1998 Nissan Sentra

I learned to drive in a Nissan Sentra barely four years ago, which may partially explain my affection for it.

For all of its sensible-shoe looks, it was nimble, quick and fun to drive.

The 1998 Sentra is decidedly sleeker than the old car and about 100 mm have been added to its wheelbase. But I'm not sure if I like the new look as much: it's another generic lump that looks more like a dumpling than anything else.

I appreciated the honesty of the old car's econo-boxiness. With its egg crate grille and non-functional scoops in the front bumper, the new car is trying to be something it isn't.

Although the look has changed, the basic fun factor is still very much in evidence.

The new car still handles very nicely, with little body roll and sharp steering. The brakes (my virulently green tester had the optional $950 four-channel ABS and rear discs) were strong, although at low speeds the pedal had a snatchy-grabby action that the old car didn't have.

The 1.6 L 115 hp four-cylinder engine has plenty of zip around town and on the highway, it can, however, be buzzy at high revs.

The shifter feels great, the gear ratios are well-spaced, and the clutch is light and easy. A tachometer is optional, even on the top-level GXE.

Even with its rounded edges the Sentra is still a very upright car, which pays dividends in both headroom and visibility.

It's easy to see all corners of the car through the big windows, and you can dash in and out of traffic with confidence. The mirrors are also huge, a big plus.

Inside, the Sentra is roomy and well-appointed. Though the gray plastics and gray fabric of my test car were drab, they were of very good quality.

The dash is curved gently and positioned low, for an airy feel. All of the controls are well-placed and made of good textured plastic. The only cheap touch is a windshield wiper stalk that feels thinner and less substantial than a chopstick.

The seats are firm and comfortable, but don't have much lateral support. There's a decent amount of room in back as well, and the rear seats split-fold 60/40.

The trunk, which looks stubby from the outside, swallowed a lawnmower with ease.

$14,498 buys a base model Sentra with all of the same running (but not stopping) gear as the $18,568 GXE I drove, but you'll have to do without power steering or a radio.

The happiest compromise seems to be the $15,098 XE, which has a host of useful features such as a rear stabilizer bar, larger tires and remote trunk and fuel lid releases, for a negligible $500 over the base car.

A $1,100 "value package" adds air conditioning and four-speaker cassette stereo.

It's a lot of car for the money, although short on surface excitement — the Sentra's goodness is hidden underneath that dumpling shape, and it may be a disappointment for those looking for luxury features or high-zoot styling.

But one test spin, or several driving lessons, are enough to demonstrate how good the stuff is underneath.

The Sentra, dumpling or not, is a ball to drive, and for that, I'm willing to forgive all sorts of superficial sins.


Sentra GXE sedan: $17,498

ABS package: $950

(incl. ABS and rear disc brakes)

Metallic paint: $120

Delivery charge: $400

Price as tested $18,968

Short Turn is an occasional column describing quick

impressions of new vehicles supplied by the manufacturer.

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