2013 Nissan Sentra Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
June 26, 2013

The 2013 Nissan Sentra looks poised to become more of a 'premium' compact sedan, emphasizing spaciousness, comfort, and features over outright sportiness.

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.

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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.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Styling

The 2013 Nissan Sentra goes for classiness, not sportiness, by adopting a mini-Altima look on the outside; but it’s econocar-bland on the inside.

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.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Performance

The 2013 Sentra performs competently, but it’s markedly less fun to drive compared to most other models in this size and price class.

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.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Comfort & Quality

The Sentra is almost as accommodating as mid-size sedans, but not nearly as comfortable or refined as one.

The new 2013 Sentra sizes up a bit compared to the 2012 model, and is 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. Only overall height has been reduced slightly. At the same time, the Sentra isn’t a small car. Compared to the 2013 Versa Sedan, it’s about seven inches longer and four inches wider, with a wheelbase about four inches longer.

Dimensionally, Nissan boasts that the Sentra 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 truth, the Sentra feels accommodating, but it doesn’t feel anywhere close to mid-size—and that has a lot to do with seating design and seating comfort. Nissan has not only used relatively short cushions both in front and in back, but it’s limited the rearward front-seat travel so that it barely meets the needs of taller drivers. At 6’-6,” I could get comfortable enough, but with my knees splayed out at varied degrees. Otherwise, front seats have plenty of extra headroom without the sunroof, but models with it can be a little tight. The seats themselves are flat and unsupportive, and while we thought by the look of them we’d get a little lateral support, it’s there in look alone. Multiple drivers mentioned seat comfort as an issue.

Whether or not there’s enough back-seat space also depends on your body type and your needs. This is a back seat that could easily accommodate three pre-teens across, but for adults the position is a little low and the cushions too hard; a little more contouring would have gone a long way. Taller occupants in back will find enough legroom, but headroom will be scarce, and getting in and out requires ducking under the door lip.

Trunk space is better than any other models in this class than the Cruze, and it feels that way. It’s a large, chest-like cargo area that could fit a couple large suitcases or a very large load of groceries. All trims come not only with a folding rear center armrest, but also a split-folding arrangement that lets you flip 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 that’s available.

Nissan says that it’s increased attention to noise and vibration in the Sentra and added 50 percent more noise insulation around the firewall. While you still hear the engine’s coarse note plenty when accelerating hard, the interior is rather quiet by budget-priced small-car standards..

Ride quality is on the soft side; it’s very absorbent, and there’s not much road noise, but as with some shorter-wheelbase vehicles, the Sentra can feel somewhat bouncy or pitchy over rougher surfaces—and there’s too much lift (squat) or dive under hard acceleration or braking.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Safety

Safety features are typical for the class, although outward visibility is better than expected.

Crash-test ratings aren't yet available for the 2013 Nissan Sentra from the IIHS, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives it four out of five stars overall, with four stars in frontal and rollover crashes, and five stars for side impacts. But standard safety equipment in the Sentra includes front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, as well as roof-mounted side-curtain bags, plus electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes. And moms will be reassured to know that there are two full LATCH connectors in the Sentra's back seat (and three child-seat upper tether anchors).

Also standard is a new Easy Fill Tire Alert system that sounds the horn when you’re inflating the tires to signal the recommended pressure.

The new Sentra’s lower beltline and somewhat higher seating position relative to that allow impressive outward visibility. And with the available navigation system comes a rearview camera system.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Features

Bluetooth connectivity is only standard on the top SL; otherwise the 2013 Nissan Sentra lineup offers a lot of value for the money—and the feature set of a larger, more expensive car.

The 2013 Nissan Sentra keeps pace with other models in this class, and even adds a few features normally reserved for larger, more expensive models—like dual-zone automatic climate control and Bose audio to some of the lineup. Although it disappoints by omitting some important infotainment features, like Bluetooth hands-free calling, from some of the lineup and making it a major option on the rest of the lineup.

