Subcompact car sales took a significant dip and compacts were down slightly in the first half of 2010 after leading the way for a decade and industry experts aren't entirely sure why. Speculation ranges from continuing economic pressure on entry-level buyers to Canadians becoming inured to high gas prices.
But small-car nameplates still accounted for nine of 10 spots in the best-seller ratings nearing the halfway point in the year and that means Nissan's mildly updated 2010 Sentra - although it didn't make the list - remains a key component in the company's lineup.
The Sentra has been Nissan's small-car stalwart since it rolled into the tire tracks left by the Datsun 210 in 1982, but it has now abrogated its entry-level role to an in-house competitor - the Versa subcompact, available as a sedan or hatchback, which now outsells it and filled the number 10 spot on the May best-seller list.
Second opinion: It's got a slew of safety features, but if you want your commute to be fun, you'll have to pony up for options
The Sentra sedan, which gained considerably in physical stature in its major redesign for 2007 and now stretches to near mid-size status, is now clearly part of a Nissan one-two punch in the lightweight division. And to keep it sharp in a ring crowded with competitors, Nissan has given it a few new tools to work with.
Not many, mind you. As mid-cycle refreshes go, this one involves about as little as could be done and still give the ad writers something to work with and the salesroom staff something to point at to differentiate this year's "redesigned" model from the previous year.
Up front, there's a flashier and more in-your-face Altima-inspired grille plus front fascia and headlights and new taillights out back. The 16-inch wheels are a new design and there are three new colours available.
Inside, there's a new upholstery cloth, chrome accents on the HVAC knobs and white faces on the instruments. The mid-range 2.0 S (the vehicle we'll look at here) also gets a Colour Display Audio System with 110-mm screen and USB and iPod compatibility.
A base Sentra 2.0 is priced at $15,198 (about $2,700 more than the base Versa sedan) and comes equipped with six-speed manual gearbox, ABS brakes, power locks, an audio system, tilt wheel, front/side/side curtain airbag systems and other basic amenities.
Comparing this base model to the Versa sedan with an extra $3,000 in equipment or the Versa hatchback, for about the same money, may create a conundrum for some buyers. They could have more stuff, in a smaller sedan with a 1.6-litre engine, or a more useful hatch with a similarly sized engine and equipment.
But step up to the 2.0 S, priced at $18,198 - with 16-inch wheels, A/C, power mirrors and windows, keyless entry, cruise control, an upgraded audio system with display, trip computer and outside temp gauge - and you're definitely in a different class of vehicle.
The test car was fitted with the $1,300 continuously variable transmission and a $135 metallic paint job, that resulted in a $20,958 sticker price sticker (including freight charge). But with these added features, the comfortably sized Sentra arguably becomes an alternative to the almost $24,000 base mid-size Altima, and less expensive to buy and cheaper to operate.
As modern compact sedans go, the Sentra isn't anything out of the ordinary, but is fully competitive with its rivals in virtually every category.
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It's exterior sheet metal, which every potential buyer will view subjectively, looks attractive and somehow substantial and is wrapped around an interior that's perhaps a little plastick-y, but which will seat four comfortably with good head, leg and shoulder room front and rear.
Front seats (the driver's six-way adjustable) have moderately firm bolsters that locate your body comfortably and facing the driver is a moulded-style steering wheel framing a simple cluster of instruments. The silver-trimmed centre stack, however, with the audio system up top and a protruding section below on which the gear-change lever is perched, belongs on a minivan.
Sound levels are reasonable, the audio system more than met my standards, the HVAC system is effective, outside mirrors do their job and the headlights are okay. And the 371-litre trunk will serve most sedan owners' needs with the 60/40-split seatback that expands its load-carrying capability.
The front-drive Sentra is powered by a 2.0-litre, twin-cam four that makes 140 hp at 5,100 rpm and 147 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. The optional continuously variable automatic transmission is among the best of its kind, delivering more linear response than these units did in the past, and thus improved around-town drivability. I'd still prefer a five- or six-speed conventional automatic, though.
Fuel economy ratings are likely high on the list for people looking at this class of car at 7.5 litres/100 km city and 5.8 highway. Even if you only come close, these are good figures.
The independent front/torsion bar rear suspension is pretty standard fare and is set up with the compromise between ride and handling favouring the former. But the electrically assisted power steering has okay feel, and the car responds to its inputs promptly enough, and body roll is quite well-controlled.
The Sentra 2.0 S is pretty much state-of-the-small-car art, and will meet most buyers' expectations, but doesn't make much of a distinctive statement about that art. For that, you'd have to step up to the Sentras that carry on the long tradition of Nissan small-car performance - the 2.5-litre, 177-hp SE-R or 200-hp SE-R Spec V.
2010 Nissan Sentra 2.0 S
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $18,198; as tested, $20,958 (including freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 140 hp/147 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.5 city/ 5.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cobalt, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Caliber