- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Most people buy a compact car to get the job done: namely, traveling economically from point A to point B. Just because a compact car often is a utilitarian purchase doesn’t mean it has to be generic.

With the 2009 Sentra, Nissan injects character without forgetting the small-car manifesto: the car has to be inexpensive to buy and operate.

With a base price of $17,760, the 2009 Nissan Sentra 2.0S is the automaker’s middle-of-the-line trim level, and that’s just about where you want to be. For one thing, it means you get 16-inch wheels (the $350 for optional aluminum jobs is money well spent), and the Sentra rides with satisfying, big-car suppleness on the 16-inchers.

The S trim also brings anti-lock brakes as standard. I’d never buy a car without ABS. Unfortunately, the added safety enhancement of electronic stability control isn’t available for the 2009 Sentra. Stability control is beginning to become more widely available in the compact-car segment, and I’d expect the next-generation Sentra to offer this valuable safety feature.

Nissan’s brand character really comes out in the Sentra’s drivetrain. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine feels a little disinterested at first, but its 140 horsepower soon gets into the act; the 147 lb.-ft. of torque is reasonably generous, too, and Nissan says 90 percent of that shove is available at just 2,400 rpm.

The company’s signature power-transferer, the Continuously Variable Transmission, is optional for the Sentra 2.0S and it’s probably the transmission most will buy. If you didn’t already know the CVT doesn’t use actual gears, you’ll probably never realize it.

It’s only on the occasion when you shout down to the engine room for max power that you become aware of the CVT’s quirky mannerisms - with your foot mashed to the carpet, the CVT winds the engine to its utmost and just keeps it there until you finally relent and back off the throttle. Not everyone finds this behavior comforting or natural.

Let me just say this: I don’t think the Sentra’s styling is a home run. Although there’s an overall impression of substance - the car doesn’t look wimpy - there’s a little too much weight in the flanks, and the grille and front bumper area are too simple. The trunk appears truncated, killing any chance of proportion with the blocky front. But the Sentra’s high-arch roofline delivers acres of headroom to a spacious interior.

The architecture of the dashboard and center console is superb, highlighted by clean round gauges directly in front of you, with a logical and well-executed radio and climate-control site plan. It all works in plain and easy fashion.

For all this sensible design, the Sentra’s interior is let down by the plastics that abound, even in areas where cost-cutters should know better, such as the door armrests and center stack. When will they learn that a 19-cent piece of rubberized mat to line a storage tray goes a long way toward imbuing a perception of quality when it prevents sunglasses and coins from scraping and grinding in the tray with every turn of a corner?

Yet make no mistake, the Sentra’s fine four-cylinder engine and CVT make for an efficient combo in this modest compact. The CVT allows the engine to run at ridiculously low rpm on the highway, for example. The Sentra and I put in many miles of 75-mph cruise-control time, and even at that speed I was rewarded with the car’s EPA-rated highway fuel economy of 33 mpg. Impressive.

The Sentra does exactly what you expect of a modern compact car: getting you to point B economically and in reasonable comfort. And the Sentra has some character - Nissan character - to keep point-A-to-point-B from being a totally uninvolving experience.

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