2004 Nissan Sentra
2004 Nissan Sentra. Click image to enlarge

Used Vehicle Review:
Nissan Sentra – 2000-2004

By Chris Chase

“Nice” isn’t a word used to describe something that stands out in a crowd, which is why it’s the perfect word to describe the 2001-2004 Nissan Sentra. Introduced in 2000 as a 2001 model, this was the fifth generation of Nissan bearing the Sentra nameplate, which has existed since the 1980s. During that time, it has earned a fair bit of respect but hasn’t set many hearts afire. But that’s fine, as the Sentra competes in a class of cars that specialize in providing simple and affordable transportation.

In just about every aspect, the Sentra is, indeed, nice. The exterior is inoffensive, if bland. The interior is comfortable, though this iteration of the Sentra has never been the most spacious in its class. Performance is adequate and all the controls do what they’re meant to in a manner that makes this car feel safe. The most distinguished versions of this car were the sporty SE and SE-R models. With more power and better handling, these models did stand out as a car that was all at once fun to drive and practical.

When it was introduced, this car was more substantial than the car it replaced. At 4509 mm, it was 166 mm longer. Width increased by 23 mm to 1715 mm, and it stood 1410 mm tall, 26 mm higher than the previous generation. The only dimension that didn’t change – and the one that arguably has the greatest impact on interior space – is the wheelbase, which remained 2535 mm.

Even if it didn’t offer more interior space, this Sentra did offer its occupants a more pleasant place to spend their time than did the car it replaced. The ride was well controlled and struck a good balance between comfortable and firm, a compromise that many small cars fail to make. The seats are comfortable and give the car a more grown-up feel than other economy cars. Rear seat legroom is okay, but for passengers stuck sitting behind a tall driver, knee room was at a premium.

For 2000, three models were offered: the XE was the entry level Sentra, with a low price and few standard features. Even a radio was optional. The move up to the GXE added air conditioning, cruise control, a CD stereo and a tachometer. The top-of-the-line SE model added a firmer ride, 16-inch wheels and tires (replacing the 14- and 15-inch wheels on XE and GXE models), four-wheel disc brakes and a rear trunk lid spoiler. An optional sport package on the SE included a limited slip differential and even firmer spring rates.

Anti-lock brakes were standard on the SE, optional on GXE models and not available at all on the XE. Driver and passenger airbags were standard on all models.

The XE and GXE were powered by a new-for-2000 DOHC 1.8 litre 4-cylinder producing 126 hp at 6,000 rpm and 129 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,400 rpm and a 2.0 litre engine making 145 hp at 6,400 rpm and 136 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm propelled the SE. The base engine’s low torque peak allowed the Sentra to step away from stoplights with authority and provided plenty of pep for most driving situations. The more powerful SE motor (a revised version of the engine used in the previous-generation Sentra SE and the Sentra-based 200SX SE-R) turned the Sentra into a miniature Maxima and indeed employed technology derived from the Maxima’s award-winning V6 engine.

In 2002, the SE model was replaced by the SE-R, reviving a model designation that had been absent from Nissan’s Canadian lineup since the previously mentioned 200SX disappeared after 1998. The SE-R was available in two flavours: “Base” and Spec-V. Both were powered by a 2.5 litre four banger (also found in the 2002 Altima) tuned to produce 165 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque in the base SE-R and 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque in the Spec-V model. Other distinguishing features were big 17-inch wheels (for Spec-V models) and conspicuous SE-R badges on the trunk and front quarter panels. The Spec-V also got a six-speed manual while base SE-Rs used a five-speed manual or an available four-speed automatic. Also, ABS was no longer standard equipment on the SE-R (it was on the previous SE model).

This was a very sporty car that offered good around-town drivability but suffered from torque steer under hard acceleration – a trait that afflicted other powerful front-wheel-drive cars in Nissan’s lineup. It was a steal though, starting at just under $20,000 for the SE-R with Spec-V models costing a hair less than $21,500.

In 2003, side airbags were added to the options list for the GXE and the two SE-R models. Also, 15-inch wheels replaced the 14s on the entry-level cars.

2004 Nissan Sentra
2004 Nissan Sentra. Click image to enlarge

In 2004, Nissan changed the Sentra lineup again, this time giving the more economical versions new model designations. The XE became the 1.8 and the GXE was renamed the 1.8S. Also, an automatic transmission became standard equipment on the SE-R, while the Spec-V carried on with only the 6-speed manual. All models were also treated to a front-end restyling and different taillights.

The Sentra is reasonably fuel-efficient, but lags behind the class leading Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic in this regard. According to Natural Resources Canada’s fuel economy guide, early fifth-generation Sentras with the 1.8 litre engine and automatic transmission were rated at 9 l/100 km in city driving and 6.5 l/100 km on the highway. Those numbers improved steadily over the years – a 2003 or 2004 Sentra with the same engine/transmission combination uses 8.3 l/100 km in the city and 6.2 l/100 km on the highway. Expect less from the sporty models. Early 2.0 litre SE models use 9.8 and 7.2 l/100 km in city and highway driving respectively, while the later model SE-R’s 2.5 litre engine uses 10 to 10.8 l/100 km (city) and 7.3 to 7.8 l/100 km (highway).

