7th Place: 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Toyota should be plenty flattered by the Nissan Sentra, a car that seemingly aims to cut directly into the Corolla’s dance card. From the forget-me-please styling to the thoroughly unexciting way the Sentra goes down the road, Nissan has done a good job aping that most popular Toyota model.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
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The Sentra was among the least expensive cars in our group, and that was reflected in its short list of standard equipment, which did not include Bluetooth or steering wheel–mounted audio controls.

Our tester did have the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), a type of transmission much maligned by enthusiasts, but perfectly suited to this car’s relaxed on-road ambitions. It works very well here, and was praised for the smooth way it goes about its business.

The driver is greeted by a seat as soft as grandma’s favourite wingback, but it doesn’t adjust for height, and the steering wheel only tilts and can’t be adjusted for reach. That made for an awkward driving position for some. Also awkward were the tiny, oddly shaped outside mirrors.

Like the exterior, the Sentra’s interior design is plain, but functional. Fit and finish seemed fine, but many testers noted that the latch on the flip-up centre console cover was already broken.

It earned one of the highest scores for rear seat comfort with three adult riders buckled in, but scored only mid-pack for space and comfort with two passengers.

In a straight line, the Sentra was one of the quietest cars here, with well-muted engine and road noise. Cornering brought out some less favourable characteristics, including an almost complete lack of handling prowess and a suspension that seemed to combine the worst aspects of a ride that somehow managed to be both too soft and too firm. We expected this car to be a highway-cruising champ, but the vague steering wasn’t good at allowing for small course corrections, and so the car tended to wander in its lane.

Through the years, Corolla has become synonymous with basic A-to-B transportation. What this comparison test revealed, though, is that the best Corolla of the bunch doesn’t wear a Toyota badge.

Pricing: 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0
Base price: $15,478
Options: Value Option Package ($2,000), CVT Package ($1,300), 3-coat paint ($300)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,467
Price as tested: $20,645

6th Place – 2012 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 Comfortline

Compared to the competition, the Jetta seemed massive. As one tester commented “Did we bring a Passat by accident?” At a length of 4,628 mm, the Jetta dwarfs the smallest vehicle in the test, the Focus, by 269 mm. Despite this girth, at 1,410 kg, the Jetta wasn’t the heaviest vehicle in the test; that honour went to the Chevrolet Cruze.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

To motivate the biggest car in our comparison test, the Jetta arrived with the biggest engine; a 2.5L five-cylinder unit combined with a six-speed automatic. Making the most power and the most torque in the group, the Jetta should have been the runaway winner in the acceleration department. But a sluggish, lagging first gear had us wondering if there was a secret turbo attached to the engine taking eons to spool. Once the Volkswagen kicks into second gear, though, the engine comes into its own and growls away with authority.

Some of us found the engine sounded good in an off-the-wall sort of way, while others, like Associate Editor Chris Chase, found the engine noise not to his liking; “Why does the engine sound like an angry goose at full throttle?” Whatever your take, once up to speed the engine becomes incredibly quiet and an odd throbbing hum mildly fills the cabin. It is easily countered by a little radio volume, but a strange noise nonetheless.

Thanks to its large size and long wheelbase, the Jetta feels planted and solid on the highway and is easily the best freeway cruiser of the group. The suspension is soft and soaks up expansion joints flawlessly. Add in the Jetta’s cavernous 440 L trunk and this is the ideal weekend getaway vehicle, as long as you can live with the worst-in-test observed fuel economy average of 9.3 L/100 km.

The Jetta’s exterior had the group divided. Some found it to be a mature, tasteful design that had an upscale feeling while others found it to be bland. “The interior and exterior offer a complete lack of imagination,” bemoaned one tester. The “plastic fantastic” interior, although tasteful to look at and very spacious, used materials that looked cheap and felt cheap; for a vehicle priced at $25,540 after destination charges, we expected better. The seat fabrics were hard and rough to the touch, yet surprisingly comfortable to sit in. The rear seat was one of the most comfortable in the group and not surprisingly offered the most legroom.

The Jetta soon adopted the unflattering title of the “Bland Mobile”. Then again, for many shopping in this segment, that is exactly what they are looking for; an inoffensive vehicle that can easily transport them and three or four friends.

Pricing: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 Comfortline
Base price: $22,575
Options: Multimedia Package ($1,300), Engine Block Heater and Front Fog Lights ($300)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,365
Price as tested: $25,640

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