LAS VEGAS - Sales of Nissan Division's entry-level Sentra have fallen for years as Honda and Toyota have shown a better sense of what first-time car buyers want.
In addition to misjudging the U.S. market in terms of features, Nissan also burdened the Sentra with a dowdy design from Japan.
Indeed, the typical Sentra buyer has been older and poorer than buyers of the Altima - the next step up in the Nissan product chain - and has been willing to settle for a tinny econobox, admits Mark Perry, Nissan corporate manager for category marketing.
Sentra sales peaked at 172,129 in 1994, according to the Automotive News Data Center, but have fallen steadily since. Last year's sales of 63,134 units were off 28.5 percent from 1998.
But with a better base engine, more standard amenities and a new look provided by Nissan's Southern California design studio, the 2000 Sentra is for consumers who want power, handling and value from their first car, he says.
'We want this car to be a destination vehicle; a reward for them. We don't want this to be a car they throw away after three years,' Perry said here at a press preview for the new generation Sentra.
As a result, Nissan packed the base model with standard features not seen in its competitors, such as an anti-theft engine immobilizer system, 14-inch wheels, front and rear stabilizer bars, tilt steering wheel and body-color bumpers, moldings and door handles.
FASTER THAN BEFORE
On the mechanical side, the new 1.8-liter, four-cylinder base engine reaches 60 mph about a second faster than the previous model. The upmarket 2.0-liter engine is a carryover, with some minor tweaks.
Other mechanical changes include a hydraulic, rather than cable-actuated, manual stick shift, and an automatic transmission that is electronically controlled instead of electronically monitored.
The solid beam rear suspension has been beefed up for better lateral control and torsion rigidity. Additional noise, vibration and harshness measures mean the Sentra is quieter at 30 mph than the Toyota Corolla is at idle, Nissan claims.
For California, Nissan will offer a Super Ultra Low Emissions 1.8-liter engine that generates 122 hp but earns zero-emission-vehicle credits. Nissan claims the Sentra CA generates fewer nonmethane organic gases than the Toyota Prius and also emits nearly zero evaporative emissions.
'Theirs is a mileage story. Ours is an emissions story,' Perry said.
For the young crowd who likes to customize these basic cars into pocket rockets, Nissan also will bring back the SE-R model next year. While details are being worked out, there is a strong chance the car will have a supercharger, sport-tuned suspension, aero kit and sticky tires.
Until then, the Sentra SE will have to do with 16-inch wheels, sport trim, stiffened suspension and viscous limited-slip differential. The limited slip was a casualty of decontenting the last time around, but U.S. product planners insisted on it with the 2000 Sentra, Perry said.
As for the look of the Sentra, Nissan Design International echoed many of the character lines of the flagship Maxima to give the sedan a mature, solid look. Although the wheelbase stayed the same, Nissan stretched the Sentra's overall length by 6 inches to give it a thicker look, Perry said.
Perry hopes sales of the new model will crack the 130,000 barrier but realizes that the segment is soft and competition is hard. All Sentras destined for the North American market will be built at the Aguascalientes, Mexico, plant.
At one point, Nissan studied ditching the Sentra name but found that consumers associated it with feelings of reliability and durability. Besides, cash-poor Nissan could hardly afford the $100 million needed to seed a new name in the American psyche, Perry said.
Despite all of the upgrades, Nissan hopes to bring out the new Sentra for $500 less than the current model. Starting price should be about $12,000, including destination, reaching into the high $15,000 range for a loaded CA model. On sale date is early March.