2010 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SL

So you go to the high school class reunion.

So you go to the high school class reunion. It’s been 20 years. You write your name on a sticky slip of paper with a Sharpie, and then enter the hall. The first thing you notice is that many of your former classmates appear to be what the oil painting in Dorian Gray’s closet is supposed to look like. (“That’s what happens in just 20 years!” you think, and then see if you can catch your reflection in a mirror, hoping against hope.) Some others look almost exactly as you remember them.

And there are some people who just don’t register. Chances are, one of them will come up to you, glad hand proffered, and start talking in a tone that says “You were one of my very best friends in high school and it has been far too long.” You desperately try to read their Sharpie-scrawled tag, and once you decode their name, you begin to quickly rifle through your mental files, trying to correlate the person standing in front of you with anything from days gone by.

And you come up blank.

The person is pleasant enough. And was undoubtedly just the same when you had Miss Williamson’s geometry class together (so you’ve been advised during the recitation of “That time we all decided to turn our desks backwards. . . .”). But you can come up with nothing. The person is nice, but you’re still drawing a blank. Whereas some people in your class had certain physical characteristics that were memorable, for good or ill, your new pal has none. Fortunately you spot someone whom you really do remember from Miss Williamson’s class and you excuse yourself and move on.

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So what does this have to do with the Sentra? Well, it is a midsize car that is pleasant enough, nice, and essentially lacks any physical characteristics that are markedly memorable. There’s nothing wrong with it in any big way—some of the interior materials, which try to be a higher class than they really are, are lacking, probably because of this visible and tactile overachievement, but that’s pretty much a venial sin in anyone’s book—but there’s nothing about it that you’d find to be particularly memorable or lovable.

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Nissan says the exterior design has a “sporty, functional theme.” I am a bit mystified by the first word. “Functional” seems more operative here. There body-colored fascias, door handles, and power-adjustable side-view mirrors, which is better than having some sort of generic black material, so the car looks presentable enough in that regard. And inside there is a leather-wrapped steering wheel and suede seat trim as standard (the car as Driven had the $700-Leather Package that provides leather seating surfaces), which certainly add a bit of panache to the whole setup, but the level of appropriateness is somewhat questionable, sort of like someone showing up at the aforementioned reunion wearing a sport coat and a tuxedo shirt.

The powertrain consists of a 140-hp for that is mated to a continuously variable transmission, a combo that provides more in the way of fuel efficiency than foolish exhilaration.

The thing is this: the Sentra is pleasant enough, and priced well: the MSRP for the 2.0 SL is $18,560, which is certainly reasonable for a friendly four-door. And there are people who find this fit for their needs, as in April 2010, the company sold 6,587 Sentras, which is up 38.3% compared with April 2009. However, it is just slightly shy of the sales of the Versa (6,599), which we find to be a more appealing car because of its character.

And that’s what it comes down to in some cases: Character. Without it, you may muddle along at your reunion or in the marketplace (e.g., the Hyundai Elantra is a competitive car, and its April ’10 sales were 9,657; the Mazda3’s were 9,320. Yes, both cars are newer than the refreshed Sentra, so that certainly accounts for something. But. . . .).

Selected Specs

Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC I4

Engine material: Aluminum block and head

Horsepower: 140 @ 5,100 rpm

Torque: 147 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm

Transmission: Xtronic continuously variable

Steering: Electric power-assisted

Wheelbase 105.7

Overall length 179.8

Overall width 70.5

Overall height 59.5

Fuel economy: 26/34 mpg