Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Roomy and practical, with fresh styling.
Nissan Sentra gets updated styling and an upgraded interior for 2004. The changes give the Sentra a more contemporary appearance with a toothy grille reminiscent of the 2004 Maxima. New model designations (such as 1.8 S and 2.5 S) indicate which of two engines is under the hood.
The basic product and its mission have not changed, however. The Sentra remains practical and frugal, roomy and comfortable. Sentra offers a good value, starting at just $12,200 (MSRP) with a well-equipped 1.8 S retailing for $14,200.
The SE-R models are solid sport compacts, fun to drive, with a responsive suspension and a strong, 165-horsepower 2.5-liter engine.
For 2004, Sentra models get redesigned front and rear fascia and a newly styled hood. Also receiving changes for 2004 is the Sentra SE-R. New features include a new brake package for SE-R Spec V with Brembo front discs, a new interior charcoal fabric and two new exterior colors – Volcanic Orange and Sapphire Blue. There are several interior upgrades as well, including a trip computer (standard on 2.5 S, SE-R and SE-R Spec V) and an enhanced Rockford Fosgate sound system.
The names have changed, but the song remains the same in the Sentra lineup. Gone are the XE and GXE, replaced by alphanumeric 1.8 and 1.8 S designations. Five models are available for 2004 with a choice of four-cylinder engines. All are four-door sedans with front-wheel drive.
A 1.8-liter engine powers the 1.8 and 1.8 S models, while a 2.5-liter engine is used in the 2.5 S, SE-R, and SE-R Spec V.
Sentra 1.8 ($12,200) is the base model and comes standard with a rear window defroster, dual remote-control mirrors, power steering, a tilt steering column, 14-inch steel wheels and intermittent windshield wipers. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; but a 1.8 with four-speed automatic ($13,000) is also available. Air conditioning is not standard, but is part of a Convenience Package ($1,250) that also includes AM/FM/CD with four speakers.
Sentra 1.8 S ($14,200) comes standard with the popular features, including air conditioning, power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD with four speakers, an eight-way adjustable driver's seat, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, rear heater ducts, and a digital clock. The 1.8 S is also available with the automatic ($15,000). A Road Trip Package ($420) adds cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and AM/FM/CD with seven speakers. ABS and side air bags ($600) are optional on the 1.8 S, but we strongly recommend them as they could save your life.
Sentra 2.5 S gets the bigger engine found in the sports models. Here, the 2.5-liter engine puts out 165 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque for quicker acceleration performance. It comes standard with an automatic transmission, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and side airbags. A Power Sunroof Package ($700) is available for 1.8 S and 2.5 S.
SE-R brings a sporty personality to the Sentra. It offers great handling and there's lots of power available from the 2.5-liter engine. The SE-R ($17,100) comes with the 165-horsepower engine and an automatic transmission. The SE-R also comes with 16-inch alloy wheels with P195/55R16 performance tires, special body trim, a rear spoiler, sports suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, sport cloth seats with eight-way power adjustments for the driver, cruise control, an upgraded audio system, and titanium-colored gauges that glow orange at night.
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 front differential, and 17-inch wheels with 215/45ZR17 high-performance tires. The Spec V comes with a hot lava-red interior featuring Skyline-style sport seats and black and silver accents. Racing style Brembo brakes with four-piston front calipers painted in traditional Nissan gold are available ($1,000) with 12-inch vented front discs and 10.9-inch rear discs.
ABS and side airbags are optional ($600) for SE-R and SE-R Spec V, but advisable for their ability to help save your hide. Other options include an Audio Fanatic Package with a 300-watt nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system ($550) and partial fold-down rear seat, and the Power Sunroof package ($700).
The majority of the enhancements to the 2004 Sentra lineup are in exterior design. For 2004, Sentra features restyled headlamps and rear combination lamps, a new smooth front and rear fascia with a fresh hood design and a distinctive grille. The changes are designed to take the styling of the Sentra to a new level with more flair, making it look more stylish, assertive, and self-confident.
Sentra maintains its flush-mounted, one-piece multi-parabola halogen headlamps as well as its body-color front grille, side moldings and bumpers. Handsome and solid, the basic Sentra design features a low hood line, high rear deck, and strong rear fenders, with a distinct front-to-rear character line. Robust and rounded, the design was penned by Nissan's California styling studio.
