2012 Nissan Sentra Driving Impressions

The Nissan Sentra holds its own in a world of big vehicles. The base 2.0-liter engine puts the Sentra on par with other high-tech four-cylinder engines. Boasting an aluminum block and head, continuously variable valve timing, and electronic fuel injection, the 2.0-liter makes 140 horsepower. However, the real story is its strong torque of 147 pound-feet. Torque is important because it's needed for acceleration from lower speeds, such as when accelerating from an intersection or up a steep grade, and the Sentra feels quite powerful around town and in traffic.

Our Sentra 2.0 zoomed up freeway on-ramps, and felt like it belonged in the fast lane. It ran in 80-mph traffic with ease and had no trouble cruising at 90. The engine wasn't loud and didn't feel strained at that pace, although under full-throttle acceleration it was a bit noisy from 5000 rpm up to its redline of 6500.

Fuel economy for a Sentra with the 2.0-liter engine is an EPA-rated 27/34 mpg City/Highway with the CVT transmission, and 24/31 mpg with the six-speed manual.

The CVT is now in its third generation, and the technology has improved greatly. The main benefit with a CVT is better gas mileage, a result of less internal friction. With only two ranges, high and low, it's smoother because there's less shifting, though the sound is odd, as if the car is winding up like a snowmobile. Floor the gas pedal and the Sentra surges ahead aggressively.

The Sentra SE-R Spec V feels docile in traffic, in spite of the performance from its 200-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder. It makes its best power near redline, from 6600-7000 rpm, so you need to drive it enthusiastically to get the most out of it. It doesn't feel high-strung, however. It's easy to live with and provides that extra bit of oomph when you want to play. The Spec V comes with an easy-shifting six-speed manual transmission and the clutch works with ease, making the Spec V feel more like an everyday driver than a sport compact.

The suspension on all Sentras is struts in front with a torsion beam in the rear: The rear is a compact design with separate shocks and coil springs that allows more room for the trunk that's above it. In its base form, the suspension is forgiving. In its most aggressive state, in the SE-R Spec V (with higher-rate springs, shocks and bushings), it's firm in a quality kind of way, yet never harsh or uncomfortable. It feels rugged and inspires confidence out there in the cruel world of roadway realities. It even felt comfortable over a series of Chicago potholes. We haven't driven the standard SE-R, but we suspect it is also quite comfortable.

We had the opportunity to drive the SE-R Spec V at the fast 4.0-mile Road America circuit near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We found it to be fun but not razor sharp. The engine revved predictably, without climbing too quickly for the driver to keep up with gear shifts. The brakes didn't fade during our high-speed lap, and the handling gave nice feedback.

We also thrashed it around an autocross course. The engine provided good power out of corners, so much so that we spun the inside wheel. We would recommend the optional limited-slip differential for anyone wanting to do parking-lot autocrosses or other hard driving in the Spec V. The car leaned more in quick, sharp turns than an autocrosser would like, and wasn't as sharp as the likes of a Mini Cooper S or BMW 1 Series. Overall, when it comes to ride and handling, the Spec V is a comfortable road car, with decent handling that provides a lot of feedback as it approaches the edge of adhesion.

The brakes felt good on the street. Base models have vented 11-inch discs in front and drums in rear. The SE-R has 11.7-inch front discs and 11.5-inch rear discs, and the SE-R Spec V gets 12.6-inch front rotors. ABS is now standard on all models, right down to the base 2.0. We recommend ABS because the anti-lock brakes allow you to brake and steer at the same time in a panic stop.

The Sentra uses electric power steering, as opposed to hydraulic. It's speed-sensitive, which means the feel is lighter when parking and heavier out on the freeway, as it should be.

Request More Info

/* DNA4535761 ddcdrewc */
true true true true true true true true true true true true true true