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A Subcompact Masquerading as a 'Real' Car


S ub: Lower in rank and to a lesser degree. As in sublieutenant and subhuman, often one and the same.

Compact: Arranged, compressed or cramped in a small space. As in the lunatic, who is of imagination all compact and seeing more devils than hell can hold, said Shakespeare.

Subcompact: The 1991 Nissan Sentra GXE.

But the Sentra is a subcompact only by price and public presumption. Everything else about this car is a flattening denial of claims that small sedans are squashed forms of tinny lunacy, with a vinyl-lined trunk defining the limit of their luxury.

About that size: The new, reworked Sentra is longer and taller than the redesigned 1991 Ford Escort/Mercury Tracer series that went on sale last April. In fact, the interior dimensions of the Sentra, with the exception of rear-seat space, are only slightly removed from the Volkswagen Passat--which ranks as a compact and costs several thousand dollars more.

Performance: The Sentra's four-cylinder, 1.6-liter, 16-valve engine produces 110 horsepower. That's much more than the aging Honda Civic at 70 horsepower, the new Geo Prizm at 102 or the incoming Mitsubishi Mirage at 92.

Quality: If this car were a piece of furniture, it would be sold through Barker Bros.

Equipment: Standard on the GXE is an inventory of options usually associated with cars with hyphenated nameplates: air conditioning; cast alloy wheels; cruise control; power steering, windows, door locks and mirrors; tachometer; tilt steering; digital clock; trunk light; remote trunk/fuel cap release; AM-FM cassette; intermittent wipers; velour upholstery. . . .

In fact, the only available GXE extras are anti-lock brakes (less expensive than most at $700), power sunroof, automatic transmission and perhaps a kitchen sink with garbage disposal.

All this goes for a base price of $12,050 (with a 5-speed manual transmission), or exactly $3,000 less than the current median price of a new car.

Unfortunately, the excellence is not total. Nissan has fallen flat by equipping the Sentra with a four-speed automatic transmission that is all surges and snaps.

From a casual start, the box seems reluctant to deliver anything but very small helpings of that 110 horsepower. The temptation is to hammer the pedal. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-. . .

Then everything kicks in at once, first and second gear hold on much too long (past 4,000 r.p.m., according to that standard-option tachometer), shifts become lurches, and the engine is noisier than an anti-war rally.

For buyers who know a clutch from a camshaft--or who are willing to crash a few cogs as part of the learning process--a Sentra with manual transmission might be the wiser purchase.

Nissan also has slipped slightly on Sentra's styling. Oh, it's nice enough--also rounded, sloping, molded and smooth enough. But it's a bland, faceless look created by designers so dedicated to aerodynamic purity that they have lost all sense of distinction.

Volkswagen and Audi always have managed an identity in their lines. Even at distance, a Jaguar has never been confused with a Mercedes. A Mustang is a Mustang is a Mustang.

But never bet the wine cellar on being able to tell an Eagle Summit from a Mazda Protege from a Honda Civic from an Acura Integra from a Toyota Corolla. You'll wind up drinking Martinelli while bemoaning automotive inbreeding that sees its small fry styled with all the radical verve of a Harris tweed sport coat.

The Sentra is not infinite in its varieties. It comes only as a two- or four-door notchback. A performance coupe, the SE-R, has a spunkier 2-liter engine producing 140 horsepower. But do not look for a Sentra wagon. Do not expect a hatchback.

Yet in a critical area, Nissan has thumped one pitch out of the park: In the 1991 Sentra, it has managed to fill a small, inexpensive, economical car with many of the luxuries of large, expensive and lavish motoring.

That alone will distance Nissan from its subcompact competition--especially those who still do not offer such niceties as anti-lock brakes, even as an option.

The Sentra's new multivalve engine--although noisy and always seeming to strive harder than necessary--remains a smooth unit thanks to a major revision of the fuel injection system (from single to sequential multipoint). So when the throttle is feathered and cajoled, the result can be pleasant, albeit unhurried, cruising.

And even with that 110 horsepower on tap, the average fuel economy of the Sentra line hovers between the high 20s and the mid-30s.

The interior of the car is reminiscent of the new G20, from the Infiniti division of Nissan, or the Maxima. Either is a pleasant neighborhood.

Power window and door controls are built clearly and obviously into an armrest-door pull that is a small sofa. Once their pattern is set in the mind's eye, the buttons become easy even for clumsy fingers.

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