The fifth-generation Sentra carried on this nameplate’s tradition of providing affordable transportation with a good dose of comfort and a measure of sporty behaviour for those who desired it. But while past Sentras have proven to be very reliable small cars, Consumer Reports gives the 2000-2004 model a below-average reliability rating, citing engine and electrical system problems as the main issues. Conversely, according to the Canadian Automobile Association’s 2003 Autopinion Vehicle Ownership Survey, the 2000-2002 Sentra is one of the top ten Canadian cars in terms of vehicle ownership satisfaction.

The fifth-generation Sentra protects front seat occupants well in front impacts, scoring four stars for driver and passenger in the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s front impact testing. It didn’t fare as well in side impact testing however, scoring just two stars for front seat occupant protection. The Sentra wasn’t tested for rear-seat side-impact protection.

Compared to other cars in the small sedan category, the Sentra has few glaring vices but similarly it doesn’t shine in any particular area. The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are more fuel-efficient. The Mazda Protege offers a sportier character (excluding the top-end Sentra SE and SE-R models) and both it and the Hyundai Elantra are more distinctively styled and roomier inside. The Sentra competes on an equal footing with the latter two cars price wise on the used market, and the SE-R models are an affordable and more practical alternative to other sporty small cars that aren’t available with four doors.


Transport Canada Recall Number 2003285. Units affected: 52,158

2000-2003: On certain vehicles, the foam material used for the interior lining of the Engine Control Module (ECM) box out-gasses sulphur as it cures. If one of the resistors inside the ECM has a crack on the surface coating, the gas may cause corrosion of the resistor. This could cause the Malfunction Indicator Light to come on, poor drivability (idle instability, poor acceleration), or the engine to stop running without warning during vehicle operation. Correction: Dealer will remove the inside lining material from the ECM box.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001277. Units affected: 12584

2000-2001: Certain passenger vehicles equipped with a 1.8-litre engine. The engine could stop running while being driven due to a defective crank position sensor. This could also result in the “service engine soon” warning light coming on or reduced engine power. If the engine stops running while driving, this could result in a crash. Correction: dealers will replace the crank position sensors.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003267. Units affected: 74143

2000-2003: On certain vehicles, the circuit board for the crank position sensor may have an improper solder joint. This could cause the Service Engine Soon warning light to come on, create a no start condition, cause reduced engine power, or cause the engine to stop running without warning during vehicle operation. Correction: Dealer will replace the crank position sensors.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2000118. Units affected: 941

2001: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 101 – Location and Identification of Controls and Displays. Vehicles may be equipped with odometers that record in miles rather than kilometers, as required by the standard. Correction: Odometers that record in miles will be replaced with ones that record in kilometers.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001114. Units affected: 17659

2001: On certain vehicles, one or more of the three bolts used to attach each front suspension lower control arm to the body on the left and right sides may not have been properly heat treated when manufactured. The bolts could fracture, increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: Dealers will replace the lower control arm attachment bolts.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001219. Units affected: 23136

2001: Certain passenger vehicles. Model year 2000-2001 Nissan Sentra vehicles manufactured from February 1, 2000, through June 26, 2001. The cooling holes in the steel road wheel may have burrs on their edge as a result of improper manufacturing. These burrs can cause stress concentration as the vehicle is being driven. Cracks can propagate these burrs between adjacent cooling holes. If enough cracks develop between the cooling holes, the wheel could fail and separate from the mounting hub without prior warning. Separation of the wheel from the vehicle while being operated could result in a vehicle crash, possibly resulting in personal injury or death. Correction: Dealers will replace all road wheels free of charge.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2001291. Units affected: 27607

2001-2002: Certain passenger vehicles fail to comply with requirements of C.M.V.S.S. no. 108, “lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment.” these vehicles were missing tamperproof caps that prevent horizontal headlamp adjustment these caps are installed to prevent maladjustment of the headlamps. Correction: dealers will install a tamperproof cap over the horizontal adjustment screw for both headlamps.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2003060. Units affected: 30589

2002: On certain vehicles equipped with the 2.5 litre engine, the exhaust pipe hanger pin may catch debris from the road, which could be ignited by contact with the main catalyst. Correction: Dealer will remove the protruding portion of the exhaust pipe hanger pin. Also, certain operating conditions may cause the pre-catalyst to overheat and damage the catalyst substrate. If substrate particles enter the combustion chamber, they may score the cylinder walls, resulting in increased oil consumption. If the engine oil level is not checked on a periodic basis, engine damage may occur which could result in fire. Correction: Dealer will reprogram the engine control unit to prevent the possibility of the pre-catalyst overheating. If the conversion efficiency of the pre-catalyst has deteriorated, then the catalyst will be replaced. The original pre-catalyst will then be inspected for evidence of damage to the catalyst substrate. If damage is present, the vehicle engine will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number 2002029. Units affected: 1159

2002: Certain passenger vehicles equipped with a Nissan-approved accessory floor mat, which was installed either at the assembly plant or by the dealer. Due to the length of the driver side floor mat, a small amount of mat movement could cause the mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and not allow the pedal to release after it is depressed. If this occurs unexpectedly, it could lead to a crash. Correction: Dealers will inspect the driver side floor mat and if it is a Nissan floor mat subject to this recall, the dealer will replace both the driver and passenger side floor mats.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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