Base car exposes faults; SL most like a mini Altima
A number of small sedans are hidden gems in base, manual-transmission form; but taking out a base Sentra S with the manual served to expose the Sentra's econo-car roots, bringing out lots of fore-and-aft body motion on acceleration, during shifts, or on hard stops. Nissan dismisses this model as one that will constitute well under ten percent of sales, and it feels like an afterthought, with the linkage of the manual gearbox especially disappointing and imprecise—its long throws and awkward clutch takeup bearing no semblance to the slick aesthetic experience of Sentra manual shifters from the '90s and even into this past decade.
Back to the CVT models, which seem to hide those less savory sides of the Sentra's chassis tuning, the Sentra feels like a refined, relatively quiet cruiser on the highway, and at 70 mph it's true to its 'mini-Altima' purpose. SL and SR models don't get any significant suspension differences, but they do get low-profile, premium-compound 17-inch tires that seem not only to have better lower-speed responsiveness and grip but also reduced NVH. SLs all come with disc brakes, too, which seemed more consistent and confident in panic-braking.
As we outline at length in our full review of the Sentra, its cabin dimensions and numbers are going to wow you if you're comparison shopping, but hold on and be sure to sit in the Sentra and competing models. The driving position is very high, and you don't have a lot of spare headroom if you get the moonroof; meanwhile the driver's seat doesn't go back as far as taller drivers might want. At the same time (and perhaps the result of some dimensional gaming) there's a vast expanse of rear legroom, although headroom is a little tight back there. In any case, seats are flat and not all that comfortable for highway trips.
Distilling all these observations: It might be very roomy, but that doesn't necessarily translate to comfort, so sit in it. But in any case, the taller seating positions yield impressive outward visibility.
Not much charm, but an alluring value
Features are the other big strength, and what will seduce plenty of shoppers looking for an everyday small-family vehicle on a tight budget. At about $23k for a top-of-the-line SL with leather, Bose premium sound, Intelligent key, heated seats, and navigation, its The only disappointments, really, are that Bluetooth is optional, and not even offered on the base S. And it's a little puzzling that the sporty SR has the same flat front seats, logy ride-and-handling characteristics, and drum brakes (discs are optional on all but the SL). Let's hope that a true SE-R is on the way sometime soon.
Small-car shoppers looking for a little more charm behind the wheel: There are plenty of other good options.
Simply put the Sentra isn’t much fun to drive, and Nissan has ended up with a car that's trying so hard to emulate the Altima that it's lost the small-car charm yet still demonstrating some small-car drawbacks. Don’t expect any driving enjoyment here, although if what you need is competent, relaxed performance, and lots of value, it's here.See the pages of our full review of the 2013 Nissan Sentra for specs, pricing, pictures, and many more details.
Nissan covered accommodation and some travel expenses to facilitate this report, and early access to the product.