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It is a testament to how far the small car segment has come that an honest effort by an automaker to add a turbo version of its popular car to its lineup can fall short. The Nissan Sentra is a perfectly acceptable means of daily commuting; it is comfortable and attractive. But this sport version is simply not spunky enough.
The current generation of the Sentra arrived for the 2012 model year and received a thorough facelift for 2016. For the 2017 model year, Nissan has added the SR Turbo trim with the promise of more performance.
The 2016 update of the Sentra brought its styling more in line with its larger siblings, the Maxima and Altima. This includes the inverted trapezoidal grille and hints of an “L-shape” in the headlights.
Like the generation before it, the Sentra does many things very well, namely, it delivers the comfort of a larger car but on a scale that competes with the likes of the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Chevrolet Cruze. The latter two are quickly becoming respected names in the small car arena and doing so by using global platforms in the American market.
Though the Sentra is also a global-platform vehicle, it feels more like how an American automaker would design a small car in the past. By that we mean taking the large car comfort and proportions and bringing them down to a smaller vehicle. The Sentra has a traditional layout, with a pronounced trunk and small quarter windows behind the rear doors. Like many new cars, it seems to be moving toward an ultra-efficient design that is part-sedan, part-hatchback.
This results in excellent visibility, as well as an upright driving position and a spacious cabin. That cabin is another one of the Sentra’s best attributes. With plenty of head and legroom for both front and rear passengers, the Sentra would make a fantastic carpool purchase. If you are commuting by yourself, you have more than enough room to spread out, including a surprisingly large trunk for the segment. Another highlight of the Sentra cabin is its controls layout. Too often automakers get a little too cute with controls, trying to evoke the cockpit of an F-35 joint strike fighter. At the end of the day, what we really need is a traditional layout for the radio and climate controls, all wrapped in attractive packaging.
The Sentra delivers this with a center stack that starts at the bottom with traditional climate controls, including—can you imagine—actual dials for the fan speed and temperature controls. Working your way up, the 5-inch color screen radio is the base-level offering for this trim. It is not a touch screen, but has vivid colors and is flanked by easy-to-read buttons. A 5.8-inch touch screen is available.
At the bottom of the center stack is a cubby large enough for your phone, wallet, and keys, and below that is the conventional-style shifter; another area where simplicity pays off. Many automakers are rolling out unique, proprietary shifter designs, which are confusing, and in some cases have even resulted in runaway vehicles. Thankfully, Nissan kept things simple with this shifter design.
Trims for the 2017 Sentra are base S, SV, SR, SR Turbo, and range-topping SL. We drove the all-new SR Turbo, which features unique 17-inch alloy wheels, racy body work, and rear spoiler. It is the first ever Sentra offered as a turbo. The 1.6-liter unit makes 188 horsepower sent to the front wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable transmission. Our test model had the manual, and, on paper, this seemed great. A turbocharged compact car with a manual transmission certainly sounds like fun. But this was not the case in practice.
The clutch felt vague, with a shift point that was too high; you only needed to dip your toes on the clutch to disengage. The manual transmission was a bit better, but still nothing one would call sporty. Max horsepower is made at 5,600 rpm and, with a redline of 6,500 rpm, you’re putting your foot into the floor to get anywhere in a hurry. When combined with how light you have to be on the clutch, it makes for a disheartening driving experience.
So much of this is derived from the badging. You see the letters T-U-R-B-O on the back of the car and you want to push it. But if you drive this car like any other in the Sentra lineup, and consider it a relaxed commuter, you’ll be far more impressed with the ride. Base MSRP for the 2017 Nissan Sentra is $16,990. The non-turbo SR starts at $19,990, and an SR Turbo starts at $21,990. Our SR Turbo came stock, but you could opt it out with the Premium package, which adds navigation, Bose stereo, blind spot warning, and other tech features for another $2,590.
As a typical commuter car, the Sentra is fantastic. The turbo car we drove simply falls victim to unrealistic expectations. This is not a performance car. What Nissan does have is a comfortable daily driver that is visually sharp inside and out. Keep your expectations in that realm, and the Sentra won’t disappoint.
2017 Nissan Sentra SR Turbo
Price: $19,990, as tested, $21,990. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 26/32. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 27.4 mpg. Drivetrain: 1.6L turbo-charged I4, 6-MT, front-wheel drive. Body: Four-door compact sedan.
Horsepower: 188. Overall length: 182.5 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 59.0 in. Width: 69.3 in. Curb weight: 3,009 lbs.
Comfortable, roomy, handsome inside and out, large trunk.
Underwhelming acceleration, clumsy cornering, vague clutch/shifter feel.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A fantastic commuter car, just don’t expect it to be sporty.
Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Dart, Volkswagen Jetta.
George Kennedy is a freelance automotive journalist. He can be reached at George.H.Kennedy.iii@Gmail.com or on Twitter @GKenns101.