Trying to turn around a floundering car company is a huge job that usually can’t be rushed. Nissan is in the midst of a major course change after two decades of declining fortunes. While long known for capable but boring products, new entries like the Nissan Xterra sport-ute, and the Infiniti i30 sedan, are once again captivating buyers. Well, now it’s the turn of a new, Sentra compact, the most practical, and recently, most unexciting of all Nissans. Is this another turn in the right direction?
Not only is it another move in the right direction, the all new 2000 Nissan Sentra moves pretty good to the left, too! And, since this is the first Sentra designed exclusively with the North American market in mind, Nissan is hoping the Sentra moves into a lot of U.S. homes.
So to achieve that goal, the Sentra is boasting a more grown up, “mini-Maxima” look. And the makeover starts at the front with multi-parabola lamps in a bolder, fresher face that, like the rest of the Sentra, has grown nearly an inch wider. Next, overall length has been stretched 6.5 inches and height increased an inch.
SE models with the performance package like our tester, ride on handsome, 16 inch alloys, and get a racy-looking spoiler that tops the more sharply defined rear. It also tops the generous trunk with its wide opening, low lift over height, and spacious 11.6 cubic foot volume. In the trunk you’ll also find the pull knobs that release the folding 60/40 split rear seat backs, expanding the cargo potential even more.
After you’ve stowed your gear, you’ll be ready to fire up the power. In the SE it’s Nissan’s familiar all-aluminum 2.0 liter, twin-cam inline-4 that’s been retooled for an increase in horsepower from 140 to 145. Torque has been bulked up too, to 136 pound-feet. Done so, courtesy of a lengthened intake manifold, lighter crankshaft and roller-type rocker arms, and the variable capacity muffler system introduced last year on the Maxima.
Those improvements are good for 0 to 60 sprints in 8.3 seconds and quarter mile dashes in 16.3 seconds at 84 mph. Power begins to come on strong at 4,000 rpm, reaching its peak at 4,800. And our drivers liked the way the Sentra pulled its weight all the way to the red line.
Power is channeled via a tight, sweet-shifting, 5-speed manual transmission. A 4-speed automatic is available, too. With the manual, SE fuel economy ratings are 24 city and 31 highway, with us managing 29 on our economy loop.
Both transmissions can also be mated to the Sentra’s standard engine, a completely new 1.8 liter with 126 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque. In a special Sentra “Clean Air” edition, it’s the first gasoline engine to meet California’s super ultra low emission vehicle standards. That’s electric car clean!
Most impressive too is the Sentra’s solid, yet agile handling. Several passes through our low speed slalom proved the Sentra to be a well balanced little road machine. The responsive engine-speed-sensitive rack and pinion steering feels just right on turn ins, and inputs are acted upon instantly. And the Sentra’s MacPherson strut front suspension, coupled with Nissan’s Multi-Link Beam axle design at the rear, keep the car firmly planted. The SE Performance Package also includes a strut tower brace in the front and stiffer calibrations. But that extra stiffness doesn’t translate into any undue harshness out on the road. The Sentra glides along on its carryover 99.8 inch wheelbase like a larger car, with just enough body roll to make the ride comfortable without being sloppy.
While disc/drums are standard, the SE comes to a stop with four wheel discs. ABS is optional. Without it our car stopped from 60 in a longish 130 feet. And while we did experience some wheel lock, the Sentra demonstrated fine hard braking stability with firm peddle feel.
Also generating a fine response is the Sentra’s larger, Euro-styled interior. Fresh shapes, high quality materials, and unexpected extras like this dash top storage bin, blow away any low budget compact car perceptions. The SE includes firm, well bolstered cloth bucket seats, with manual height adjustment for the driver. Side impact airbags are optional.
A leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel fronts a set of titanium-looking gauges. Both also SE fare. And so is the 180 watt, 7 speaker, CD player stereo, with optional in-dash 6-disc changer. Note, even the standard car gets a CD player. Nice.
The climate controls work well, too. The knobs are large, with garish shapes that would look at home on a boom box. And while the front seat room is quite good, in the back it’s a compact car squeeze for adults. But growing family members will find the space adequate.
More than adequate is the Sentra’s pricing. Available in three trim grades, the entry level XE model starts at a modest $12,169. The volume leader GXE begins at $14,019. And SE models like our tester are off and running at $15,419. In a world full of 18-grand Civics and Corollas, the Sentra is a good buy.
Armed with that kind of smart pricing, a bigger, bolder, younger exterior and interior, plus a healthy dose of spirited performance, the 2000 Nissan Sentra comes with plenty of moves to handle all comers. And any move that pushes you towards the front of the compact car pack is definitely one in the right direction.
Engine: 2.0 Liter Dohc I-4
Torque: 136 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 8.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.3 Seconds @ 84 MPH
60-0 MPH: 130 Feet (w/out Abs)
EPA Mileage: 24 MPG City 31 MPG Highway