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Nissan unveils the 2000 Sentra

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Even jaded Las Vegas was beside itself last month when news broke that some lucky bandit-yanker landed a $34 million slot fortune with only $20 worth of bait. And while they didn't admit it openly, Nissan operatives on hand for the national media debut of the 2000-model Nissan Sentra compact sedan must have reveled quietly over these auspicious tidings. Not for nothing, perhaps, did Nissan elect to preen its new Sentra before auto writers at the opulent Mandalay Bay Casino: For all the new frills and furbelows intended to refine the reputation of Nissan's entry-level compact, stakes are especially high in this company's bid to redeem its tarnished fortunes.

Entry-level compacts represent the cockfight of the auto business. It's a messy, no-holds-barred category that nobody really enjoys but everyone feels compelled to join. For a class of car ranging in price between $13,000 to $17,000, you can just imagine how the "value" pitch works overtime. Buyers at the bottom, where the base-model Nissan XE will compete at an estimated $13,900 starting price, are typically watching every penny. Since it's not unheard of that dealers will profit only $250 to $300 per car in this class, it behooves a manufacturer like Nissan to load its new Sentra with goodies that will sell themselves. Heaven knows most salespeople won't be falling over themselves for chicken-feed commissions when there are SUV profits to pocket.

Without the least sense of irony, then, did Nissan spokesman Mark Perry introduce his new Sentra as the starter sedan "that only looks like you can't afford it." For 2000, Sentra wears kicky new frocks, with a more streamlined front silhouette that sweeps rearward into muscular haunches. Many journalists in attendance wondered openly if Sentra might not cannibalize sales of Nissan's own Altima sedan, which sits one rung higher in the product line pecking order. "Not so," Perry predictably parried; but then, with admirable candor, he admitted the graver threat: "It's the 2-year-old vehicles just coming off lease that we're really gunning for. Sure, their prices are competitive, because they're used; but isn't a new car at a similar price more desirable yet?"

Let's leave till another day a consideration of whether Altima is being squeezed out of existence by Nissan's new Sentra below and a restyled Maxima above. For the present, it's Sentra's turn to shine, and for the most part it does. This compact's palpable self-confidence owes to strategically larger physical dimensions. Wheelbase remains about 100 inches, but track is an inch wider than '99, height is an inch taller, and overall length grows a whopping 6.5 inches. The resulting extra 3 cubic feet of interior space are distinctly noticeable. Although more subjective, the Sentra's emboldened "presence" on the road is psychologically persuasive.

Underhood, a larger 1.8-liter four-banger inhabits the entry-level XE and "volume leader" GXE models, and this is big news, on paper especially. Compared to last year's 1.6-liter, the new 1.8 delivers 126 horsepower for a 10-percent boost. Better yet, torque grows almost 20 percent to 129 ft.-lbs.; and since torque is the home of "throttle response," the smaller-motored Sentras are demonstrably perkier than before. But with ride quality tuned for softness, handling is moderately mushy; the combination of Sentra's commuter-tuned powerplant, soft-shifting optional four-speed automatic, and over-pliant suspension made for a relatively lackluster drive through Nevada's sweeping desert highways outside Las Vegas.

And so it was a lucky roll of the dice that allowed me next to jump directly into a 2.0-liter Sentra SE with optional Performance Package. The gestalt experience of 145 quick-revving horsepower, snappy five-speed manual shifter, and stiffened, sharpened handling both front and rear transformed a scenic drive into a low-flying desert strafe. Trust me, the new Sentra SE is a triple-digit ride that hardly breaks a sweat in the wide-open sweepers. Better yet, don't trust me; you never heard it from me.

Nearly as an afterthought, Nissan unveiled its new Sentra CA model in Vegas with all the fanfare of a pin dropping. This is not to say that Nissan isn't proud of its "Clean Air" technology, which has rendered the limited-availability Sentra CA the most emissions-friendly gas-powered vehicle in the world. It not only meets the same Super-Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) ratings as experimental hybrid-engine designs but also earns an Electric/Zero-Emissions Vehicle (EZEV) rating heretofore achieved only by no-range electric vehicles. The performance penalty is only 4 horsepower and 7 ft.-lbs. of torque for the CA's modified 1.8-liter motor.

But that ain't all: a special PremAir radiator coating actually "eats" smog as the car rolls through space, converting O3 molecules into plain-old fresh air, O2. Without hyperbole, Nissan can actually claim that a Sentra CA is more beneficial to the environment while it's running than when it's parked with the ignition off. The only small-print issue is the CA's requirement of the low-sulfur fuel presently mandated only by California. As this fuel becomes more widespread around the U.S., so too will the CA, Nissan promises.

After the stunning success of Nissan's new Xterra compact-SUV in '99, the 2000 Sentra represents a significant Second Act in Nissan's dramatic process of self-rescue. There's more to follow, Nissan types broadly hint, obviously referring to a resurrected Z-car sports model. But the Sentra is making a credible effort to win over the hearts and minds of entry-level buyers now. And who knows? If the CA model cultivates a following, maybe Sentra will accomplish a clean sweep.

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