Nissan's compact Sentra is all-new for 2013. The new Sentra is styled to look like a baby Altima and priced to deliver excellent value -- but in my opinion, this $17,000 sedan misses the mark. Why did the Sentra put me off? Read on.
First Glance: Let's be fair
I try to go out of my way to be fair to cars I don't like -- after all, just because I don't hit it off with a particular vehicle, that doesn't mean it isn't right for anyone else. So in the interest of fairness and balance, I'm going to start off by telling you everything I like about the all-new 2013 Nissan Sentra: It has a staggering amount of interior space, the control layout is excellent, the engine delivers a nice balance of power and fuel economy, and the pricing is quite good.
Other than that, I thought the Sentra was perfectly dreadful.
My dislike for the Sentra began when I first laid eyes on the car. The Sentra isn't unattractive so much as its uncomfortable -- there's a not-quite-rightness about the shape that puts pressure on your psyche, like that nagging feeling that you left the oven on. The Sentra is supposed to look like a scaled-down Altima, but it comes across like a badly-wrapped present: The middle is okay, but the ends look sloppy and unfinished. Not that one expects a work of art for sixteen grand, but a Hyundai Elantra or a Mazda3 looks nicer sitting in your driveway.
In the Driver's Seat: Simple controls, drab design
The style doesn't get any better inside. Despite fairly nice materials, I thought the Sentra's interior still looked chintzy and cheap. The culprit is the giant wavy dashboard; lying prone across the car with no vertical breaks, it seems to go out of its way to remind you that it's just a big slab of plastic.
That's too bad, because the control layout is quite good: The switchgear is simple, sensible, and easy to use when you're rolling down the road, even the optional (and, at $650, reasonably priced) navigation system. I found the front seats comfortable, but while the seat cloth down the middle is substantial, the bolsters are covered in cheaper stuff that attracts pet hair like a magnet.
Back seat and cargo space are the Sentra's strongest selling points. The trunk is generously sized at 15.1 cubic feet, its only sin being a slightly high lift-over. The back seat is both spacious and supportive, which is notable -- while some cars (including the Sentra's little sister, the Versa) truncate the back seat cushion to give the illusion of space, the Sentra provides both comfort and room. And the best part about sitting in the back seat of the Sentra is that you don't have to drive it.
On the Road: Zzzzzzzz
Under the new Sentra's hood is a noisy but competent 1.8 liter engine rated for a modest 130 horsepower. My tester had a continuously-variable automatic transmission which lets the engine speed rise and fall as needed, as opposed to having fixed gear ratios. A lot of people despise CVTs; I don't, and I think the motorboat-like sound of the engine is a reasonable trade off for the smooth, shift-free driving experience. Acceleration isn't stunning, but I had no problem keeping up with busy freeway traffic.
The Sentra's powertrain has Eco and Sport modes that affect throttle response and transmission behavior. I spent most of my time in Eco mode, only because it backs off the aggressive throttle response -- in Normal and Sport modes, I had a hard time leaving the traffic lights without giving myself whiplash. But I was pleased with the fuel economy: 33.6 MPG, right in line with the EPA estimates of 30 MPG city and 39 MPG highway. (The Sentra is also available in an "FE" version rated at 40 MPG on the highway, while the 6-speed manual transmission, available only in the base model, lags way behind at 27 city/36 highway.)
Unfortunately, the Sentra is all but lacking in driver appeal, its comfortable ride augmented by lifeless steering and indifferent handling. Nissan is quick to point out that most compact owners don't care about the fun factor, but I know plenty of non-enthusiast Mazda3 and Ford Focus owners who love the way their cars drive. I think Nissan could -- and should -- have done better.
Journey's End: An okay car, but the competition is better
If you judge a car on its ability to get you and your stuff from Point A to Point B, the new Sentra looks okay: It delivers lots of space, good fuel economy, and a wide choice of optional extras for a reasonable price. $16,780 buys a Sentra S with power windows and locks, air conditioning, and a manual transmission; automatics run $1,330 more. My test car, an SV model with an auto trans, cruise control and a plethora of options (push-button ignition, sunroof, premium stereo, Bluetooth and a USB port; the latter two really ought to be standard) listed for $21,670, $1,500 or so less than a comparably-equipped Honda Civic EX. A leather-lined Sentra SL with all the trimmings runs $23,490, about $800 less than a top-of-the-line Hyundai Elantra.
Still, I can't help but wish the execution had been better -- more like Nissan's mid-size Altima, also new for 2013, which proves that a car can break no new ground but still do everything well. Instead, the Sentra feels like a cut-rate compromise for people who can't afford anything nicer.
The Sentra's biggest competitor may turn out to be Nissan's own Versa. Slightly smaller (and arguably uglier) than the Sentra, the Versa's back seat isn't quite as comfortable, but it still offers a lot of space and even better value -- if you can live without leather or a sunroof, you can get a Versa SL with navigation and alloy wheels for $18,560.
If it were my money, I'd skip the Nissan showroom altogether. The Mazda3 is more fun to drive, the Chevrolet Cruze is stronger on safety, the Ford Focus offers more options, the Hyundai Elantra is more attractive, the Subaru Impreza is better in bad weather, and the Honda Civic feels like a nicer car overall. (Among that group, the Subaru and the Mazda are my faves.) The Sentra's ace in the hole its its back-seat space, but if that's your biggest concern, a mid-size car might be a better bet. Overall, the Nissan Sentra is bland and uninteresting compared to the competition. I'd give it a pass. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the 2013 Nissan Sentra:
- Lots of interior space
- Simple control layout
- Attractive pricing
What I didn't like:
- Awkward styling
- Bland driving experience
- Drab interior styling
- Nissan's compact Sentra gets a ground-up redesign for 2013
- Price range: $16,780 - $23,490
- Price as tested: $21,670
- Powertrain: 1.8 liter 4-cylinder/130 hp, 6-speed manual or continuously-variable automatic, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 27 MPG city/36 MPG highway (manual), 30/39 (automatic), 30/40 (automatic w/ FE package)
- