OCOTILLO, Calif. -- Waves of heat ripple off black asphalt on the S2 highway, which rambles through the Coyote Mountains of California's Anza Borrego desert before descending from Sweeney Pass to Ocotillo in the pancake-flat landscape.
There's no traffic for miles on the dead-eye straight stretch heading toward Ocotillo so we stomp the throttle and surge ahead at lickety-split speed.
Keep in mind that the sedan we're steering on the S2 road to Ocotillo totes only a four-cylinder engine, yet it lurches on command of the throttle and sends us quickly on our way.
And at maximum legal speed on this road, our car seems to hunker against the blacktop. It feels rock-solid and substantial, smooth in suspension and surprisingly quiet.
From the vantage of the driver's seat, the cockpit appears downright spacious despite physical dimensions which sort this sedan into the compact class.
Also, it carries preferred interior ingredients, from legible analog gauges in the instrument cluster to a pair of comfortable bolstered bucket seats in the front row, power controls for windows and door locks, a nice stereo sound system on the dashboard and a remote keyless entry fob.
A badge in the hub of the steering wheel reflects the boxy logo of Nissan, which also appears on sedans like the flagship Maxima sportster and mid-size Altima. The tone and style of the sophisticated interior design and appointments in our car evokes images of these larger Nissans yet the compact scale of the cabin leads us conclusively to Nissan's compact-class sedan -- Sentra.
The particular Sentra we're driving is the top-end 2.0 SL trim bearing the model-year designation of 2010. It scores a number of enhancements including fresh exterior styling lines but carries a price tag that's significantly less than the comparable 2009 version.
For 2010, Sentra in front-wheel-drive format comes in four trims -- entry issue Sentra 2.0, up-level 2.0 S, sport-skewed 2.0 SR and the plush 2.0 SL.
MSRP for the 2010 Sentra 2.0 CVT is $16,600, while the 2009 model tallied to $16,730. Sentra 2.0 S and 2.0 SR for 2010 go for $17,160, versus $17,760 in 2009, and the 2010 Sentra 2.0 SL is $18,560, down from $19,660 in 2009.
All 2010 Sentra models are based on a sixth-generation platform which debuted in 2007 with the body stretched by 2.3 inches in length, expanded in width by more than three inches, and the roofline raised some four inches.
The result is a spacious vehicle -- particularly in the five-seat cabin, which adds up to class-leading interior space.
It hunkers low on the wheels below a wedge-shaped package that tips forward to suggest swift movement, even when parked. The profile reveals a generously long wheelbase with brief front and rear overhangs, relatively flat flanks but some crisp character lines.
The smooth front fascia cradles a grille with black fins and round foglamps.
Sentra 2.0 SR edition wears a sporty appearance package with a sport grille and smoked headlamps, new front and rear sport fascias, side sill spoilers and a decklid spoiler on the tail.
Beneath the sleek painted shell, each 2010 Sentra conceals a suspension system which sets up some agile pavement manners.
There's an independent strut design up front with coil springs and a stabilizer bar. In the rear a torsion beam fashions a smooth ride quality and contributes to the car's stability in cornering. The compact design also carves out more legroom for passengers in the rear seat because it occupies scant space on the chassis.
Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, draws power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, but also pares excess pounds.
Brakes consist of front ventilated discs and rear drums.
For safety in motion, each Sentra stocks a four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).
Top trim Sentra 2.0 SL model also carries a traction control system (TCS) plus Nissan's vehicle dynamic control (VDC) device which automatically checks lateral skidding on slippery pavement.
Also, there are plenty of air bags concealed in the passenger compartment. The collection includes dual-stage frontal air bags plus side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags mounted in the roof above front and rear outboard seats.
That zippy front-wheel-drive powertrain on Sentra features a 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder engine composed of cast aluminum for the block and fitted with dual overhead cams.
The plant generates 140 hp at 5100 rpm and strong torque of 147 lb-ft at 4800 rpm. It's that tall torque figure on Sentra which enables the kick-out quick acceleration.
The plant connects to a six-speed manual transmission on Sentra 2.0 only, or Nissan's Xtronic continuously-variable transmission (CVT).
Select the manual gearbox if you're a hands-on kind of driver who likes to make shifter decisions for yourself, or pick the CVT if you can't be bothered by shifting chores.
The CVT never shifts from one gear to another because it eliminates step-ratio gears of a conventional automatic transmission as well as the resultant shift shock. Instead, two variable diameter pulleys and a strong steel belt work to match the engine's output with the vehicle's speed, ultimately producing seamless acceleration.
Using the CVT, Sentra achieves some frugal fuel consumption numbers like 29 miles per gallon for in-town driving and 34 mpg at speed on a highway.
Stock equipment on Sentra 2.0 ranges from air conditioning to a tilt steering wheel, front seats with four-way manual adjustments, the rear bench with a folding seatback split 60/40, power controls for windows and door locks, a 160-watt audio kit with AM/FM/CD plus four speakers, and 15-inch steel wheels.
With Sentra 2.0 S, the standard gear increases to include 16-inch steel wheels, a remote entry device, and driver's seat with six-way manual adjustments.
Sentra 2.0 SR and 2.0 SL editions roll on 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/55HR16 all-season tires.