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Nissan's Sentra: one model has highest-mileage gas engine in US

It's the third front-drive Nissan-built car to reach the shore of the United States.

Replacement for the Datsun 210, the Nissan Sentra is a whole new ball game for Japan's second-largest auto manufacturer, and shows the intense competitive drive among the Japanese carmakers to hold on to their sizable share of the US market.

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The Nissan Sentra also is the second Nissan car to carry the manufacturer's name. The front-drive Nissan Stanza, replacement for the old 510, arrived last year. The third front-drive Nissan automobile is the older 310.

The Sentra, base-priced at under $5,000, is larger than the old 210 series, no matter where you put the ruler; yet it's more than 150 pounds lighter in weight.

And then there's that matter of fuel economy. The Sentra scores so high that it's at the head of the class, seizing the high-mileage badge from its compatriot, Honda. The MPG model of the new Sentra is rated at 58 mpg (miles per gallon) on the highway and 43 in the city - a significant gain over the 210.

In a week-long commute in the Sentra - 400 to 500 miles - I averaged an honest 37 miles to a gallon of fuel. That, in the opinion of this motorist, is good. On a steady-power run on an Interstate, the figure should significantly rise.

It is the highest-mileage gasoline engine car in the US, and is rated even higher than two high-mileage, diesel-engine cars, the Isuzu I-Mark and the Chevrolet Chevette. The diesel-powered Chevette uses an Isuzu engine.

A large part of the Sentra's high economy comes from the creative use of lightweight, high-strength, low-alloy steel in such areas as the transmission and driveline as well as the suspension and steering components.

The 2-door sedan tips the scales at 1,875 pounds.

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Powered by Nissan's E15 engine, the aerodynamic Sentra - the CD or coefficient of drag is 0.39 - puts a surprising amount of s-p-a-c-e inside the car, including the back-seat area. The front-drive configuration makes all the difference. Yet the wheelbase is 94.5 inches, 2.4 inches longer than the 210. Too, the Sentra is 1.5 inches wider than the 210, and taller as well.

Nissan engineers say the new car is about 12 percent larger inside than the 210, a massive improvement, especially in a car of this size.

Foot room is greatly improved. The new car provides about 5 inches more leg room in the sedan versions, 6 inches more space in the hatchbacks, and even more in the station wagons.

Rack-and-pinion steering is used instead of the old recirculating ball. Power steering is an option, the first time for a car at the low end of the Nissan model lineup. The turning circle is under 30 feet; no car sold in the US is better. By comparison, the old standard VW beetle has a turning circle of 36 feet.

By just about every measure, the new Nissan Sentra is a big improvement on the old 210, and incredibly better than the earlier B210.

The Japanese importer expects to sell at least 200,000 Sentras in the US market after the sales hit their pace.

It should have little difficulty making the grade.

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