- Very spacious seating front and rear
- Straightforward control layout
- Quiet highway ride
- Speedy SE-R Spec V model
- Engine drone gets tiresome with CVT
- So-so handling
- Ride quality can be harsh
- Manual gearbox's clunky shift action
No longer does owning an economy sedan mean you'll be holding your breath or retracting limbs as you wedge yourself into a pint-size compact. On the contrary, many of these cars are now sized to accommodate 6-foot adults in any of their seats, and the 2008 Nissan Sentra in particular meets the EPA's "midsize car" classification. If you're tall but need a car that's affordable, this is very good news.
The Sentra's size is a product of its tall hatchback underpinnings -- its platform is derived from the Megane, a family-oriented, European-market hatch engineered by Nissan's partner Renault. In most other respects, the French connection is scarcely apparent, as the Sentra is styled to look like a miniature Maxima on the outside and employs Nissan's familiar industrial aesthetic on the inside. Not everyone will find this approach to cabin design attractive, but it's certainly functional. All the controls are exactly where you'd expect them to be and storage areas are abundant in number and variety.
Another advantage to the Nissan Sentra is its variety of engines. The base 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine provides 140 horsepower and a livable compromise between performance and economy when paired with the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that Nissan offers in lieu of a conventional automatic. Those seeking a little more speed can choose either the medium-hot Sentra SE-R, which has a 177-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder, or the truly hot Sentra SE-R Spec V with its higher-revving, 200-horse version of that engine.
If speed on the cheap is what you're after, the Spec V is an impressive deal given its under-$21K price tag and 6.7-second 0-60-mph time. Handling is another matter, though. Although the SE-R models have more aggressive running gear than the lower trims, their non-independent rear suspension design and tall, blocky dimensions make them less adept through the corners than competitors like the Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed 3, Subaru WRX and Volkswagen GLI.
Ride quality is an issue on all Nissan Sentras, as even the softer-tuned 2.0 models are unable to shield occupants from bumps and ruts the way most economy sedans can. Accordingly, we'd advise prospective Sentra buyers to try the Hyundai Elantra, which offers comparable interior room and a more compliant ride. Other good options include the Civic, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer and, for those with slightly higher spending limits, Volkswagen's Jetta. These cars aren't quite as roomy, but all offer a superior ride/handling balance and, in many cases, higher-quality cabin furnishings. That's not to say you wouldn't be happy with a 2008 Nissan Sentra, as it's a competent car in most respects. However, with so many qualified small sedans in this price range, consumers should shop around until they find a car that meets their needs exactly.
WHAT'S NEW FOR 2008
ABS, cruise control and a security system become standard fare on 2.0 S models, while all 2008 Nissan Sentras gain auto-up convenience for the power driver window. Satellite radio is standard on the Sentra 2.0 SL. A manual transmission is no longer available on the base 2.0 model.
Offered in sedan form only, the 2008 Nissan Sentra comes in five trim levels: 2.0, 2.0 S, 2.0 SL, SE-R and SE-R Spec V. The base 2.0 trim includes 15-inch steel wheels, a split-folding rear seat, air-conditioning, a CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack, and power windows and locks, but isn't eligible for many options. Most buyers will prefer the midrange Sentra 2.0 S, which adds 16-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable driver seat, keyless entry, cruise control, power mirrors, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a trip computer. Step up to the 2.0 SL and you get alloy wheels, leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless start, satellite radio, Bluetooth and an overhead CD storage container. Many of the SL's features are optional on the S. Options on both include a sunroof, a Rockford Fosgate sound system, a spoiler and a trunk divider.
The Sentra SE-R offers most of the SL's conveniences, but keyless start, satellite radio and steering-wheel audio controls move to the options list. Additional equipment on the standard SE-R includes 17-inch alloy wheels, firmer suspension tuning, larger brakes, a lower body kit, cloth-upholstered sport seats, aluminum-trimmed pedals, and oil pressure and G-force gauges. The SE-R Spec V supplies summer tires, an even firmer and lowered suspension, even larger front brakes and additional interior enhancements. Note that the Spec V has a rear reinforcement brace that prevents the rear seats from folding. The sunroof and Rockford Fosgate stereo are optional on both SE-R models. Only the standard SE-R is eligible for keyless start, and only the Spec V can be fitted with a limited-slip front differential.
INTERIOR & SAFETY
The Nissan Sentra's cabin offers a modern design, well-organized controls and generally agreeable materials quality. Both SE-R models have black seat cloth with red stitching, but red front seatbelts are exclusive Spec V fixings. Seating is spacious, with ample room for tall adults to get comfortable in both the front and rear. The downside is that the Sentra's driving position can be awkward for those under 6 feet tall: The steering wheel doesn't telescope, and the dash and door panels feel unnaturally high. Storage space is abundant in the Sentra, and luggage capacity is a respectable 13.1 cubic feet.
Front-seat side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags are standard on every 2008 Nissan Sentra. Antilock brakes are standard on all except the base 2.0 model, which has ABS as an option. The SE-R models have four-wheel disc brakes, but other Sentras still have rear drums.
The Nissan Sentra earned a perfect five stars in government-administered frontal-impact crash tests. It earned five stars for front-occupant protection in side impacts and four stars for the rear.
PERFORMANCE & HANDLING
All Nissan Sentra 2.0 models are motivated by a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine good for 140 hp and 147 pound-feet of torque. A CVT driving the front wheels is standard on base 2.0 and 2.0 SL models, while S buyers can get either the CVT or a six-speed manual gearbox. The EPA rates fuel economy at 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway with the CVT and 24/31 with the manual.
The CVT is also standard on the SE-R, which has a 2.5-liter four-cylinder good for 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. More hardcore in personality, the SE-R Spec V gets a high-output version of this engine capable of 200 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque. The Spec V's motor also has a higher redline (7,000 rpm versus the standard SE-R's 6,200), and can only be matched to a six-speed manual with it. The Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V gets to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds.
Handling is adequate but uninspiring in the Nissan Sentra. The car's electric power steering is well weighted, but there isn't much road feel. The SE-R models, particularly the Spec V, fare better in this regard and can be driven quite hard on curvy roads. Compared to similarly priced peers, though, the Spec V feels ungainly and fails to involve its driver as closely as a true sport compact should. Still, the SE-R models offer plenty of power. The Spec V is particularly entertaining, as its engine combines a generous amount of low-end torque with a free-revving personality. Unfortunately, the manual gearbox is awkward and unsatisfying to shift.
In 2.0 form, the 2008 Nissan Sentra is a decent performer. The base engine is reasonably smooth, with adequate power for easy highway driving, though the CVT allows it to drone on at high rpm more than a conventional automatic would. Ride quality is fine on smooth blacktop, but limited suspension travel results in considerable harshness over bumps. The firmly tuned Spec V can get downright uncomfortable during commutes.
With its exceptional passenger room, the 2008 Nissan Sentra is a reasonable choice for buyers in need of an economy sedan that doesn't feel compact. Just don't expect much in the way of driving excitement, even on the SE-R models.