2013 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

October 25, 2012
Nissan's all-new 2013 Sentra has at least one trait in common with the 2012 model it replaces: It simply doesn't leave a very strong impression with you.

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.

The Sentra has surprisingly good electric-boost steering, too; it's everything we'd want in a compact or mid-size sedan that's vying for city streets and Interstates, not canyon roads, and it has a nice light feel and good loading off center. But there are two things about the Sentra that keep it from being a car you really want to drive (or enjoy driving). First, ask for a quick burst of power once underway, and between the electronic throttle and new wide-ratio CVT, there's a moment of incomprehension followed by a slow ramp up of revs—it's all a little frustrating. Secondly, there's too much bounciness and body lean in the suspension—without enough of a reward in ride comfort, we think (it's still pretty busy on secondary roads, but quiet).

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.

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