Sentra has a lot of luxury touches to love

Hoping to appeal to the so-called Echo boomers, Nissan is pitching its redesigned 2007 Sentra compact sedan as a car in which you could live.

Not that the target buyers are homeless, Nissan says, just that they're kinetic, go-do-move young adults, born after 1976, whose demands on a car might, in fact, include using it as a temporary shelter.

Sentra is worth a hard look. The test cars were (with a few exceptions), smooth, refined and feature-laden beyond what you'd expect in their $15,000 to $22,000 price range. And roomier than rivals.

PHOTOS/AUDIO:Sentra with Healey's comments

First, though, you have to like, or accept, the look. The fat, flat rear flank emulates the Nissan Maxima and is an ugly, ungainly look — although reasonable people often disagree on matters of taste.

Inside, it becomes easy to appreciate the improved fuel economy, engaging driving feel, pleasant interior ambiance and general handiness. Among Sentra's thoughtful and premium touches:

•Electric power steering. That costly system usually is reserved for more expensive cars. Works nicely on the Sentra, providing good on-center feel and quick response when the driver demands. It saves fuel because the engine isn't turning a belt for the power steering pump.

•Liquid-filled engine mounts. Also usually saved for higher-price cars, the devices cradle the engine and calm its vibrations and noises. At idle, the engine is eerily quiet and vibration-free.

•Trunk divider. It's an optional, movable bulkhead that separates the part of the trunk that's immediately behind the rear seat from the rest of it. You can keep the trunk's permanent residents — jumper cables, soccer ball, change of clothes — ahead of the divider. You can put groceries and other temporary cargo in the main part of the trunk.

When it's time to fold down the back seat to expand cargo space, the divider folds onto the trunk floor via a single, finger-tip latch.

•Handy storage. See-through net pockets on the backs of the front seats mean guests are less likely to leave behind cargo because they can see it.

•Bluetooth link. It's an uncommon option on lower-price cars. Bluetooth is the technology that automatically and wirelessly connects Bluetooth-compatible cellphones, enabling hands-free, voice-activated use.

•Proximity key. Standard on SL, optional on S, it allows you to simply turn the ignition switch without first inserting a key. And the doors unlock when you have the key in your pocket or nearby, without pushing the remote lock control or inserting the key in the lock. Handy when your hands are full and seldom seen south of the premium market.

•Premium feel. Windshield-wiper and climate-control switches operate as if they came from a luxury car. Optional leather-covered steering wheel gives your palms deluxe treatment without forcing you to order the whole dead-cow-covered interior.

On the other hand:

You can't get stability control at any price. Nissan thinks buyers are interested in an optional Rockford Fosgate high-end audio system but not in an anti-skid device that could keep them alive to hear it.

Anti-lock brakes, one of the most basic safety technologies, are optional, not standard. Traction control isn't available.

Two test vehicles driven around here and in the suburbs of Northern Virginia were similar to what most people will buy, 2.0S with continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). A third tester was a high-end SL with leather upholstery and CVT.

Nissan is committed to CVTs, and this one's pretty good. If you tap the button in the shifter that turns off the overdrive (meant for good mileage cruising on the highway), you also signal the transmission to keep the engine revved up. It's meant for hilly terrain, Nissan says, but it works nicely as a faux sport mode that lets you coax some extra beans from the modest-power 2-liter engine, rated only 140 horsepower.

Sentra's engine, beyond its underwhelming power, is rackety and whiny at start-up, coarse and unwilling under spur — maddeningly at odds with its smooth silence at idle.

The suspension is tuned more for comfort than crisp handling. Works fine most of the time, even feeling sporty. Until you whiz into a tight corner that's also bumpy, in which case the ride gets harsh momentarily.

Inside, the cloth seats are remarkably comfortable, more so than the leathered chairs in the SL. The feel and appearance of interior materials is considerably better than in Sentras past. Air-conditioning hardware has been relocated from behind the glove box, where it is in most cars, toward the center of the dashboard. That allows a roomier glove box, deep enough for a laptop computer.

In back, the knee room is tight if the front seat is adjusted back for a tall person. But seats are pleasant enough for those who fit.

Folding the back seat momentarily exposes wires and tubes you'd probably prefer covered. And the flat space created by the folded seats isn't level with the trunk floor.

If it weren't for the ugly styling and the cranky-sounding engine, Sentra would be an easy car to applaud, mainly for its driving feel and pleasant furnishings. But it's not necessarily pick of the litter.

As a quick for-instance, for about the same price, the new Volkswagen Rabbit gives you these things Sentra doesn't: manual-shift mode on the automatic transmission; anti-skid and traction controls, plus an electronic locking differential for tough traction situations; one-touch up or down operation of all four power windows; longer warranty.

On the other hand, Rabbit has 4% less passenger space than the Sentra and a 22% lower fuel economy rating in combined city/highway driving.

Other Sentra rivals: Mazda3, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, are all strong contenders.

But Sentra is pleasant to drive, roomy-feeling and, hey, you can live in it.

2007 Nissan Sentra

•What is it? Bigger, more powerful redesign of the brand's front-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger compact sedan. Available with six-speed manual transmission or continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

Manufactured at Aguascalientes, Mexico.

•How soon? On sale since Oct. 10.

•How much? Base Sentra 2.0 starts at $15,365, including $615 destination charge. Midlevel 2.0S starts at $16,265. High-end SL starts at $19,015 and hits nearly $22,000 with all listed options.

Expect to pay full window-sticker price, more or less, online car-shopping sites say.

•Who'll buy? Nissan calls them Echo boomers — young adults born after 1976 — who have a "morning to morning" lifestyle, sleep only a few hours a day, are social and use their cars as mobile backpacks.

•How many? More than the previous version, which has been running 100,000 to 120,000 per year, but Nissan won't forecast specifically.

•What's the drivetrain? 2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 140 horsepower at 5,100 rpm, 147 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm; six-speed manual transmission (2.0 and 2.0S) or CVT (SL). Traction control is not available.

•What's the safety gear? Expected bags and belts plus side-impact bags for front occupants, head-curtain bags front and rear. Anti-lock brakes are optional on 2.0 and 2.0S, standard on SL. Anti-skid control is not available.

•What's the rest? Standard equipment includes climate control; power steering, brakes, windows, locks; AM/FM/CD stereo; rear defroster; fold-down rear seat.

•How big? Several inches longer, taller and wider than the car it replaces. The '07 Sentra is 179.8 inches long, 70.5 inches wide, 59.5 inches tall on a 105.7-inch wheelbase.

Passenger space is listed as 97.4 cubic feet. Trunk is 13.1 cubic feet. Weight ranges from 2,853 to 2,991 pounds, depending on model and equipment. Rated to carry roughly 1,000 pounds of people, cargo and accessories, depending on model. Rated to tow 1,000 pounds.

Turning circle diameter is listed as 35.4 feet, curb-to-curb.

•How thirsty? Manual transmission is rated 28 miles per gallon in town, 34 on the highway, 30 in combined driving. CVT is rated 29/36/32.

Tank is 14.5 gallons. Regular fuel is specified.

Test cars driven hard on winding, two-lane roads averaged 28 mpg, according to cars' trip computers. Test car driven with brio in suburbs averaged 19 mpg. All had CVTs.

•Overall:Clever storage, comfortable interior, engaging driving feel undercut by engine drone, clunky styling and slightly dear pricing.