PAHRUMP, Nev. -- The road to Pahrump, a tumbleweed-strafed strip of asphalt stretching from the Las Vegas glitter-gulch to a crossroads community in the middle of nowhere, runs dead-eye straight for miles and miles through the Nevada desert.
A surprising volume of traffic, confined to a single lane in each direction, usually stacks up behind some sluggish truck or a rental car filled with Vegas tourists out to see the bleak desert landscape.
On our run down the Pahrump Highway, however, luck brings a reasonable gap in the on-coming traffic so we can stomp the throttle and scoot around a slow-moving freighter.
Although the sedan we steer carries but a modest four-cylinder engine, it does not impede our dash down the passing lane. In fact, it lurches around the truck and sends us quickly on our way to Pahrump.
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 feels 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 stylish trimwork in shiny metallic silver.
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.
This particular Sentra in top-end 2.0 SL trim and bearing the model-year designation of 2007 represents an entirely new design for the venerable Sentra nameplate. It marks the sixth generation for Nissan's compact sedan and brings revisions in all aspects of the vehicle, from the structural system of the platform and rather bold styling of the sheetmetal shell to a powertrain upgrade and handsome passenger compartment loaded with features for comfort, practicality and safety.
Compared with the last Sentra, which traces back to model-year 2000, the body of the 2007 Sentra was stretched by 2.3 inches in length and expanded in width by more than three inches, with the roofline raised some four inches.
The result is a substantially larger vehicle -- particularly in the five-seat cabin, which adds up to class-leading interior space. Sentra's expansive cockpit contains stylish materials and a double-folding back seat plus cargo space in the trunk exceeding 13 cubic feet.
Also new to Sentra is that zippy front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain. The four-cylinder plant increases in displacement size from 1.8 liters to 2.0 liters. Composed of cast aluminum for the block and fitted with dual overhead cams, it 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 standard six-speed manual transmission or optional 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.
This CVT -- accounting for the third generation of Nissan's high-tech Xtronic design -- never shifts from one gear to another because the CVT 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 Xtronic CVT, Sentra achieves frugal fuel consumption numbers like 29 miles per gallon for in-town driving and 36 mpg at speed on a highway. With the new structure that's far stiffer and more resistant to torsional twisting, Sentra moves and handles with the solidity of a larger vehicle.
The new suspension becomes a factor for safe operation of Sentra because it sets up agile pavement manners
Up front the independent system with struts has a stabilizer bar and in back a torsion beam with integral stabilizer bar 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 is quick to respond, thanks to a rack and pinion system with electric power assistance, which eliminates a load of hydraulic equipment and adds to the efficiency of Sentra's engine. Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums.
For safety in motion, Sentra offers a four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD). 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.
Sentra trims out at three levels -- the entry-model 2.0, upgraded 2.0 S and deluxe 2.0 SL. Stock equipment on Sentra 2.0 ranges from an air conditioning system to front seats with four-way manual adjustments, the rear bench with a folding seatback split 60/40, power controls for windows and door locks, an 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, power controls for exterior mirrors, vehicle information display and audio controls mounted on the steering wheel.
Sentra 2.0 SL adds 16-inch alloy wheels, the ABS and EBD plus the CVT, a keyless ignition, cruise control, and leather seat upholstery. Nissan sets Sentra's price scale as low as $14,750.