The Nissan Sentra looks and feels like a smaller version of the Altima.

Courtesy photo
CNHI News Service

Nissan sells Sentra sedans like Baskin Robbins sells ice cream. No matter what flavor you're in the mood for, they'll probably have it.

Most people probably think of the vanilla Sentra first. It's a straightforward four-door car — basically a smaller, slower version of the Altima — that's good enough for many drivers but not exactly exciting.

But that's just the start.

Nissan sells four different versions of the Sentra with a 2.0-liter engine, plus two more called the SE-R and Spec V that deliver extra speed, for a total of six different cars wearing a Sentra badge.

Then you can sprinkle the options on top.

The end result is a compact car with a wide range of price points and uses, ranging from the cheap and efficient base model to higher end versions that mimic the look and feel of expensive sports sedans.

Five of the six Sentras come with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which is perhaps its most interesting feature.

Unlike most automatic transmissions, which shift between different gears as you speed up and slow down, the CVT adjusts seamlessly as you change speed. It's on a continuous spectrum, which results in slightly better gas mileage and acceleration without any noticeable jerks.

The other surprising thing about the Sentra is its size.

It feels like the kind of car that would have been called "mid-size" 10 years ago. There's plenty of space in the front seats, and the back seat isn't cramped unless you try to cram three full-size adults in it.

It also comes with mongo trunk space. Because it has a fairly tall back end, there's lots of volume left in the trunk for cargo, with a nice, big opening to pull bulky items in and out.

The driving feel will vary greatly depending on which flavor of Sentra you buy.

I drove a Sentra 2.0 S this week, which is one step above the base model. It's quiet when doing normal, sane-person driving, but the engine noise can get grating under hard acceleration because of the CVT. It keeps the revs up at ear-piercing highs longer than a normal automatic transmission would.

The suspension is relatively soft for a Japanese car, but still firm enough to feel slightly sporty. You feel a connection with the road in this car more than you do in a Toyota and less than you do in a Honda, making it a nice choice for people who think Hondas are too rough and Toyotas are too boring.

If you want a hard-edged Sentra, you can get the SE-R Spec V, which makes 200 horsepower, has a stiffer suspension and comes with a six-speed manual transmission to bring out the fun.

Pricing starts at $16,250 for the base Sentra 2.0 and ranges up to $20,810 for the Spec V car.

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