The SE-R was designed to evoke the image of the Nissan Skyline, a sports sedan legendary in the Japan market for its performance. For 2004, the sport-inspired Sentra SE-R receives several body enhancements, including new front and rear fascia, new headlamp shapes, and a restyled hood. A rear spoiler and large chrome exhaust tips indicate the intent of the SE-R.
The term compact is relative, as all of these cars seem to grow over time. This is not your father's subcompact. Sentra fits between the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, with an overall length of 177.5 inches and body width of 67.3 inches, but it's about 2.5 inches shorter than those at a height of 55.5 inches.
Sentra offers a roomy interior, both for people and cargo. The interior is designed well from a functionality standpoint and everything seems to fit well.
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 all but the base model, the seats adjust for height with dual lifters. The driver's seat is eight-way adjustable (four-way on the base 1.8 model), with a four-way adjustable passenger seat. Driver and passenger sit relatively high in the hip area, making getting in and out easier.
New for 2004, SE-R gets new charcoal-colored fabric. 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.
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. Sentra is equipped with generous cabin storage, including a center-console with lid and a large glove box. 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. For 2004, a trip computer comes standard on all models with the 2.5-liter engine.
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.
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 reduces versatility, taking up space and reducing the size of the passthrough.
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. For 2004, the system has been enhanced for improved sound quality.
The Nissan Sentra is a terrific car and we love the sporty SE-R and Spec V models.
Sentra 1.8 and 1.8 S models run smoothly and quietly. They feel stable at high speeds, and wind and tire noise are low. The 1.8-liter engine turns a relatively calm 4500 rpm at 100 mph. At the legal limit of 70 mph, the 1.8-liter 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 Sentra 1.8 and 1.8 S 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. Low-rpm torque and carefully mapped gearing allow 1.8-liter automatic models to accelerate quickly from intersections, yet cruise the highway in a relaxed manner. Big motor mounts isolate the engine, deadening noise and vibration.
The 2.5-liter engine that comes in the 2.5 S, SE-R, and Spec V delivers lots of power. Throttle response is immediate, and strong torque makes for strong acceleration performance. 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 automatic transmission in the 2.5 S and SE-R works well with the 2.5-liter engine.
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. The Spec V's six-speed manual shifter tends to be notchy. Fifth gear can be almost hard to find. Fortunately, the gearbox isn't nearly as balky in second, third, and fourth, which is where this car is the most fun to drive.
Handling is even more impressive with the sports suspensions found on the SE-R and Spec V. We instantly felt comfortable in them, feeling like we could drive them right to the limit the first time we climbed in. 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. The high-performance tires offer good grip in the dry. We've noticed inconsistent grip in the wet, however, requiring care when driving aggressively in the rain. Overall, the Sentra feels a little bigger than some of the other compacts, including the Mazda Protege.
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.
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. For 2004, a high-performance Brembo Brake Package is offered on the SE-R Spec V model. The exclusive package includes gold-painted Brembo four-piston front calipers, 12-inch Brembo vented front discs, and 10.9-inch rear discs.
Thanks to its torque-sensitiv.
Nissan Sentra continues to be a compelling choice among compact sedans. It's no longer the newest product in the class, but styling revisions freshen it up.
Sentra drives like it's worth more than its price. The 1.8 S model comes well-equipped and the 1.8-liter engine provides peaceful and comfortable highway cruising with good acceleration performance.
The available 2.5-liter engine propels these cars to the front row in terms of acceleration performance. The racy SE-R and SE-R Spec V deliver sports car performance on an economy car budget.
Sentra 1.8 ($12,200); 1.8 automatic ($13,000); 1.8 S ($14,200); 1.8 S automatic ($15,000); 2.5 S automatic ($16,700); SE-R automatic ($17,100); Spec V ($17,300).
Options As Tested
Side airbags and ABS ($600); Audio Fanatic Package ($550) includes 300-watt Rockford Fosgate amplifier with nine speakers, partial fold-down rear seat, VSS, and immobilizer.
Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V ($17,300).
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