Driving It

The Sentra's off-the-line performance is good, with acceleration that's much more effortless than the Civic or Corolla, both of which are offered with traditional automatic transmissions with fixed gears. The Sentra's optional continuously variable automatic transmission, which my car had, provides an infinite number of gear ratios, and that allows engine speed to remain more constant, and usually quieter.

Nissan has done a remarkable job tuning the Sentra's drivetrain. Performance-oriented SE-R and SE-R Spec V models are available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, but I tested the base 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder that goes in the majority of Sentra trim levels. The engine was paired with the optional CVT, as mentioned, but a six-speed manual is standard. Nissan is one of the few automakers using CVTs in many of its cars and crossovers, and the Sentra proves the automaker knows what it's doing.

Overall, the Sentra feels like it has a larger engine under its hood than it does, but not at the expense of fuel economy. The infinite gear ratios in a CVT allow the engine to operate in its most efficient range, and the Sentra with the CVT gets a competitive 26/34 mpg city/highway. That beats the manual transmission's 24/31-mpg rating. Predictably, gas mileage drops with the larger four-cylinder, down to 24/30 mpg with the CVT and 21/28 mpg in the manual-transmission model, which also prefers premium gas.

Like many other cars with smaller engines — the Civic and Corolla included — the Sentra's four-cylinder doesn't have a lot of power in reserve for highway passing. It accelerates up to highway speeds confidently and cruises easily with fast traffic, but don't expect a burst of power if you stab the gas pedal. If you do stab it, you're more likely to get just a slight bump in speed and more engine noise.

I like the Sentra's ride quality, though some Cars.com staffers who drove it thought the suspension was noisy over rougher stretches of road. I noticed some noise over big bumps, but the suspension craftily blended good damping abilities without sacrificing steering response and overall nimbleness.

The Civic handles well but makes occupants pay with a noisy cabin. The Corolla isolates you but doesn't encourage you to push it on a winding road. The Sentra, meanwhile, falls somewhere between the two. It provides a quieter, more comfortable driving experience than the Civic but isn't as softly sprung as the Corolla. It's a nice balance that delivers the benefits of both approaches in one car.

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