My family has been a Nissan family for a long time. At the end of high school, my parents bought a base late model 2003 Nissan Sentra. An automatic transmission was the only option they added (Mom refused to drive stick). Feel hot? Crank your own damn windows. Before the Sentra, our family ran a 1997 Nissan Quest GXE purchased at a police auction. The hood had a big notch in it where someone had tried to pry it open with a crowbar. Dad had no love for these machines. Maintenance included oil changes every 5,000 miles, and “car washes” whenever it rained. His goal was to provide point to point transportation at minimal cost and attention. The Quest felt so unloved that it finally decided to commit suicide by spilling oil and warped metal shards all over the street. I didn’t cry over the Quest, but I had many good memories associated with it. It’s probably the source of my minivan love. The Sentra is still doing well mechanically, but if that car had a soul, it’d be a tormented one. Unlike the Quest, the Sentra didn’t even have good memories to redeem itself. I hated it, and projected that hatred on all future models of the Nissan lineup. It was an anti-halo car: Drive one, and you’d never want another Nissan. When Zipcar added a 2011 Sentra SR to my parking lot, I wanted to see if my memory was remembering things worse than they had been.
The styling on my parent’s Sentra was surprisingly good for it’s day. It blended conservative blandness with nice detailing in the rear headlamps. A decade later, it’s aged well and doesn’t look awfully out of date.
The 2011 Sentra keeps the conservative blandness. Instead of interesting details, it glues on a tasteless wide body kit with a shiny exhaust tip and alloy wheels that somehow manage to look worse than steelies. Not a good first impression Nissan, not good at all.
Materials didn’t improve between generations either. Sure, the center console looks more integrated, but subjectively, there felt like more hard plastics in the newer Sentra. There’s less interior space than a comparable Corolla. The only delightful detail was a large trunk head up with gas struts. Well, it was delightful until I realized the struts were already shot, and the car only had 41k miles on it.
My parent’s Sentra had a radio AND a CD player. That’s some real luxury. This Sentra still has a radio, but also adds on other creature comforts like cruise control, and an iPod connection hidden in the armrest. Bluetooth audio was the big missing piece.
When I cranked the engine, the Sentra rewarded me with the clatter of a diesel engine. Wait, what? Nissan sells a diesel compact car? Nope. While charming in Dixie, the noise was ridiculous in a 2.0L gas engine. The noise went away after the car warmed up, so my guess were some sticky valves. Not a deal breaker, but it highlighted how little sound insulation there was in the cabin. The chassis feels much more solid than my parent’s Sentra, but minor road imperfections are still felt. The steering felt unreasonably heavy, but didn’t have any feel to go along with it.
I have no doubt there’s a brand new 2011 Sentra sitting on a dealer lot somewhere with a ridiculously low sticker price. In a time when cheap cars aren’t associated with cheap interiors, I can’t think of any reason to recommend this Sentra. It’s not the most fuel efficient, doesn’t have the largest interior, and lack the refinement its competitors has. Apparently, Nissan agrees, and is coming out with an all new Sentra next year. Unless you’re looking for a bad reason to burn money, hold off on Nissan shopping until next year.