Over the past several years we’ve seen the design of small sedans diverge. On one side there are models that follow a more rakish, flamboyant look that’s small-car-unique—like the Ford Focus or Dodge Dart—while on the other hand there are those that follow a more conservative mold and more closely emulate their larger, mid-size siblings. The new 2013 Nissan Sentra follows the former, with a design that’s a bit conservative on the outside but attractive in the details and clearly cast in the mold of the mid-size Altima.
From the front, the Sentra has nearly the same look as the Altima, with a chrome-framed grille that widens upward, flowing into contour lines that stream outward over the hood to the A-pillar. Alongside, just as in the Altima, there's an interesting crease that starts just over the front wheels and flows organically into the rear deck. The Sentra's tail is more squared off, but it does have the same sort of taillight design that tapers at the trunklid and flares outward, going forward around the back corners. That’s all topped off with a near-level beltline, more side sculpting, and some judicious use of brightwork as an accent for the door handles and windowlines. And for the premium look, Nissan uses finely detailed “calm but impressive” halogen headlight units that are designed to be a focal point, with integrated turn signals, and LED accent lights framing them.
It all makes sense from the side, where the more upright, tilted-forward stance of the current Sentra is being replaced by a more laid-back, upscale, Infiniti-influenced look. The swept-back profile is made possible with a little more overhang in back (trunk space benefits from that), and from some rear angles, 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.
2013 Sentra SR models get a sportier look that’s easy to spot from the outside—especially in their exclusive shade of blue. Improvements include different, more aggressive-looking front and rear fascias, lower-body sill extensions, a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tip, fog lamps, and V-rated tires on 17-inch forked five-spoke alloys. Inside, there’s a ‘sport silver’ trim.
If only the new Sentra were anywhere near as interesting and tastefully restrained on the inside as it is on the outside. Here, the Sentra bears more in common with the Versa than it does with the Altima—and much of it is due to the materials and trims. According to Nissan, the interior is designed to have the quality feel of a car one class higher, while the straightforward, functional layout “conveys a sense of reliability,” but in truth this is one of the least distinctive interior designs in a compact car.
From the driver’s seat there’s nothing to complain about from a functionality standpoint; it continues with Sentra tradition in offering a rather upright layout and straightforward controls, but it's gently curved and flows across in a two-tier arrangement, tapering at the sides to help maximize space, and it's trimmed in a contrasting mix of darker matte surfaces and glossier-surfaced metallic-look plastics. Upper trims get leather and faux-Maple trim, too. The trouble from pre-production cars we evaluated in a preview was that, while the design looks good in pictures, or from a few paces away, it’s unimpressive up close, with metallic trim that looks plasticky and feels thin framing the center stack, and slightly separate materials, with grains that don’t quite match, between the dash and upper door areas. There’s no convincing luxury look here.