Driven: 2013 Nissan Sentra

By Brandon Turkus

November 05, 2012

—San Francisco, California
Cars are built to a formula. This formula is calculated by many people, and is used as a bullseye for the manufacturer to aim for with its newest product. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
We’ve seen the formula that Nissan used for the 2013 Sentra before. It’s a modification of what the Japanese marque used for the Versa Sedan a few years back: take an inoffensively styled sedan, add a big interior, subtract power, add efficiency, and subtract the price. Finally, add the square root of 2692, divide by three, and put on sale.
[Click here for our review of the 2013 Dodge Dart]
To be fair, the formula seems to have worked well for the Versa. Sales through September were up almost 20 percent over the same period in 2011, with 85,000 units sold.
Driven: 2013 Nissan Sentra SL
This formula does not, however, work for the larger Nissan Sentra. You see, the Versa exists in a segment where practicality, ease of use, and affordability are paramount. Versa buyers want a cheap vehicle that has a lot of space, and in this regard, Nissan’s smallest sedan excels (take its nearly 20-percent improvement in sales this year as proof of that fact). Its space makes it a real competitor in a segment where Ford’s Fiesta and Toyota’s Yaris sell for the same or more money, but feel cramped by comparison.
The Sentra operates in a segment that’s the inverse of this. Nissan said as much in our technical briefing. Sentra buyers are grounded and confident college grads, single or married without children, and with a $50,000 household income. They want value for money and excellent fuel economy in their purchases, and aren’t looking for an economy car, but rather something that expresses their personality.
In short, style and performance play larger roles in the compact segment, where buyers have a bit of discretionary income to play with. Fuel economy and practicality are still important, but those needs have to be balanced with the higher expectations of buyers.
This is where the Sentra sees issues. In a swarm of stylish, trendy vehicles, the Sentra’s styling is derivative of the larger Altima. This might not be a bad thing, were the Altima’s styling not already more conservative than an NRA meeting. To be fair, it is a handsome car, with clean lines and an attractive face. However, it fails to draw yearning gazes from passersby or carry prolonged stares from other drivers. In short, it’s not an attention grabber. This is thrown into stark relief when parked next to a Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra.
The swept-back, aggressively styled fascias of the competition scream fashion-forward and progressive. They look like new cars, despite having been on sale for some time. The Sentra, meanwhile, already looks like an old design.
Things are scarcely improved in the interior. We drove both the volume SV and the top-spec SL, although neither really impressed. The dash is a mass of uninteresting shapes, with the center stack being particularly boring. The touchscreen display, flanked by buttons, is small at 5.8 inches, and the HVAC controls mounted below are about as simple as we could imagine—not necessarily a bad thing, but not really in line with what one would expect in this segment.
Material quality is on par with the competition, with the dash plastics and doors feeling reasonably soft. The wood trim that comes on the SL looks like something left over from Chevrolet’s fifth-generation Malibu, though, and is reason enough to avoid the top-end model.
The driver sits in either cloth or leather seats. Regardless of upholstery, support is at a minimum. The bottom cushion is too short, limiting support for the legs, while the side bolsters of the backrest are only adequate for traveling in a straight line. That said, there’s a fair amount of cushioning that kept us from developing numb spots during our time with the Sentra. The steering wheel, a three-spoke design, is finished in cheap-feeling leather. It’s sized well, though, and the button placement on the face is logical and intuitive.
Driven: 2013 Nissan Sentra SLThe upshot of the Sentra’s cabin is mainly one of space. There’s an absolute surplus of room. With 37.4 inches of rear legroom, the compact Sentra actually bests the mid-size Altima sedan. It also packs more space for backseat passengers than a host of competitors (Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, and Hyundai Elantra). The Sentra isn’t just extra legroom, but space in general. With 95.9 cubic feet of interior volume and 15.1 cubic feet of cargo volume, the Sentra crams a huge amount of interior space onto a compact platform.
Under the hood sits a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, developing 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Low numbers, we agree, but they’re more reasonable when you look at the Sentra’s best-in-class 34-mile-per-gallon combined economy rating, along with its 30-mpg city and 39-mpg highway ratings (a Fuel Economy + package is available on the entry-level Sentra S and volume SV model that bumps the highway rating to 40 mpg). Aiding the Sentra’s economy is its low, 2825-pound curb weight (for the base S, the top-spec SL adds a negligible 26 pounds).
