The outgoing model is a reasonably good compact sedan, and it's sold well; it's just been hard to argue that it provides any particular quality that makes it a must-have over other compact sedans.
The new Sentra, on the other hand, will hit the mark with some smart shoppers for its roomy interior and strong list of features for the money—especially for the loaded SL, which comes with features like automatic climate control, Bose premium audio, a full-featured navigation and infotainment system, and heated leather seats.
But for the most part, it feels destined to be appreciated in fleets, or to be snapped up, perhaps in record numbers, by those who shop for a vehicle based mainly on a features list and specification charts. We can see why. On the other hand, it's just not that much fun to drive.
What helps to understand the new Sentra a bit better is that it looks up the food chain, quite closely emulating the larger and very popular 2013 Altima sedan. In fact, if you don't have another car nearby to size the Sentra up against, you might even mistake it from some angles for the Altima. With some Infiniti influences and a hunkered-back profile (there's a little more overhang in back, compared to the teetering-forward look of the previous model), it's more relaxed, almost sexy.
Refined and frugal, but with some familiar flaws
From behind the wheel, it's also clear that the Sentra is aspiring to be a larger car, but it's far less convincing. The distant, muted purr of the engine at idle is a good start, as is the relaxed demeanor of the new 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which keeps revs just below the 3,000-rpm in light-to-moderate acceleration, the kind you'd encounter most on the commute. Put your right foot into it a little more and the refined, big-car impression starts to fall apart, with the CVT coarsely running the smooth but raucous engine into its upper ranges (there are no paddle-shifters or simulated 'gears' here). The dash to 60 mph takes between nine and ten seconds—that's not quick, but quick enough for its intended purpose.
The benefit, of course, of the CVT, is that it really maximizes fuel efficiency, whether you're a leadfoot or already quite mindful. CVT cars are rated at 30 mpg city, 39 highway with the CVT, 27/36 with the manual, and the FE+ package adds a list of aerodynamic aids and improvements to eke one more mpg out of the CVT versions on the highway. The mileage we saw—about 32 mpg over 150 miles in a CVT model, in the city, on fast two-laners, and on the highway—was impressive overall.