2010 Nissan Sentra 200

Specs aren't everything. It's a lesson all bench racers should learn. And it's one I've been reminded of when I recently drove the new Nissan Sentra 200.

If you haven't heard there's a new one yet, I wouldn't be surprised. The car's generally been snubbed, owing mostly to its late arrival and underwhelming spec sheet.

This new Sentra (B16) replaces the Pulsar-based N16 Sentra. And rather than being sourced from within South East Asia, like the latter, this new one comes all the way from Mexico.

It's a Completely Built Up (CBU) US domestic model, which means a larger body and higher standards of safety. As such, the big body Sentra carries a more sedate and stately style. It's also pulled along by a 2.0 liter engine mated to a silky smooth Xtronic CVT transmission.

Where it begins to underwhelm is the inclusion of certain specific parts that many other brands have long since phased out. For instance, the Sentra 200 is held aloft by a torsion bar rear suspension system and drum brakes are fitted in the rear wheels. Nothing wrong with these, but many compact cars now offer independent rear suspension systems and disc brakes on all fours. It's all tried and tested old technology but is by no means obsolete.

The fact of the matter is, it's all in the real world performance where it matters and that's where the Sentra 200 truly surprises. Despite the old parts, it accelerates and handles just as well as many of its modern peers. Sure the 2.0 liter may lack the kick of a Civic, but the smooth power delivery of the CVT definitely matches any Honda's fuel economy figures. Drop it into manual mode and even shifting near the redline doesn't return that typical shift shock. All throughout, the pedal feels firm and connected, virtually eliminating the slipping clutch and disconnected feeling CVTs tend to have. Another surprise reveals itself in downhill sections, where the engine returns some engine brake, typically absent from CVTs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the handling as the Sentra behaves far more sporty than it looks. The ride itself is soft but never loses composure. Gone is the aggressive rebound thud that the previous Sentras have suffered from. And for a car with a soft, executive sedan-like ride, it grips corners like a sporty hatch, with a hint of that oversteer-understeer neutrality that the old Acura Integra was known for. It would fool you into thinking it was an FR as some throttle input mid-turn pulls the nose inward.

To its credit, it also brings new features to be more competitive in its segment. The instrument cluster combines vital trip info like fuel level, temp, odometer and range into an easy to read display. The 2 DIN stereo comes with an Aux in plug. And in the trunk area, a compartment in the trunk wall hides sensitive items from the prying mall security's check-your-trunk-for-a-bomb eyes.

Then, there are the things that haven't changed like the window-fogging, freezer-cold air conditioning and the matching rear glass defogger that, with this kind of air con, becomes a necessity.

Indeed, it's not all that attractive. A quick look in the brochure would lead you to think it's too little, too late. Yet, this is one of those cars that needs to be driven to be appreciated. It all adds up to become a timely comeback car that Nissan desperately needs.