Near the end of my automotive interregnum, my fiance and I moved to an apartment building with free parking, and this looked like a good opportunity to dip our toes back into car ownership. Isn’t it funny how sometimes just the right opportunity presents itself when you’re ready for it?
The idea of purchasing a car actually came about to solve a logistical problem. We were living in Arlington, VA, but were getting married in Connecticut. We could rent a car to bring all the things we’d need for the wedding, but we were leaving on a two-week Grecian honeymoon the morning after. So, it would have to be a one-way rental. Since my fiance’s family lives in the almost-rural suburbs, we’d have to factor in time to drop the car off some place most likely not nearby. We’d then have to make arrangements to pick up another car to bring all of the wedding gifts back to Arlington after returning from our honeymoon.
Yes, the above does sound like some pretty sketchy reasoning for such a major undertaking, but you must admit it’s no crazier than a lot of rationales car guys come up with to convince their significant others. To our benefit, we had overshot our savings goal to pay for the wedding and had about $3,000 to spend on a car (there’s that figure again). Want to test compatibility? Require a couple to save about 40% of their take-home pay for two years starting several thousand dollars in debt. We didn’t want a beater or a used car, but my fiance would most likely be starting medical school in two years. We would not be able to afford car payments beyond that point.
Almost immediately after making this decision, before we even started shopping, we attended a backyard barbecue thrown by my fiance’s boss. While talking to a co-worker and her husband, we had mentioned that we were looking for a car. Wouldn’t you know it, they had just decided to sell one of their cars because the husband really wanted a new Ranger. The car just happened to be the one they brought to the party. They handed us the keys and told us to take it for a spin.
Even though I mentioned above that we were not considering a used car, it’s a different story when you know the original owner, and the car is in like-new condition with towels on the seats to protect the interior. You would never know it was three years old with 40,000 miles. My finance was immediately taken with the five-speed manual, four-door sedan as she was still mourning the loss seven years prior of her five-speed manual, four-door 1980 Toyota Corolla that her parents sold – without telling her – to help pay her tuition.
In mid-1994, the final year of the B13 generation, Nissan made some mechanical changes to the Sentra and also introduced the Limited Edition trim, which was slotted between the XE and GXE. For four-door models, this meant power windows, locks, and mirrors plus cruise control in addition to the XE standard equipment. Wikipedia says only the LE was a 1994.5 model, but Consumer Guide says that all Sentras produced after the changes are 1994.5 models. If anyone knows the whole story, please let us know.
Needless to say, we enjoyed the test drive in the Dark Gray Metallic sedan with the light gray interior. The mouse fur seats were very comfortable, and the automatic seat belts were not too annoying. A week or so later, we met the owners at our bank, using the money we had as a down payment and financing the remainder for three years with the understanding that we’d try to pay it off in full before medical school.
During the first two years, “Nelson” was not driven very often. If you recall, I had somehow finagled a part-time gig working for a local car magazine, African Americans on Wheels. Although it was a publication, they also wanted to increase their web presence to increase viewership as well as to satisfy the manufacturers who like to see reviews when they lend out a press car. During the discussion of how to get more reviews on the site, I jokingly offered that I could write a review of my Sentra but wasn’t sure anyone would be interested. The managing editor seriously responded that if she could arrange to have press cars assigned to me weekly, would I be interested in writing the reviews and posting them to the site? After taking 0.0000034 seconds to think about it, I agreed.
For the greater Washington area, most press cars were delivered, picked-up and maintained by an independent company out in Maryland. In addition to free parking, our complex also had a front desk staffed 24/7. On Mondays, I would leave the keys to last week’s car at the desk and take Nelson to work. When I came home, there was a shiny new car waiting for me. Life was goooooood.
It wasn’t all fun and joy. First, the reviews in my column, CARmentary, were limited to 350 words. Sounds easy, but it’s quite difficult. The other problem were the editors themselves, who generally liked to play it safe. For example, in my review of the A8 I wrote, “[Audi] is still rebuilding the reputation sullied a decade ago by greedy, litigious liars who claimed that their demon Audis were chasing their families through the living room and terrorizing their pets (nee ‘unintended acceleration’).” That somehow became “[Audi] is still rebuilding its reputation from claims of unintended acceleration.” However, those same editors, especially my managing editor, Jackie Mitchell, made me a better writer.
