My Sentra was a hand-me-down from my stepsister, who in turn got it from her brother. The two of them managed to put 116,000 miles on it - all city. The paint was scratched, the door panels were dinged, and the interior was pocked with cigarette burns. The rear speakers had been overloaded and produced an annoying buzz. I won't say it was a mess, but it certainly wasn't pristine.
The car has it where it counts, though. The engine is speedy and responsive, and purrs like it's new. Although 1.8 liters and 4 cylinders doesn't seem impressive, it's more than sufficient for the tiny Sentra body. It'll hit triple-digit speeds effortlessly and doesn't even notice hills.
It's also a very efficient car. I regularly get 30+ miles per gallon on the rough country roads in my area, and have approached 40 on the Interstate (gas treatment is a wonderful product). The small tank means I have to fill up at least once a week, but I have yet to pay more than $15 at the pump, even with today's fuel prices.
The interior is well-equipped and surprisingly roomy. I'm taller than average and usually hate compact cars, but I find the Sentra to be quite comfortable. Five people can squeeze into it, although for long trips I'd hate to carry more than three. Equipment doesn't complain, though, so I've managed to pack an entire variety show's worth of props, costumes, and musical instruments into (and onto) it.
The air conditioner and heater are both powerful, if a bit slow to come to temperature.
In its life, the car has only been in the shop for major repairs twice - once for body work after a fender bender, and once to have the exhaust system repaired. Though it cost $780 to replace the catalytic converter and heat shields, I was gratified to learn that they had outlived their design life by nearly 20,000 miles. (I should also note that the mechanics at the dealership were friendly, knowledgeable, and professional.)
I must admit that, while the Sentra is by no means sporty, it does have a very pleasant streamlined shape. The slopes and angles are gently rounded, giving the car an organic shape.
My only complaint is with the steering. After turning the steering wheel, the car seems to think about it for a fraction of a second before acting on it. Although it soon becomes second nature to compensate for this, it can be disconcerting for a first-timer. The problem gets worse when the car is heavily loaded. Other than that, the car is surefooted and corners well, delivering much more traction than one would expect for such a light vehicle.
All in all, this is a superior car. If Nissan makes all their cars as well as they made this little '96 Sentra, then they have gained a customer for life.