The spunky Nissan Sentra

The Nissan Sentra is the best-selling imported car in the United States. Built on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and propelled by a 1.6-liter engine, the Sentra -- Sunny to the rest of the world -- comes in four body styles, including a station wagon and 3-door hatchback. The design is essentially the same as a year ago, although this year the car has aero-styled headlights, a design that has only been legal in the US for a little more than a year.

Base price of the standard 2-door coupe is $5,499, but that's only the start. The SE 2-door hatchback coupe, an option-laden test vehicle, included a hand-operated sunroof and a hefty window sticker of $9,544. With an automatic transmission, the price can nudge five figures without a blink.

You have to remember the Sentra is a small car and drives and handles like a small car. Thus, as you might expect, headroom and back-seat space is limited.

Even so, the car gives a pleasing ride and there are no surprises in the way it behaves on the road -- as long as you stay away from the rough stuff. On rutted roads the Sentra has a tendency to hop around, but that can be expected, given the wheelbase, suspension, and light weight of the car.

Weight ranges from just under 1,900 pounds for the 2-door standard sedan up to 2,081 pounds for the XE wagon with automatic transmission. Visibility is fine.

The car has a lot of spunk when you hit the gas pedal to go. Braking is swift, with discs in the front, drums in the rear. In the comfort department, the seats are high, bringing back memories of the Chrysler cars of years gone by.

Combined highway-city mileage is in the mid-30s. Fuel-tank capacity, at 13.2 gallons, gives a very good range on a trip.

Nissan is now producing Sentras at its auto-assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., where it had earlier built only light trucks. Nissan, in fact, was the second Japanese automaker to produce vehicles in the US. Honda, the first, produces Accords in Marysville, Ohio.

Toyota is managing the joint-venture General Motors-Toyota plant in Fremont, Calif. and is hunting for its own plant site in the US.Within two years Mazda, too, will start building cars in a new plant in Flat Rock, Mich. Can Mitsubishi be far behind?

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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