Good memories include driving the New Beetle when it was first released and learning what it must be like to be a celebrity, taking the aforementioned Audi A8 to my wife’s high school reunion, and the early release, very green “New Edge” Mustang where a police car started pacing us in the next lane on the NJ Turnpike. I was afraid to look over, but when I finally did, the officer gave us the thumbs-up!
There were also some not so good memories. One week I had a Chevrolet Suburban. On the first day, I slowly, carefully, and successfully drove it down into the underground parking garage at work, which I’d convinced the magazine to pay for “to keep the cars safe.” The next day, I figured, “I’ve got this.” Going down the corkscrew, I glanced to my right and thought, “Wow, that support beam seems really clo-” [crunch]. Impatience again reared its ugly head when I nearly totaled a Toyota Camry Solara in a downtown Arlington intersection.
It all came to an end when we moved down to central Virginia for medical school, which was too far away to receive press cars. I continued to be a fact checker for about a year afterwards, but it just wasn’t fun anymore, and I really didn’t see myself in that kind of life. Even though the magazine and the site are long gone, I like to occasionally go back and read those old reviews, which I fortunately held on to. At least now we had more time to bond with Nelson, which was my wife’s daily driver for the next three years, then became mine for the rest of the time we owned him.
There was a lot to love about the car. Gas mileage was consistently in the 30s, sometimes topping 40. This was roughly the same as my ’83, but with 41 more horsepower. The turning circle was a tiny 30.2 feet. The only thing I really didn’t like was that the shifter was just as unforgiving as my old one, and I would still occasionally grind the gears going into second or third.
We didn’t have to do anything but regular maintenance until around 62,000 miles when the clutch started creaking. It still worked, and we were able to shift gears with no problem, but it was disconcerting. Rather than the dealer, a friend of mine recommended an independent shop that he used (I think you know where this is going). The mechanic said we needed a new clutch cable, and the repair would cost around $100. When my wife went to pick up the car, the mechanic mentioned that the clutch cable for the 1994 model didn’t fit, so he had to use one from a B14 Sentra. Now we knew one of the mechanical changes that made it a “1994.5” model. Anyway, my wife got in the car and went to put it in reverse. She put her foot on the clutch…then looked down to make sure her foot wasn’t on the brake. It wasn’t. It was on the clutch, which now felt like something Arnold Schwarzenegger uses when he wants to give his leg muscles a good workout. Apparently, the clutch plate was now in the midst of seizing, and the mechanic, who claimed that nothing he did could have caused this problem, suggested that we may want to replace it soon. He then showed my wife how to shift without using the clutch to get home. Another “coincidence.” Oh joy. SailorHarry? ExFordTech? I’m open to suggestions. On the bright side, when it started creaking less than a year later, I made them replace it again.
Nelson loyally followed us to residency in Connecticut, then out to Wisconsin for fellowship. The big difference with this move was that now we had a newborn baby and a lot more stuff that we didn’t want the movers to take. Low and behold, the Nissan Sentra, when equipped with a manual transmission, can tow a 1,500-pound trailer as long as you avoid fifth gear. Off we went to U-Haul, where they installed a trailer hitch and attached a 4×8 trailer to it. During the trip, it was entertaining watching people’s faces as they came upon the trailer and, expecting to see a pickup or SUV, saw the little Sentra pulling it! Smartly, I drove alone while my wife and son flew out.
For the first couple of months we were in Wisconsin, I was a stay-at-home Dad, which is where I discovered the biggest failing of the Sentra. The smallish 95.7-inch wheelbase was definitely at odds with the rear-facing child seat. The recommendation is to place it in the center, which was out of the question. The only way I could fit it in the car was on the passenger side with the front passenger seat slid almost all the way forward. When we wanted to go somewhere as a family, we took our other car.
When my wife left her fellowship, and we decided to move back to Connecticut, the Sentra was now 13 years old with over 130,000 miles. Mechanically, it was still in great shape, but it had several parking-lot-related battle scars, and the paint on the horizontal panels had started to fade badly. With the knowledge that we were planning on having a second child someday, it was time for something larger. Coincidentally, my wife’s niece had just obtained her driver’s license and needed a car but didn’t have any money. We made a deal that if she helped with our son for the summer, including on the trip back to Connecticut, we’d give her Nelson. The sad conclusion is that a little over a year later, she was rear-ended at night on an icy road, and the insurance company totaled the car.
Writing this piece has reminded me how much we enjoyed and miss Nelson. He was a great car, and we were extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time.