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When it comes to small cars, do you expect something that looks different than larger sedans, and drives with a nimble, sporty feel, or do you want one that emulates those bigger models, emphasizing space, comfort, and features, albeit with a lower price?
If you're in the latter group, you're in luck with the 2013 Nissan Sentra. This time around, Nissan is aiming to cast this model in the mold of the mid-size Altima—yet scaled down in size and price, in the hopes to lure shoppers who want classiness (and frugality, of course) over sportiness.
Nissan has tried hard to make the Sentra look and feel like a larger, more mature car, and it succeeds. With its laid-back profile and upscale, Infiniti-influenced sheetmetal, the new Sentra looks almost sexy, in a way the outgoing car never was—especially in the way the arched roofline and flowing rear flank sheetmetal meet around the rear pillar, with a chiseled upkick of the window line. Inside, you may have a little more trouble seeing the Sentra as a 'mini Altima,' as it bears more in common with the Versa than it does with the Altima—and much of it is due to the materials and trims. The interior is well laid-out, but there's no convincing luxury look here.
If what you need is small-car performance that’s confident enough for everyday-driving demands, you’ll find it here. But what you won’t find here—and you will in a number of competing models—is anything close to the zippy performance behind the wheel that you’ll find in models like the Ford Focus or Mazda3. Furthermore it misses the mark in providing the kind of refined, tactile reassurance of the Chevy Cruze or VW Jetta. The Sentra's powertrain, a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), puts its best foot forward in typical commuting conditions (gas mileage is great, too at up to 40 mpg highway). It's worst side is when you need a quick burst of power and catch the system flat-footed. There's a six-speed manual transmission available, too, but only on the base Sentra S, and it feels a bit like an afterthought.
With a torsion-beam rear axle and rear drum brakes—plus standard steel wheels—the 2013 Sentra won't win any awards for sophistication in handling. But the speed-sensitive electric-boost steering here feels much like what's used in the Altima, with a rather light, feel that’s nicely weighted and confident on center. Ride quality is pretty good too. No matter which model or trim level you get, all 2013 Nissan Sentra models include Normal, Eco, and Sport modes that affect throttle response and transmission tuning, while Eco mode also reduces air-conditioning draw.
The new 2013 Sentra is sized in a range that might have been considered mid-size—or close to it—just a few years ago. At 182.1 inches long, about two inches longer than the current car, with a wheelbase 0.6 longer, at 106.3 inches, plus an inch of additional width, the new Sentra has a longer, wider cabin than before. Dimensionally, the Sentra has its rivals beat in the numbers; it has the best official front headroom, front legroom, and rear legroom than any of the other models in this class (including Cruze, Focus, Civic, and Corolla). Overall passenger room, by official measurements, is also more than any of these competing models. In short, the Sentra feels accommodating, but its seating design and seating comfort feel subpar. The seats themselves, front and rear, are flat and unsupportive, and while we thought by the look of them we’d get a little lateral support, it’s there in appearance alone. The Sentra also has one of the roomiest trunks in this class, and in back you can flip the the seatbacks forward (not flat) to an expanded area.
Cabin materials are merely average. Nissan lined up the armrests of the door with the top of the center console, and the contact points are a soft-touch material. We also like the base cloth seats and would probably be happier with them over the plasticky leather (it looks much better in pictures) that’s available. It's a relatively quiet cabin at high speeds, too—by budget-priced small-car standards.
Looking at the equipment list and pricing, there's a lot of value for the money in the 2013 Nissan Sentra, and it keeps pace with other models in this class, even adding a few features normally reserved for larger, more expensive models—like dual-zone automatic climate control and Bose audio to some of the lineup. But there are also some frustrating equipment choices. For instance, rear disc brakes are available only on the top-of-the-line SL or the sporty SR, while a Bluetooth hands-free interface is optional on much of the lineup and not even offered on the base S. In any case, at around $23k for a fully optioned SL, this is a model that poses a strong value for those who want a lavishly equipped, yet frugal, small car.
For an extra $400, you can specify a FE+ (fuel economy) package on the Sentra that adds a rear spoiler and low-rolling-resistance tires, as well as a few other aerodynamic improvements, so as to obtain the better 40-mpg highway rating.