Base S, mid-range SV, sporty SR, and top-of-the-line SL models of the Sentra span about $4,000—and mean the difference between getting seemingly bare-bones commuter equipment and a level of features that won’t feel like any kind of sacrifice. And 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.

Even at the base S level, totaling $16,640 with destination, the 2013 Nissan Sentra models include a six-way-adjustable driver's seat, tilt-and-telescopic steering, air conditioning, power windows, power locks, and keyless entry. SV models add cruise control, more speakers, illuminated steering-wheel audio controls, a security system, and premium upholstery, while the SR adds a sportier look, with 17-inch alloys, sport grille and fascias, lower-body extensions, fog lamps, and a chrome exhaust tip. And at the top of the line, the SL gets Bluetooth phone connectivity plus automatic headlamps, dual-zone climate control (a Sentra first), heated side mirrors, and Intelligent Key. One odd omission is that the sporty SR model has drum brakes; they’re part of the Driver Package.

Another odd omission is that most of the Sentra lineup doesn’t include Bluetooth connectivity. It's included in the SL, but not at all available on the S. On the others, you either have to get it as a $350 standalone option, or to opt for that Driver Package ($1,000 or $1,080), which also includes an upgraded audio system, Intelligent Key, Smart Auto Headlights, and a leather steering wheel and shift knob.

The Bose premium audio system that’s available in the Sentra is another first. With eight speakers placed around the vehicle, it aims for a rich, balanced sound and actually has different amplifier settings depending on whether the Sentra has cloth or leather seats.

The base audio system has a CD player and four speakers, while a six-speaker system with 4.3-inch color display, USB port, and iPod control is in the middle. SiriusXM satellite radio is available. There's also an available 'NissanConnect with Navigation' connectivity system with a hands-free text messaging assistant, Google points of interest, and a Google Send-to-Car function.

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.

A Leather Package is offered for $1,030 on the SL and includes heated front seats and, oddly, rear disc brakes (it’s the only way to get them). Meanwhile a $1,200 Premium package combines the moonroof, Bose audio system, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.

At $650 and available on the SV, SR, or SL, the ‘NissanConnect with Navigation system’ is a modern, full-function nav system with traffic rerouting, weather updates, and point-of-interest (POI) information powered by Google. There’s also a Google Send-to-Car function and an Eco Route mode, and a rearview monitor. With this system you also get Pandora radio capability via Bluetooth Streaming Audio and a smartphone with a data connection.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Fuel Economy

Overall, the 2013 Sentra is about as fuel-efficient as other models in this class, but green-minded car shoppers will want to opt for the FE+ package.

On that matter, Nissan says that most CVT-equipped versions of the Sentra will return up to 39 mpg on the highway and a best-in-class 34 mpg as an EPA Combined figure—likely placing their EPA City rating at an impressive 30 mpg. A special FE+ model will hit 40 mpg on the highway.

The sleek exterior of the 2013 Nissan Sentra allows a low 0.29 coefficient of drag, and that’s one of the keys to this model’s excellent highway fuel economy. The other is the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which

In Eco Mode with the manual transmission, the gauge cluster advises the driver on which gear to be in at the moment for best fuel efficiency.

A smart alternator also decouples from the engine (and its charging duty) during acceleration to help improve fuel efficiency, and reengages at full capacity during braking.

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October 30, 2015
2013 Nissan Sentra Sentra

A great commuter vehicle.

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I do love this car, as i drive about 30 km to work everyday. It has saved me a great deal of money, in comparison to using my 6 cylinder SUV. The only thing i can say is i wish it had a little more bite in the... + More »
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April 28, 2015
2013 Nissan Sentra 4-Door Sedan I4 CVT SL

I have been happy with this car overall.

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The reliability and gas mileage is excellent. The only option I don't like is the head back rest on in the front seats; it don't seem to have an adjustment that is comfortable.
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April 20, 2015
For 2013 Nissan Sentra

Great car overall - CVT transmission is terrible.

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The Sentra SR is an excellent car overall, it has good gas mileagefor a compact, very reliable , low maintenance costs and looks like it costs a lot more than it actually does. Sentra's Interior is excellent... + More »
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