Last weekend, the nice people of NMPI temporarily lost their sanity and lent me the new Nissan Sentra 200 for review. Deciding to treat it gently, I did the logical thing and took it on a 600km journey up and down Baguio. Here's what I thought of it.
First of all, the specs. The complete list is here but the most important feature you'd wanna know about is the new kind of (6 speed?) automatic transmission Nissan calls the 'Xtronic CVT' or 'constantly variable transmission', mated to a 2.0li, DOHC 16valve 4 cyl engine, spewing out 140 horses. That same transmission is also available on the X-Trail.
You also notice it's a looker.
So let's not waste any more time and get to what I like. And what I like is that engine, mated to that wonderful transmission.
When I went to it's launch a few months ago, the hosts were constantly going on how 'unlike other automatic transmissions, you never notice when it's changing gears!'. Well let me tell you right now that was not hype. It's true that, when you floor it, you never feel the traditional 'thud' you feel as the AT shifts up gears.
The sound and feel of acceleration or deceleration is linear and you will never feel as if the engine is straining before needing to shift gears. The closest word I can use to describe it is weird, uncanny even.
That's not to say it wasn't great. In fact, it is awesome.
I never had to change to L at anytime going up Kennon Road, and anyone who's ever gone up there in a mid size automatic knows there are several particularly steep and curvy corners up there that requires you brake, take stock and shift to low before turn the wheel.
With Senti Sentra*? No need. When I reached these areas I just point the wheel to determine the spot I wanted to enter a corner, turn, gas it, and that wonderful transmission does the rest. Never did I feel I needed more power. There were never any of those slight, annoying moments when an automatic would be hesitating, even guessing which gear is best. This baby just laps it up, and I caught myself smiling, happy I was avoiding what would've been a hairy moment in any other car.
There was a Civic bearing down on me going up as well, probably to get a better look at the Sentra, and I'd lose him at the corners without even trying. I don't care who you are. You've gotta love that.
I'm sure that when engineers first designed automatics, they wanted to make a car where you never, ever have to shift. That had never truly been the case, as sometimes you would eventually have to when clambering up steep inclines, etc. The fact I don't have to makes me say that this is a true automatic the way it should be built.
The 2nd thing I liked most about it is the brakes, which didn't have ABS but were very responsive, never mushy and always reliable. I know it might sound silly to praise a simple disc / drum setup, but good brakes are a great confidence booster going up and down mountains during rainy weather.
And finally the 3rd most noticeable feature would be the loads of space you get, which had always been a Sentra prerogative, I think. You get nice cubby holes and well thought of stuff like adjustable cup holders.
It also had the deepest glove compartment I've ever seen.
and a ridge on top of the dashboard that was utterly useless, until we found a use for it.
There's also a place to park your iPod in, but unfortunately I didn't have the proper cable.
I also love the steering wheel radio controls, which I missed most. I'd still catch myself groping for them now as I drive my own car. I can't see why this shouldn't be a standard option. The safety benefits are a good reason alone.
Now onto the parts where I don't like.
Unfortunately, I'd have to talk about that engine / drivetrain again. While the Xtronic is great going up the mountains, I'm not too keen on it's performance on the open highway. I've always been a Manual Transmission guy, which is why my enjoyment of this automatic is special. But on the open road I couldn't find the predictability and precision I wanted, especially when overtaking slower cars (and with this engine, there are a lot of slower cars out there).
You could always turn off overdrive which keeps the engine on top of revs, but then at high speed that constant high revving bothers me and, blame my years of driving around in econoboxes, I was starting to relate each high - revving overtake to its equivalent in hundreds of pesos in fuel. By the time we got down Naguilian highway and off to Sta. Rita and Tarlac, each car I had been passing had its equivalent in P100 bills.
I'm sure I'm exaggerating, but there's nothing quite as wonderful as the high you get driving a strong car across miles of highway. Here though, I miss the ability to shift to L to overtake, then quickly back to D afterwards, or the even better manual alternative, which is downshifting from 5th to 4th or revving it up to shift smoothly to 3rd, then using that power to overtake and go back to higher gears afterwards.