The problem is that the following vehicles all feature weight-to-power ratios that best the Sentra’s 21.7 pounds per horsepower, while only losing one to two combined mpgs and in some cases besting or matching the Sentra’s highway rating: Chevrolet Cruze (20.34, 26/38/30), Chevrolet Cruze Eco (20.34, 28/42/32), Ford Focus SFE (18.16, 28/40/33), Hyundai Elantra (17.97, 28/38/32), and Mazda3 Skyactiv (19.03, 28/40/33).  
Furthermore, this slight bump in economy comes with a sacrifice in aural enjoyment. The Sentra’s 1.8-liter is overly harsh and sounds too buzzy. This trait is amplified by the use of a continuously variable transmission. Dive too deeply into the pedal, and the engine’s rpms shoot up towards redline, creating a racket that should not come from a product built in 2012.
In terms of actual power delivery, the 1.8 musters what it can rather readily. There’s not a lot of power down low, but the CVT is so responsive that the engine is able to find its sweet spot with little hesitation. Unfortunately, with all 130 horsepower peaking at 6000 rpm and torque topping out at 3600 rpm, finding the engine’s sweet spot means listening to a lot of noise from under the hood. At speed, the Sentra struggles in passing situations (a test on the two-lane roads leading to our hotel confirmed this), where the engine produces quite a racket but doesn’t deliver much actual motion.
Let’s jump back to that CVT, though, because if there’s one thing Nissan nailed in the Sentra, it’s that. It’s a quick, responsive piece, getting the engine in the right place quickly and then dropping the revs just as fast in response to the throttle input. Really, we aren't fans of CVTs, but if Nissan can just pair this one up with an engine that doesn’t sound like a flock of drunken seagulls, it’d be a really solid powertrain.
The other bright spot in the realm of powertrains were the Sentra’s new driving modes. Featuring a Normal, Sport, and Eco mode to alter throttle and transmission behavior is something we’ve seen many times before, but it feels particularly good in a small car such as this. There’s a noticeable change in the feel of the throttle when cycling through modes, and the transmission is much less prone to jump up to redline when it’s not in Sport. If there was a means of countering the obnoxiously noisy engine, Eco mode is it.
Driven: 2013 Nissan Sentra SLThe Sentra features the fatal flaw of being not hugely comfortable or being particularly agile. It’s too harsh to be really comfortable, with a noticeable degree of chop over rougher stretches of road. There’s a noticeable level of vertical motion, which makes the Sentra feel like it lacks composure. We want our small cars to feel planted and poised, and instead, this Nissan just feels uncomfortable and difficult to place on the road. Feedback through the chassis is extremely limited, making it difficult to judge lateral grip levels and what the road surface is like. The steering is, predictably, electric. It feels okay on center, but quickly gets out of sorts in the bends. It’s overly light and lacks any real sense of feedback.
In addition to the room on offer, though, the Sentra makes a compelling pricing argument. The base car retails for $15,990 and is the only trim to offer a six-speed manual. It’s really about as basic as a car can get these days, with a four-speaker stereo and cloth seats. The volume SV starts at $17,970, and adds steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, a six-speaker stereo, and chrome interior accents. The SR sport appearance pack starts at $18,870, and adds unique seventeen-inch wheels, a dark grille, rear spoiler, and silver interior trim. Finally, the top-spec SL bumps the starting price to $19,760, and adds seventeen-inch wheels, the aforementioned wood interior, Nissan’s intelligent key system, dual-zone climate control (a segment exclusive), automatic headlights, and other luxuries. You can add the Fuel Economy + package to the S or SV for $700, which bumps highway mileage to 40 mpg, and adds a CVT, a rear spoiler, an underbody tray, and low-rolling-resistance tires.
There are four option packages for the Sentra as well. The Driver Package costs $1000, can be had on the SV or SR, and is standard on the SL. It includes the intelligent key, a 4.3-inch audio display, USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and automatic headlights. The Leather Package costs $1030 and is available only on the SL. It adds heated leather seats (it also adds rear disc brakes—we have no clue what those have to do with leather). The Navigation Pack is available on everything but the base car and will retail for $650. It ups the central display to 5.8 inches, includes Pandora capability, Google Send-To-Car, weather and traffic monitoring, and a text message reader. Finally, the Premium package is available on everything but the base model, and adds a moonroof, an eight-speaker Bose stereo, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. It will cost $1200.
We’ll admit, we’re not in love with the direction Nissan has taken the Sentra in. While the competition is upping its game with each model year, the new Sentra takes a decidedly old-school approach to the compact market, offering space and utility above all else. While we aren’t huge fans of the way it drives or looks, especially relative to the competition, we have to commend Nissan on delivering a small car that has the space of a bigger model. We’re sure it’ll appeal to someone, just not us.
2013 Nissan Sentra SL
Engine: Inline-4, 1.8 liters, 16v
Output: 130 hp/128 lb-ft
Weight: 2851 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 30/39 mpg
Base Price: $19,760
On Sale: Fall 2012