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SEE ALSO: Nissan Buyer's Guide

1996 NISSAN SENTRA GXE

by Tom Hagin

SPECIFICATIONS

     Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 14,459
     Price As Tested                                    $ 15,863
     Engine Type                             1.6 liter I4 w/PFI*
     Engine Size                                  97 cid/1597 cc
     Horsepower                                   115 @ 6000 RPM
     Torque (lb-ft)                               108 @ 4000 RPM
     Wheelbase/Width/Length                    99.8"/66.6"/170.1
     Transmission                              Five-speed manual
     Curb Weight                                     2430 pounds
     Fuel Capacity                                  13.2 gallons
     Tires  (F/R)                                     P175/70R13
     Brakes (F/R)                              Disc-ABS/disc-ABS
     Drive Train                  Front-engine/front-wheel-drive
     Vehicle Type                       Five-passenger/four-door
     Domestic Content                                        N/A
     Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                              0.33

PERFORMANCE

     EPA Economy, miles per gallon
        city/highway/average                            30/40/35
     0-60 MPH                                       9.9  seconds
     1/4 mile (E.T.)                       17.2 seconds @ 80 mph
     Top Speed (Est.)                                    112 mph
     * Port fuel injection

Designing and building a successful small sedan is no easy task. It must deliver decent handling and performance, yet be affordable and economical. Interior roominess is a must, but outside dimensions must be small enough for good around-town maneuvering and easy parking. It also must utilize a decent level of technical sophistication. Fortunately for Nissan, its Sentra sedan meets the above criteria.

The 1996 Sentra is offered four ways: Base, XE, GXE and top-line GLE. Our test week came behind the wheel of the well-equipped GXE, which offers lots of standard features at a reasonable price.

OUTSIDE - Sentra is offered only as a four-door sedan, as Nissan's small car coupe duties are handled by the Sentra-based 200 SX. Sentra's redesign last year smoothed its shape for aerodynamic efficiency, but lost some of the "econobox" sportiness enjoyed by the previous generation car. Sentra's sensible styling does, however, adhere to the car's mission of offering a more contemporary package to a more mature audience. Our test Sentra GXE comes with such standard exterior features such as full wheelcovers, dual power outside mirrors, body-colored bumpers, protective side molding and tinted glass.

INSIDE - The seats are covered in cloth upholstery, and its interior design is plain, but well-planned. Simple rotary knobs control the ventilation system, and the turn signals activate with a silky snap. Visibility is exemplary from the driver's seat, as the dash was lowered and the glass area increased. Roominess is Sentra's strong point inside, and with the help of a new rear suspension introduced last year, those seated in back are more comfortable than before. Standard interior features on Sentra GXE include air conditioning, power windows and door locks, a tilt steering column, intermittent wipers, and a four-speaker AM/FM cassette stereo. The tall trunk with its low lift-over height offers convenience as well as large luggage capacity, while a split fold-down rear seat increases trunk space. But the "port" through the rear seat restricts the height and width of cargo passing through.

ON THE ROAD - A 1.6 liter in-line four cylinder engine resides under Sentra's hood. It sports twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves, which gives it 115 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque. Although not as quick as some of its competition, Sentra's powertrain gives adequate response and enough power to quickly attain freeway speeds. Drag racing isn't Sentra's mission, but fuel-stretching is its strongest point. Equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, as was our test vehicle, 35 mpg average came with quite a few high-speed highway runs. A four-speed automatic transmission is optional, but it saps some of the engine's much-needed power. The experience from inside is quiet and comfortable, which is usually all one could ask for from a small sedan that's costs well under the average price of a new car.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - Sentra is 17 percent stiffer than the generation it replaces, which gives the car better handling. Its ride is tautly- controlled, yet resilient enough to filter out most of the rough stuff. Unfortunately, our test car's smallish tires quickly lost grip and plowed ahead in hard corners. Power steering is standard equipment on all Sentras except the base model, as is a rear stabilizer bar. The familiar front MacPherson struts and coil springs have been retained, but the new Multi-Link Beam rear suspension gives benefits in several ways. First, the simple, lightweight beam-axle "mutation" allowed engineers to move the rear axle back, thus increasing the car's wheelbase by over four inches, without increasing its overall length. Second, the stretched chassis contributes to more rear space, an area in which most small sedans suffer. Standard braking is accomplished with a front disc/rear drum setup, while our car came equipped with an optional anti-lock braking system (ABS), which also adds rear disc brakes.

SAFETY - Dual airbags and side-impact protection are standard, while ABS is optional. Adjustable upper anchors make the front safety belts comfortable for just about everyone.

OPTIONS - ABS adds $999, while the destination charge is $405.

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