On that matter, downshifting to engine brake down the mountains is something I missed sorely, not wanting to use the brakes so much. Again I missed the ability to play the transmission from L to D and back again as needed so I could use the engine to slow down. Of course you can do that here, but the effort (clicking the gear shift button to go to L, then pushing it back to D carefully lest it go all the way to N), was too much.
Clearly they designed this assuming you would almost never want to use any other setting than D. This would eventually take its toll on brake use in the long run.
I also don't care too much about the front A pillar, which is far too large for my taste.
I often needed to have to rubber neck out the windshield while turning left corners to get a good look at that area. The large mirrors are great but they don't help here either. I had to peer either above or below them to see what I was turning towards.
The excellent 205/55R 16 Bridgestones offer good grip and like the brakes, were a Godsend for driving in rainy weather on the mountains, but gave far too much road noise on the cemented open highways. This is a good trade-off, I think, because I'd rather give up audible comfort than grip. Still, I'm glad the sound system was up to par to mask the road noise.
I'd also point out the ride, which was rough. Surprising for a Sentra, whose previous models felt super smooth to me.
There were times when, shooting across Tarlac and La Union, we'd come across rougher than usual roads which would've normally been a breeze. The Sentra however would make you feel every 2 or 3 inch hole and you'd jump about in your seat a little bit. It would get to the point where it would alarm me and I would wonder if I underestimated the size of the potholes. After a while though I realized it wasn't the road, but the shocks felt like they were in sport mode or something.
This can take it's toll on you and after 5 hours driving my tailbone was feeling the pain, and we had to stop for coffee just before I took on Kennon. Strangely though, coming back down I drove 7 hours straight with far less strain, so either I got used to it or the roads were better, I'm not sure. Most likely it's the former, as it takes me a few days to get used to a new car.
And finally we get to the most telling point of contention amongst previous Sentras, the fuel consumption.
The fact the Sentra's fuel meter wasn't reliable didn't help. Going down from Baguio I was confident we had enough gas with 3 bars on it. Sometime in the middle of the twisty roads and miles away from a gas station, the empty tank warning lit up and a number was flashing along with a mysterious 'DTE' acronym. Unfortunately the car didn't come with the owner's manual, so we started calling it the 'Distance to Tirik Estimate'.
It would vary depending if we were going up or down a hill, and I understood that, given the variances in pressure the fuel sending unit was experiencing. A newbie driver however, would probably get frustrated and might even panic, not a good thing considering the drive down in thrashing rain and fog demanded your full concentration.
Overall, we finished off a full tank of gas going up there and driving around for a day (I don't know how many liters the tank can contain as again, we were not loaned the manual), and on our way back had to fill it up with P1,300 worth more. The on board computer estimated an 8.5km/li average, but I think we did less, granted the uphill climbs and the fact it's an automatic, which consumes at least 5% to 10% more. This is the part which makes me love my thrifty 1.3li car most.
So what to make of it?
To conclude, I'd give the Sentra a 8 to 7.5 out of 10 rating.
It's contradictory, with the feel of a big car but ride of a small one. It has heavy doors, mid to heavy steering, lots of space, ponderous open - highway performance and the secure feeling that a big car gives. But it counters that with road noise and a small car ride. It should be a cruiser, with an engine that won't give up on you and a transmission that's best for long stretches with little need to overtake. But then, the ride and the road noise are going to want you to slow down.
I can imagine the mid to upper level executives that are this car's target market will like it for its angular and modern looks, and that Xtronic mark on the back will also be a big plus and make it stand out amongst the rest. Despite my gripes this is still an excellent automatic and probably the best I've ever tried on a 2.0li. It would be a great, easy drive in the city.
But it's not perfect, and is not an answer for everyone. Which is ok by me, because I don't think it's made for everyone anyway. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a 5 speed manual transmission version available, which I'd love to try and compare against this AT one on the highway.
* - incidentally, we called it Senti Sentra because we went out on a Saturday, in reference to Senti Sabado. No relation whatsoever with that Twitter account. The name just stuck.