2011 Nissan Sentra Review

I remember my first time at the wheel of a Sentra. It was 1982, and I was swayed by advertising telling me "You NEED this car".

Period magazine ad for 1982 Nissan Sentra
Hard-selling the 1982 Nissan Sentra.

Not being an automotive journalist yet, but having contacts at the local dealership, I was allowed to take one for an afternoon-long test drive. It was cheap, tinny and slow. So slow, in fact, that I got a ticket. You see, in order to make the thing move, all you could do was find the lowest gear, floor the sucker and take it all the way to the redline before you shifted to the next gear, then repeat.

Well, the car made so much more noise than speed that a motorcycle policeman on a side street came after me, pulled me over and wrote me a ticket...not for speeding...I wasn't...it couldn't (at least not without another quarter mile or so of straining)....no, the ticket was for exhibition of speed.

Disturbing the peace would have been a better call.

I considered that Sentra the worst car I'd ever driven (for a time...the 80s had a way of sending worse-still machines my way as fleet vehicles and rental cars), and a scant two years later found the 1984 Honda Civic so superior in every way that I spent $3,000 more than that first Sentra cost because I figured that's what it took.

Front 3/4 view of red 2011 Nissan Sentra sedan driving on suburban street
The 2011 Nissan Sentra.

You'd be amazed how many people hold a grudge like that. "I'd never buy a (blank). My parents had one in 1982 and it was a piece of junk!" 

Times, technologies and techniques all change in the car business...and a lot more frequently than every 29 years, which is why it's no surprise to me (nor should it be to you) that the current Nissan Sentra is not only nothing like the 1982, it's a very, very good car.

Like its big brother Altima, the Sentra tends to fly under the radar. The car you see everyday but don't really pay much attention to. And then, if you're fortunate, you drive one.

The Sentra's virtues are roominess, decent performance, good fuel economy and a wide range of trim levels.  The base 2.0 model starts at $16,060 and comes with a 140 horsepower 2.0 liter 4, a six-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD audio system with auxilary jack, power windows and door locks, six airbags, Vehicle Dynamic Control and Traction Control System.

One step up to the 2.0 S ($17,990) buys you a continuously variable automatic transmission (Nissan builds the best CVTs in the business)16-inch wheels, power outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, an iPod interface, illuminated steering wheel cruise and audio control buttons, a trip computer and outside temperature display.

Next level is the 2.0 SR (also $17,990)...the 16-inch wheels are aluminum alloy, and the rest is cosmetics...sport front and rear fascias, side still extensions, smoked headlight surround and taillights and a chrome exhaust-tip finisher.

Rear view of red 2011 Nissan Sentra sedan parked
Rear view of the 2011 Nissan Sentra. The tall trunk promises good cargo space. And delivers.

And then, there's our tester, the 2.0 SL. Top of the line, apart from the SE-R and SE-R Spec V, which are performance levels and should be reviewed on their own (can we borrow each for a week, Nissan?).

The 2.0 SL is $19,390, takes the 2.0 S equipment and adds the aluminum alloy sixteens from the SR, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Nissan Intelligent Key keyless entry and ignition system, Bluetooth, a premium audio system with a 4.3 inch color display, a USB port and SiriusXM Satellite radio.

Nice package for under $20K.

Interior shot of 2011 Nissan Sentra
2011 Nissan Sentra Interior. Not fancy, but not bargain-basement, either.

Options? Our tester had only three: The most reasonably-priced in-dash nav system I've seen so far ($400),  splash guards ($150) and floor mats ($120). With $750 destination charge, the bottom line: $20,810. One of the best bargains out there.

And the EPA estimate: 27 city/34 highway.

Maybe Nissan's ad agency was 29 years ahead of its time...could be you need this car now.