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Can fuel efficiency alone win over car shoppers? Nissan is banking on it with the redesigned 2013 Sentra, whose EPA-estimated 34 mpg combined city/highway rating is tops among commuter sedans. Backseat and trunk room to spare also distinguish the car, but little else sets it apart from the competition.
The redesigned 2013 Nissan Sentra has many practical strengths, but it stirs little in the way of emotion.
Trim levels include a Sentra S, SV, SR and SL. Compare them here, or compare the 2013 and 2012 Sentra here. The S can have a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT comes standard on all other trims. I drove both transmissions and several trim levels.
Where Hyundai, Ford and Mazda have unique-looking compacts, the Sentra's appearance ventures nowhere new. Styled in three continents for a global market, it swaps its predecessor's chunkier corners for smoother contours, but the whole of it is rather blasé: formless rear fenders, narrow proportions, a stubby tail, a face you'll forget. Nissan describes the car as a "class above," with upscale touches like chrome door handles and optional mirror-integrated turn signals, but those elements festoon a bland canvas.
Overall length grew 2.3 inches from what was already a sizable car, up to 182.1 inches. That's nearly 4 inches longer than the Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra sedans and almost 5 inches longer than a Honda Civic sedan. Its width, however, shrank 1.2 inches, making the new Sentra one of the narrowest — yet still tallest — cars in its class. Nissan says the reduction improves aerodynamics, but the whole of it makes for a slightly ungainly stance.
Sixteen-inch steel wheels are standard, with 16- or 17-inch alloys optional. The Sentra SR comes with the 17s, fog lights, a unique grille, some modest ground effects and a chrome tailpipe, but it has no suspension or drivetrain changes.
An all-new 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder replaces last year's capable, if thirstier, 2.0-liter four. It pairs with a next-generation CVT for adequate pep from a stop, but passing power takes a hit as the engine dallies noisily at higher rpm. The Sentra S' six-speed manual ascends each tall gear in coarse, excitement-free fashion. Our prototype test car's shifter had short but sloppy throws, with third gear feeling particularly out of whack.
Both the manual and automatic have Sport, normal and Eco modes, which affect the automatic transmission most. Sport mode sacrifices fuel efficiency to improve accelerator and CVT response, and it kicks up revs in lockstep with your right foot — helpful on the highway. Eco, meanwhile, relaxes accelerator and air conditioning response to maximize gas mileage.
Nissan says the Sentra's EPA mileage — 30/39 mpg city/highway with the CVT — is based just on normal mode. The car's 34 mpg combined rating stacks up well against popular versions of the Elantra (33 mpg), Civic (32), Focus (31), Chevrolet Cruze (30) and Toyota Corolla (29). Efficiency enhancements bump the Sentra FE+ model's highway mileage to 40 mpg, which allows Nissan to market that vaunted figure but doesn't change the 34 mpg combined rating. Opt for the FE+ Package ($400 on the SV and automatic-transmission S) only if you plan gobs of interstate travel. Stick-shift Sentras, meanwhile, are EPA-rated at 27/36 mpg.
Ride & Handling
Automakers like Chevrolet and Hyundai manage decent ride quality with a semi-independent torsion beam rear suspension — a cheaper setup than the fully independent suspension employed by the Civic, Mazda3 and Focus. The Nissan's torsion beam is at the less-refined end. It rides a touch firmer than last year's Sentra, and broken pavement or rapid elevation changes make the chassis bounce about. The S and SV wear standard steel wheels and traction-challenged P205/55R16 Bridgestone Turanza tires, which skitter about as you accelerate, brake or turn over ruts or potholes. The optional alloy wheels stay grounded better, though the 17-inch P205/50R17 Continental ContiProContact tires in the SL proved no stickier in corners. FE+ models include lower-rolling-resistance tires, which could compromise traction even further.
At least the Sentra steers well, with settled highway composure and good maneuvering feedback. Optional four-wheel-disc brakes on the SR and SL stop the car with linear pedal progression — but the disc/drum setup on lesser cars has a spongier pedal with weak, squirrely hard stops. If you purchase a Sentra SR or SL, get the discs.
Such is how the Sentra drives: softly and competently, but clumsily—and competitors have elevated the game. The Cruze, Civic and Elantra have more refined rides, while the Focus and Mazda3 out-handle the Nissan. Gas mileage is the Sentra's trump card, but the driving experience exposes why.
The cabin gets some style points — interesting door handles, a chrome-trimmed waterfall panel from the climate controls to the gearshift — but overall styling is conservative. Cabin quality varies, with softer door armrests and better upper-dash textures than the last Sentra, but cheaper materials for the upper doors and sun visors.
Storage space remains a strength, with a glove compartment so deep I half expected to reach a fan belt. But cabin space is a weakness: In my moonroof-equipped test car, there wasn't enough headroom for my 5-foot-11 frame with the height-adjustable seat anywhere close to full elevation. Tall adults in the front passenger seat, which has fixed height, will find the same issue. Moonroof-free cars return some much-needed headroom, but legroom remains another problem. The seat moves forward as you raise it, and with it elevated a few pumps I wished I had another inch or two of rearward adjustment. The alternative was sitting uncomfortably low in order to get enough legroom. It's perplexing, given the rear seats have legroom to spare. Let the seat slide back another few clicks, Nissan: Peter has plenty, but Paul needs more.
At 15.1 cubic feet, trunk volume compares to a midsize sedan, beating the Corolla and Civic by more than 20 percent. A 60/40-split folding rear seat is standard.
Standard audio includes a CD stereo and auxiliary audio jack, but USB/iPod connectivity or Bluetooth aren't standard on most trims. Both these features are optional, as is a Bose stereo. Opt for Nissan's NissanConnect system and you'll get a small but user-friendly, 5.8-inch navigation system with Pandora internet radio via your smartphone and Bluetooth audio streaming. It can read incoming text messages, too, but allows only a handful of preset responses.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The Sentra has yet to be crash-tested. Standard safety features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of safety features. The base Sentra starts under $17,000 (including a $780 destination charge) and comes with power windows and locks, air conditioning, remote keyless entry and just a basic CD stereo with an auxiliary audio input. The price is on par with base versions of the Focus, Cruze, Corolla and Civic. The Sentra's CVT, which is standard on all higher trims, adds a hefty $1,270 to the S.
Bluetooth audio streaming can only be had with the NissanConnect navigation system — unfortunate because most Smartphone users already have turn-by-turn navigation. Other options include cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bose audio and heated leather seats. Load the Sentra up and the price tops $23,000.
Sentra in the Market
Emotions run weak for the new Sentra, but there's precedent for sales success: The redesigned Versa, a car that lacks appeal but has abundant room, leads its entry-level competitors in sales this year. Nissan played it safe with the new Sentra, which leapfrogged competitors in some aspects but only matched them in others. It remains to be seen how commuter-car buyers will respond.
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Select up to three models to compare with the 2013 Nissan Sentra.