DETROIT – Small cars are not as snazzy as their big brethren but they are certainly becoming more popular as fuel prices seem stuck in the neighborhood of three bucks per gallon. The reason is summed up in two words: fuel efficiency.
With an EPA rating of 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, the 2008 Nissan Sentra was just what the pocketbook ordered. The Sentra's gas sipping capability was, ahem, fueled by a 2.0-liter four cylinder engine that made 140 horsepower and 147 pounds-feet of torque.
This engine was mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT uses a pulley system to match transmission speed to wheel speed. Rather than arbitrary gear ratios, a CVT can find the precise setting which is more fuel efficient than a standard automatic transmission.
The problem with CVTs is that they are relatively loud and they make a car sound like it never changes gears, which it doesn't since there are no gears. What's more, CVTs make a car seem sluggish. But CVT equipped cars aren't slow, it's an aural experience.
During a week with the 2008 Nissan Sentra not once did we find ourselves lacking power, even on our trip to Chicago. Driving within the Sentra's small-car parameters, we found acceleration acceptable, passing reasonably swift and fuel efficiency impressive.
We arrived in the Windy City with a little less than half a tank fuel left and that was after more than an hour of idling because of an accident. Miles per gallon when a vehicle is stationary is exactly zero.
But these days fuel efficiency is just the beginning. The Sentra had the stately look and the feel of a much bigger sedan. In fact, one of our few quibbles was that the car's suspension could have been stiffer. The Sentra felt too heavy for a small car going over bumps.
Still, the Sentra provided a comfortable ride, responsive handling, an easy drive and a relaxing interior ambience. We never felt overwhelmed by the larger vehicles all around us because the Sentra had a relatively high seating position. The interior materials mimicked perforated leather and fit and finish were much better than average.
There was also a fair amount of rear seat leg room and the rear doors were wide enough for relative ease of access. But head room back there was a bit cramped. That was probably due to our test car's moonroof.
Our Sentra was equipped with satellite radio, a CD player, an auxiliary jack and speed sensitive volume. And it had a keyless ignition system. But what really impressed us was its Bluetooth system. In short, the technology turns compatible cell phones into hands free car phones.
What's a compatible cell phone? Any cell phone that can be used with an earpiece is compatible with Bluetooth. In fact, it is Bluetooth This technology is something we expect to find in bigger more expensive vehicles.
In the Sentra's application of Bluetooth, we found it easy to activate, easy to use and easy to reinitiate when we took our cell phone out of the car and re-entered the Sentra. The key to pleasing customers is giving them good value for their money and giving them something that they didn't expect.
We didn't expect the Sentra to look so stately, we didn't expect it to have satellite radio, we didn't expect it to be equipped with Bluetooth and we certainly didn't expect to get all that for $20,510.