Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
This new 2013 Nissan Sentra may call itself a compact sedan, but don't believe it. Like many of its competitors it has grown to the point where the term compact barely applies anymore.
Take, for instance, the Sentra's rear seat. It offers 37.4 inches of legroom. That's more than Nissan's midsize Altima sedan (36.1) and the latest Chevy Malibu (36.8). Even some of the biggest midsize sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry are only marginally bigger in back, with 38.5 inches and 38.9 inches of rear legroom respectively.
So this Sentra is bigger, yet Nissan claims that it's lighter, too, by some 150 pounds. It's one reason why this very uncompact Sentra can also deliver very compact carlike mileage numbers. Nissan says the Sentra has been rated by the EPA at 30 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.
A bigger car that gets better mileage? Is there a catch? We got behind the wheel to find out.
At first glance, the new 2013 Nissan Sentra appears bigger, more substantial and altogether more attractive than the previous model. Instead of looking like an economy sedan, it looks more like a slightly smaller version of the Altima.
It's not until you slide behind the wheel that you get a sense of the Sentra's slightly smaller dimensions compared to true midsize sedans. It's hardly tight, though, as nearly all of its measurements fall about midpack compared to other sedans in its class like the Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. In other words, if you're more than 6 feet tall there's still plenty of room to stretch out.
The driver seat itself is about average in terms of comfort and adjustability. Even in the top-of-the-line SL trim like our test car, the Sentra only offers manual adjustments. It's relatively easy to find a comfortable driving position, though, and general visibility is good in every direction. Seat heaters are available on the SL, too, so you can make up for some of its lack of support with warmth.
With less weight to move around, Nissan decided to push the Sentra's efficiency even further with a smaller, less powerful engine. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder in last year's model has been replaced with a 1.8-liter four cylinder that delivers 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers are down by 10 hp and 19 lb-ft of torque versus the 2.0-liter.
How does that feel on the road? Not all that much different, especially since, like the last Sentra, the standard gearbox on everything but the base model is a continuously variable transmission (CVT). It's Nissan's latest CVT and it does a good job of making smaller engines feel slightly more powerful than their numbers suggest. Part of the reason is a new "Sport" mode that makes it respond a little bit quicker to throttle inputs.
We wouldn't call the 2013 Nissan Sentra sporty, though, given that it takes 9.7 seconds (9.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) to go from zero to 60 mph. That's on par with the Hyundai Elantra, but about half a second slower than most of the other cars in its class. Passing power at highway speeds is merely adequate. With a running start you can make it around big trucks, but don't expect to make any last-minute passes around inattentive cell phone slugs.
The new engine is a smooth-running piece, which is good since you need to wring it out to get going with any enthusiasm. Once it settles down at cruising speeds, the noise subsides considerably. In fact, the Sentra is one of the quietest sedans in its class at 70 mph.
Nothing Sporty Going on Here
Even though this Sentra is built on an all-new platform, there are no major changes to its suspension design. It still uses MacPherson struts up front and a semi-independent torsion beam in the rear. Not surprisingly, it rides much like the previous model, which is no bad thing. Modestly aggressive tuning makes it feel a bit sharper than the Hyundai Elantra, yet nowhere near as sporty as the Ford Focus.
The electrically assisted steering is heavier than you might expect on-center, so it gives the impression of being overly sporty at first. As soon as you bend the Sentra into a corner, however, that heaviness quickly disappears. In its place is the kind of light, easily maneuverable feel that's typical of cars in this class. The increased level of assist also means there's not much road feel, something our test-drivers noted during slalom testing, where the Sentra managed 62.5 mph with its stability control activated.
During around-town driving, the Sentra offers a good mix of refinement and comfort. In this class, that means it's not bothered by minor road imperfections and generally unfazed by potholes. The SL trim level gets standard 17-inch wheels and 205/50R17 tires, but they're not overly aggressive and don't make it drive busy. Our SL also had the optional Leather package that includes rear disc brakes for some reason. They helped stop the Sentra from 60 mph in 126 feet, which is good for the class.
Big and Full of Features
Like many of its competitors, the 2013 Nissan Sentra now offers many of the same electronic features that used to be restricted to the larger midsize sedans. Options like a fully featured navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and even a premium Bose audio system.
Our loaded SL had them all and they definitely give the interior the feel of a more expensive sedan. The 5.8-inch navigation screen is easy to read, the touchscreen functions are simple to use and even the Bluetooth interface is straightforward. The premium sound system comes coupled with a sunroof as part of the Premium package and isn't the best we've heard. Top-shelf SLs also get a standard dual-zone climate control system, which is an appreciated upgrade for a car in this class.
The leather on the seats and steering wheel feels a little better than your basic cloth or vinyl, but the wood trim looks out of place in a car like this. Some nicely finished plastic pieces would look just as good, especially down the road when they begin to show wear.
The big legroom figure quoted by Nissan for the backseats is no joke. Two adults could ride quite comfortably in back without feeling cramped. The only difference between the Sentra and Altima in this regard is width. The Altima, and most midsizers for that matter, offers more hip and shoulder room so adding a third person is far more realistic.
Cargo room is another area where the Sentra matches up favorably to both compact and midsize sedans. With 15.2 cubic feet of trunk space, the Sentra handily beats out rivals like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which don't even top 13 cubic feet. At the midsize level, the Camry and the Altima have 15.4 cubic feet while the latest Accord has 15.8, so the advantage is pretty slim.
One area where the Sentra could use an upgrade is interior storage. The center console is tiny and there's no bin in front of the transmission shifter either. There are two average-size cupholders between the seats and some decent door pockets, but neither is a good place for loose change.
Extra Size Doesn't Cost Extra
Given how close the Sentra is creeping toward midsize status, we expected its price to start getting bigger, too. Instead, Nissan went the other way and made the 2013 Sentra slightly cheaper than the previous model.
Our fully loaded, top-spec SL model came in at $23,420, and that's as expensive as the Sentra gets. A fully loaded Honda Civic runs a couple hundred dollars more, while the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus can top $25K when fully optioned.
There's a trade-off, though, as the Sentra's competitors offer more powerful engines and a sportier feel along with a few options that still aren't available on the Sentra. Both the Focus and the Elantra offer hatchback versions, too, an option the Sentra won't offer until sometime in 2013.
As it stands now, this 2013 Nissan Sentra is best suited to those who like basic transportation done well. It might sound like faint praise, but that's the heart of the compact sedan market. Value pricing, an efficient engine and a quiet, spacious cabin: That's what the Sentra delivers. There are cars in this segment that are more fun to drive and models that are cheaper, but the Sentra plays it right down the middle and looks good doing it.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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