Maybe we’re spoiled. Yeah that’s that right. Spoiled. It used to be that buying a compact car was an excercise in self-sacrifice. And not just of space. Small cars used to also carry with them a variety of other downsides including a void of power, few amenities and questionable reliability. Not so anymore. Now the current field of compact options has expanded and improved to the point where consumers want and can have all of those things and more at a still entry-level price. Which has created a bit of a problem for the 2009 Nissan Sentra, a longtime compact entry and previously solid contender in a crowd that may have left the Sentra in their collective dust.
There are really relatively few BAD cars made anymore. Even the venomous complaints directed at the American car companies over lacking design and quality is tempered by the fact that new cars made today are much more reliable than ever before and that the culture of shoddy manufacturing that prompted the “lemon” laws has changed drastically. In fact, a casual scan through the recent recalls and automotive defects that have sprung up will bring up some unlikely non-American names. So it is with the understanding that as things have improved and expectations have risen, cars like the Sentra can be both solidly well-rounded and still lacking in comparison to other options.
The 2009 Nissan Sentra is offered in five trim levels: 2.0, 2.0 S, 2.0 SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V. Nissan Sentra 2.0 models come equipped with a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produces 140 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) or a six-speed manual in the 2.0 S. At the top of the food chain is the SE-R and SE-R Spec V that utilize the same solid 2.5-liter. Although in the Spec V manages a tidy 200 horses and 180 lb. feet of torque versus the SE-R’s 177 hp and 172 lbs. The Sentra SE-R comes only with the CVT while the Spec V is configured only with a six-speed manual. There is really very little downside in terms of fuel economy with the Spec V, which makes its 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds even more appealing. While power is adequate in all models, mild complaints are directed at the CVT for its rather noisy operation on the highway, but it is generally given positive reviews. Despite its relative quickness, the fact that such a quick economy car is outclassed in performance by so many others is a testament to the competition in this class. This becomes even more apparent in handling quality, even on the Spec V version, which although competent through turns is still out-gunned by the likes of Mazda and Honda. All Sentras come standard with front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Antilock brakes are an option for the base 2.0 model and are standard on all others. The higher-performing SE-R models come with four-wheel disc brakes, while the others have rear drums.
Fuel economy for the CVT equipped 2.0 models register an EPA estimated 25 mpg city/33 mpg, while the manual transmission drops fuel economy slightly to 24/31 mpg. Higher performance models offer a solid 24/30 mpg with the SE-R and 21/29 in the Spec V.
Nissan’s current “Industrial” design both in and out is not a cross-the-board success, especially with the Sentra. The angular headlights and generally aggressive details that are also present in the Altima and Maxima are not carried off with the same broad success in the Sentra. However, it is at least distinctly different from the other Japanese compact options. In general, the Sentra sports a rather high-riding body profile that extends forth from a small decklid to the Nissan-esque trapezoidal head lights.
Even more than the outside, the interior portrays a functional, sterile aesthetic on the inside. One strong point for the Sentra in comparison to other options is cabin space, which can comfortably accommodating taller adults in any of the well supported seats. Storage within the cabin is convenient, with several generous bins. Trunk space is also good, with an available 13.1 cubic feet. The Sentra’s interior is more spacious than the hum-drum tight squeezes of the affordable small car class. Interior material quality is unextradonary but certainly in line with other small car options with relatively pleasing fabrics and nicely textured plastics. Comfort, fit and finish are equally in-line with expectations.
In fact, you could make the argument as many have, that if the Sentra is not a “drivers car,” perhaps it is the best daily car to live with and in. This is especially apparent with interior sound levels which is impressively quiet. The base model 2.0 includes power windows and locks, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, air-conditioning and a four-speaker sound system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack and few other options. The S includes 16-inch steel wheels, driver seat height adjustment, keyless entry, cruise control, power mirrors, a trip computer, audio controls mounted on the steering wheel, and a six-speaker stereo with MP3 capability. The 2.0 SL trim adds 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seating, keyless ignition and entry, satellite radio, Bluetooth and overhead storage for CDs. Many of the SL’s standard features are available as options for the 2.0 S. Options available for either S or SL trims include a sunroof, heated front seats, a rear spoiler, a trunk divider and an eight-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system with a six-CD changer. As with other Nissans, these options are grouped into larger, more expensive packages, making ordering stand-alone options impossible.
The Sentra SE-R trim level adds 17-inch alloy wheels, more performance-minded suspension tuning, larger brakes, a lower body kit, cloth sport seats, aluminum-trimmed pedals and gauges for oil pressure and G-force. Keyless start, satellite radio and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are available as options. The SE-R Spec V further enhances the SE-R’s sporting nature by adding higher-performance tires, an even firmer and lower suspension, larger front brakes and racier interior trim. One drawback to the added performance of the Spec V is a reinforcement brace that prevents the rear seats from folding. Both SE-R models offer options of a sunroof and the Rockford Fosgate sound system, but keyless ignition and entry are only available on the standard SE-R. A limited-slip front differential is only available on the Spec V.
Only the very base Nissan Sentra 2.0 and its $15,420 entry price tag could be dubbed truly inexpensive, though the rest of the lineup is still either attainable with prices that extend from the S and SR at $17,160, SL at $18,560, SE-R at $19,580, SE-R Spec V at $20,080.
The 2009 Nissan Sentra is not a class leader in any one category save perhaps interior sound quality. Nevertheless, it is a solid contender that with a few tweeks would be right among the best.