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.
Powering the 2013 Sentra is an all-new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. With a DOHC design and twin Continuously Variable Timing Control. (CVTC), it makes 130 horsepower and is paired in most of the lineup with the new-generation Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). And that’s enough in the Sentra because a new lightweight structure for the Sentra helps cut up to 150 pounds in all.
This is a powertrain that puts its best foot forward in typical commuting conditions. From a standing start, when you gently or moderately nudge the accelerator, the powertrain feels at ease and entirely adequate, with a confident takeoff, thanks to this new-generation CVT’s lower launch ratio yet a more relaxed cruising speed due to its taller top ratio. Push the accelerator to the floor and the revs rise rather raucously and dramatically into the engine’s upper ranges, with the Sentra not at all pinning you back in your seat but definitely moving brisk enough.
What’s disappointing about Sentra models with the CVT is their transitory response when you need a quick burst of power. If you’re already rolling at, say, 20 or 30 mph, and you’re aiming to merge in with much faster-moving traffic, flooring the accelerator is met with a hesitation that’s longer than any competing model with a conventional automatic transmission. Eventually, the transmission lets revs rise, and you move quickly, but the wait is frustrating (especially if a steep hill is involved). Don’t get us wrong; this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most drivers who commute on mostly level ground—and you can work around it sometimes by keeping the shift lever in ‘L,’ which keeps revs higher to begin with. But it does keep this combination from being delightful.
Manual transmission versions feel very much like an afterthought, as they’re only offered at the base S level, so you sacrifice the chance to get a well-equipped car (cruise control isn’t even offered). Furthermore the coordination between clutch and shifter on the one manual test car Nissan made available wasn’t great, and the shift linkage itself felt notchy, loose, and imprecise—like stirring a bowl of bolts. The manual also serves to show that despite the variable valve timing, this isn’t an engine that makes much of its torque below 2,500 rpm (peak torque of 128 pound-feet comes at 3,600 rpm). The CVT on the other hand smartly keeps those revs in the range just below 3,000 rpm even in rather light acceleration.
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 the chassis department. Stabilizer bars are included front and back for the setup, which has struts in front, and it has decent cornering capability. But push it a little too hard and the body leans excessively, with the suspension then unloading in a rather sudden way that would interrupt a smooth line through tight esses. The speed-sensitive electric-boost steering here feels more like that used in the Altima, with a rather light, feel that’s nicely weighted and confident on center.
No matter which model or trim level you get, all 2013 Nissan Sentra models include Normal, Eco, and Sport modes, through small buttons that are located in the lower dash, out of the driver’s line of sight (the assumption is that you’ll pick a mode and stick with it). They affect throttle response and transmission tuning, while Eco mode also reduces air-conditioning draw. We noted, interestingly, that on fast-moving back roads Eco mode had the transmission running the engine in a less-raucous rev range, while we were able to move nearly as quick.
Rear disc brakes are available only on the SL or the SR, and they may provides stronger braking in higher-demand conditions like on mountain roads, but the rear drum system on the rest of the lineup stopped well enough—albeit with lots of nosedive and body motion. Those two models also come with low-profile 17-inch tires that do improve responsiveness somewhat, with no real deterioration in ride.