- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

One of the endearing characters in the popular Li’l Abner comic strip years ago was Joe Btfsplk, an unlucky, morose little guy who always had a dark rain cloud hanging over his head.

In the realm of compact cars in the United States, the Nissan Sentra can relate to Joe. Try as it might, it has not been able to crack the top ranks in sales. Although it does better than also-rans such as the Mitsubishi Lancer and Hyundai Elantra, it doesn’t come close to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cobalt and Ford Focus.

Nissan aims to change that with the all-new 2007 Sentra. But it has a bit of a cloud over its hood cast by its sibling, the Nissan Versa, another new car that is marketed as a subcompact but actually has more interior room than the Sentra.

However, the two cars appeal to different buyers. The Versa is a practical hatchback of the sort popular in Europe; the new Sentra is a traditional four-door sedan that is favored by Americans.

There are five versions, starting with the manual-transmission base model at $15,375 and progressing through the S, SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V versions. The last, with a $20,525 opening sticker price and only a six-speed manual gearbox, is a high-performance model with 177 horsepower.

The test car was a midlevel Sentra 2.0 S. It had a starting price of $17,075 and an economy-oriented 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Nissan is a leader in CVT technology, which uses belts and pulleys to provide infinitely variable ratios between the engine and the wheels. A CVT is characterized by the lack of shift points; it accelerates as smoothly and seamlessly as an electric motor, though not without some engine roar as the revolutions build and ebb.

In addition to its smooth operation, the CVT’s advantage over a conventional automatic transmission is that it provides fuel economy similar to — and sometimes superior to — a manual gearbox.

The tested Sentra had government city/highway ratings of 29/36 miles to the gallon. Those figures will drop some for 2008 when the EPA revises its ratings downward to better reflect real-world fuel consumption.

The Sentra’s new styling has some of the edgy look of its larger and higher-priced garage-mates, the Altima and Maxima. Despite that, and the accompanying low roofline, thoughtful design provides an uncommonly roomy interior with comfortable seating on cloth upholstery.

The back seat offers plenty of head and knee room for outboard passengers, even those 6 feet tall. Though shortchanged, the center position actually is usable. On many cars, even some larger ones, the center-rear seating position is impossible.

Standard equipment on the tested S model includes side air bags, side-curtain air bags, front seat belt pretensioners and tire-pressure monitoring. But antilock brakes cost $250 extra, or you can buy a $600 package that also includes electronic brake-force distribution and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Other standard equipment includes air conditioning, remote locking, electric power steering, power windows and mirrors, a manual six-way adjustable driver’s seat and an AM/FM/CD audio system. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.

An unusual feature is a pair of cup holders between the front seats that are multiadjustable for everything from tiny cups to big bottles. However, the convenience does not extend to the back seat, where there are neither door pockets nor cup holders.

The test car had a few options, including XM satellite radio, an upgraded audio system, fog lights, the aforementioned ABS/alloy wheels package, and a convenience package that included cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free telephone system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a useful hidden compartment for small items in the trunk and a so-called “intelligent keyless ignition and entry system.” The options brought the as-tested price to $19,885.

The keyless system works about as well as any of its ilk. You do not have to remove the remote control from pocket or purse. However, you still have to twist the knob on the steering column to start the engine, just as you would have to do if you inserted a key.

To lock and unlock the doors, you simply touch a small button on the outside door handle. But the system, combined with an engine that is unusually quiet and smooth-running at idle, makes it too easy to forget to shut things down.

Without realizing it, you can exit the Sentra, touch the door button and walk away with the engine still running.

However, the 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which provides adequate power for both urban traffic combat and freeway cruising, is not so docile under hard acceleration, when it emits a rasping growl.

Some of that is characteristic of a car with a CVT, and the engine does settle down to a quiet drone in highway cruising.

The Sentra’s analog speedometer and tachometer are easy to read. However, the remaining gauges — fuel, temperature and odometer — as well as other readouts for the radio, outside temperature and clock, are digital.

They have faded black markings on faded orange backgrounds, and are hard to read even under the best light conditions.

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