The Nissan Sentra is fully redesigned for 2013. Like many new vehicles in the compact sedan segment, the latest Sentra is lighter and more fuel-efficient than ever before, thanks in part to a smaller engine and a new platform that manages to offer even more interior space.
Styling cues on the new Sentra are shared with the Nissan Altima midsize sedan, also new for 2013. They include LED accents around the headlights and LED taillights. The understated but sophisticated design makes the Sentra one of the best looking compact sedans, which makes it a standout in a class whose best-sellers are about as compelling as a toaster.
As with previous generations, the 2013 Sentra is available as a four-door sedan only; there is no hatchback or coupe. Gone is the old 2.0-liter four-cylinder, replaced across all trim levels by a 1.8-liter inline-4 that makes 130 horsepower, 10 horses less than the outgoing powerplant. All variants also get a new continuously variable transmission (CVT), with a 6-speed manual available on the base S model only. All versions allow drivers to choose from three drive modes: Eco, Normal and Sport, which change the Sentra from thrifty to peppy.
To counter the reduction in power, Nissan managed to strip more than 100 pounds from the newest Sentra. Engineers made it lower and narrower to improve aerodynamics, which also help contribute to better fuel economy. Another fuel-saving trick is the Sentra's new smart alternator, which decouples from the engine and battery during acceleration to minimize power loss (a traditional alternator typically sucks engine power under acceleration to feed the battery).
The result of these updates is an EPA fuel economy rating of 30/39 mpg City/Highway with the CVT, a laudable improvement from the last generation's 27/34 mpg with the old CVT. While the CVT plays a big role in fuel savings, even Sentras equipped with the manual transmission are up to 27/36 mpg, compared to 24/31 mpg previously. An optional fuel economy (FE) package available on entry and mid-level trims adds additional aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires for a gain of one mpg on the freeway.
Compact sedans like the Sentra are typically appliance vehicles, practical-minded for commuting and running around town. The Sentra is no exception. There's adequate power for everyday driving, and the interior is attractive, comfortable and spacious. There's a 60/40-split rear seat that folds flat, opening up the trunk space and creating a large flat cargo area that's handy for hauling long items.
Nissan brags that rear legroom in the Sentra is a roomy 37.4 inches. That beats the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3. However, the Sentra's low roofline takes its toll on rear headroom, which measures at 36.7 inches. That's less than the previously mentioned competitors, but still enough to fit a 6-foot passenger comfortably.
Other notable features on the 2013 Sentra include the optional NissanConnect interface, which, when paired with an Android or Apple smartphone, will read your text messages aloud when driving. The Easy Fill tire system will honk the horn when you've reached your optimal tire pressure at the air pump.
Competitors to the 2013 Nissan Sentra include top-sellers like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, as well as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Mazda3. When it comes to looks and spaciousness, the Sentra is one of the best. But the price can add up fast. While the base model starts at about $16k, you'll need to shell out closer to $18k for the CVT nicely equipped. For all the bells and whistles, be prepared to fork over $20k or more.
All in all, the 2013 Nissan Sentra's combination of spaciousness, efficiency and good looks make it a solid choice if you're in the market for a compact sedan.
Nissan Sentra S ($15,990); SV ($17,970); SR ($18,870), SL ($19,760)
Nissan Sentra is larger than the subcompact Versa and smaller than the midsize Altima. The 2013 Sentra is 2.3 inches longer than the outgoing model and 0.6 inches lower, which makes the Sentra look roomy from the outside, even though it's 1.2 inches narrower. The new design has decreased drag to help with the improved fuel economy.
Certain styling cues are shared with the handsome, all-new midsize Altima. The front grille, with its angular corners, inwardly curved sides and horizontal grille lines, convey the family resemblance. LED accent lights around the headlamps add a contemporary and sophisticated touch. Headlights wrap around slightly without looking too extreme.
From the side, the Altima looks clean, with a high belt line, curvaceous nose and softly angled rear. A bold, high character line gently sweeps around the front fender, then continues straight across into the rear LED wraparound tail lamps. Standard 16-inch wheels are steel with covers; we prefer the 17-inch alloys on the SL. The 17-inch sport alloys on the SR, on the other hand, look overdone and resemble mutant arachnids.
