Unlike most carmakers, Nissan seems to renew many of its models in batches covering just a couple of years. Last year, it launched the new Versa subcompact; this year it has renewed both its Altima mid-size sedan and Sentra compact sedan.
The new 2013 Nissan Sentra trades any pretense of sportiness behind the wheel for interior space, stylish sheetmetal, lots of featuers, and some of the best fuel economy figures in the segment. The company wants you to think of the compact Sentra as a slightly smaller Altima--though it's easier to believe the argument from the outside than once you get behind the wheel.
With the 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the EPA gives the 2013 Sentra two different combined ratings: 33 mpg and 34 mpg. Both have the same 30 mpg city, 39 mpg highway test-cycle results; the incremental combined MPG is due to the FE+ (fuel economy) package, which adds a rear spoiler and low-rolling-resistance tires, as well as a few other aerodynamic improvements--and costs $400.
If you insist on shifting your own gears, you can get the same 1.8-liter four with a six-speed manual transmission, but that cuts the combined rating to 30 mpg (27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway)--and that gearbox is only offered on the base Sentra S model anyhow.
No matter which model or trim level you buy, all 2013 Nissan Sentras come with three driving modes--Normal, Eco, and Sport--that alter throttle response and shifting behavior. The Eco mode also reduces air-conditioning power, letting the driver effectively tune the car to maximize fuel efficiency.
The 2013 Sentra has enough performance for everyday duties--it's likely a fine commuter car--but drivers will find they can catch the powertrain off guard when demanding a sudden burst of acceleration. The CVT takes up to a couple of seconds to calculate what ratio it should deliver before it responds, making the Sentra frustrating to drive in cut-and-thrust traffic.
Nor does the new Sentra deliver the driver feel or handling and roadholding that elevate the Ford Focus and Mazda3 above other compacts. It also misses out on the tactile reassurance and refinement of competitors like the Volkswagen Jetta or Chevy Cruze. Ride quality is good, though, and the speed-sensitive electro-hydraulic steering is nicely weighted. The carmaker's cost-cutting shows up in the standard steel wheels and rear drum brakes, though most buyers will hit the options list for alloy wheels that dress up the look to match the car's style.
That fuel economy comes in a stylish new package that makes the Sentra look and feel like a larger, more mature car than the compact sedans sold under that name to date. The new Sentra is almost sexy, with echoes of its big-brother Altima and even some hints of Infiniti luxury in its lines--especially where the arched roofline and flowing rear fenders meet around the rear pillar where the window line kicks up.
Once you get behind the wheel, though, the image of stylishness and luxury abates. The interior is laid out well, and functions fine, but there's little hint of luxury. The seats, both front and rear, are flat and not very supportive, with little lateral support despite what look like side bolsters up front. And while the optional leather looks lovely in photos, we preferred the standard cloth seats, which avoid the plasticky feel and sheen of the not-very-upscale leather option.
Sadly, the Sentra interior trim and materials seem to have more in common with those of the grim, bargain-basement Versa subcompact than the larger and more luxurious models evoked by the new compact's stylish lines. While the user touch points are mostly in soft-touch surfaces--the armrests and the top of the center console, for instance--there are still large swathes of not-very-nice textured plastic.
What the interior does deliver is superior space, which has become a Nissan hallmark. The Versa "subcompact" would have served as a compact just a few years ago. Likewise, the new 2013 Sentra--2 inches longer and an inch wider than the outgoing model, with a longer, wider cabin--could almost be a mid-size sedan. In fact, the Sentra for 2013 has the best front headroom, front legroom, and rear legroom of any compact sedan (including the Cruze, Focus, Civic, and Corolla).
Its overall passenger volume, by the official measurements, is also greater than any of these competing models. It also has one of the roomiest trunks in the class, and the rear seat back flips forward--though it doesn't fold flat--to expand trunk space into the passenger cabin. Where it does win high marks is on refinement: The 2013 Sentra is relatively quiet for budget-priced compact sedans, where the Chevy Cruze has long been the gold standard of hushed high-speed travel.
The 2013 Nissan Sentra offers both interior volume and value for money. It's competitive with other cars in its class, and even throws in a handful of features--dual-zone automatic climate control and Bose audio--that usually aren't offered in low-priced compacts. But other equipment choices seem puzzling, with rear disc brakes only offered on the sporty SR or the very top-of-the-line SL models. If you want Bluetooth, you won't want the base S model--it's not offered at all on that one, and it's optional across much of the rest of the Sentra lineup.
Still, with a fully-optioned SL model topping out at less than $24,000, the new Nissan Sentra provides a well-equipped and stylish small car that delivers good gas mileage. Just make sure you like the interior enough to live with it for several years.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Nissan Sentra range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.
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