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

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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