In the rear, LED tail lights echo the angular shapes found elsewhere on the Sentra. A deep cutline around the hood makes the rear bumper prominent, even bulbous. Sentras fitted with the optional FE package have a rear decklid spoiler, which is sporty but understated.
Inside, the Sentra continues its clean, sophisticated styling. The instrument cluster is large, clear, and easy to read, with an attractive white-on-black color scheme. The steering wheel is comfortable in hand, although its myriad buttons on SV models and above can feel oddly placed and take some getting used to.
On the center stack, climate control buttons and knobs are intuitive. Standard audio controls are simple. The optional 4.3-inch display on the Driver Package is large and easy to read, but without navigation or a backup camera, all that screen space seems wasted. Spring for the nav package, and you get a bigger, color touchscreen with NissanConnect's interface, which will read text messages aloud when paired with a compatible iPhone or Android device.
Fabric seats are comfortable, especially with the upgraded cloth. The top-end SL model gets features found normally on larger, more expensive cars, like dual-zone automatic climate control and wood trim. Although we aren't fans of the Sentra's fabric armrests and door inserts; they were soft, but were already dirty after a few hours of testing. We question whether they will be durable long-term. To avoid the fabric armrests, one must choose the SL and upgrade to the leather package. The optional leather upholstery is nice but nothing special, and it does bump up the price.
Space in the Sentra is perhaps one of its most compelling attributes. Front legroom is a roomy 42.5 inches, which is enough to accommodate tall drivers, but still can accommodate petite people without them feeling swallowed up. Nissan brags that rear legroom in the Sentra is a roomy 37.4 inches. That beats the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3. However, the Sentra's low roofline takes its toll on rear headroom, which measures at 36.7 inches. So while taller passengers still have plenty of space, the head-to-leg room ratio seems rather disproportionate.
Trunk space in the Sentra measures 15.1 cubic feet, 2 cubes more than the outgoing model. That makes the Civic's and Corolla's 12.5 and 12.3 cubes, respectively, seem measly, and even bests the Hyundai Elantra's 14.8 cubic feet. Standard 60/40 split seats fold flat for even more carrying capacity.
Commuting and driving around town is where the Sentra is most satisfying. The new 1.8-liter engine makes 130 horsepower, 10 hp less than the powerplant on the previous model, but the decrease in power is aided by a reduction in weight by more than 100 pounds. A new CTV (continuously variable transmission) automatically selects the optimal drive ratio while driving and is tuned with city fuel economy in mind. Power is adequate in most driving situations, but like many cars with small engines, the Sentra can reach its limits when driving uphill or trying to pass at highway speeds.
Three drive modes help to take the Sentra from frugal to fun. In Eco mode, the transmission and throttle work to maximize fuel economy, which, not surprisingly takes a toll on performance. We didn't notice much oomph in normal mode, but in Sport mode, we enjoyed the extra boost from shifting at higher rpms, although we did notice our gas mileage drop. The CVT felt relatively seamless, but shifts had the trademark unpleasant whirring sound faintly reminiscent of gardener's lawn edger, if you're bothered by that sort of thing.
Steering feel in the Sentra is confident, and strikes a good balance between responsive and relaxed. Brakes were fine, although we find it hard to believe that in this day and age, rear drums would still be standard on this segment. For inspiring stopping power, go for the optional 4-wheel disc brakes on the SR or SL trims.
Overall, fuel economy in the Sentra fuel economy is better than the Civic or the Corolla, although both offer slightly more horsepower and lower curb weights. The Sentra base Sentra with the manual transmission achieves 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, while the new CVT is rated at 30 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. The optional fuel economy (FE) package available adds additional aerodynamics and low-rolling resistance tires for a gain of one mpg on the freeway, but we're not sure it's worth the extra $400.
The Nissan Sentra is a solid, good-looking compact sedan with excellent fuel economy and a comfortable, spacious cabin.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Laura Burstein filed this report after her test drive of the Sentra near San Francisco.