm 4500 rpm. The GXE felt stable at this speed, and wind and tire noise were low. At the legal limit of 70 mph, the engine turns just 3100 rpm in fifth gear when equipped with the five-speed manual. With the automatic it revs even lower at this speed. The EPA rates the 1.8-liter Sentra at 28/35 mpg city/highway with an automatic transmission, and 28/36 with a five-speed manual. For longer life with less maintenance, the Sentra engine uses a timing chain instead of a cheaper, but quieter, timing belt. You don't notice the extra noise generated by the timing chain, however.
The 1.8-liter engine in the GXE and XE races easily to its 6500 rpm redline, but it was designed to deliver its power relatively low in the rev range, where most Americans shift. (Torque peaks at 129 pounds-feet at a low 2400 rpm.) Most U.S. buyers opt for the automatic transmission, anyway, making the five-speed gearbox a rare item on the GXE. Low-rpm torque and carefully mapped gearing allow automatic XE and GXE models to accelerate qui.
Sure, you can buy a Honda Civic, but we think the Nissan Sentra is a more interesting choice. The 2003 Sentra drives like it's worth more than its price.
The mid-range GXE provides peaceful and comfortable highway cruising, while the new 2.5 Limited Edition promises to add performance and safety to the experience. The racy SE-R and SE-R Spec V deliver sports car performance on an economy car budget.
Our sense is that Nissan is in the position that Volkswagen occupied a decade ago, building very good cars that few people notice or purchase. So if you're in the market for an affordable sedan that's easy to look at and fun to drive, consider the Nissan Sentra. You may just start a trend.
XE ($11,799); GXE ($13,749); 2.5 Limited Edition ($NA); SE-R ($15,999); SE-R Spec V ($16,999).
Options As Tested
SE-R Spec V ($16,999).
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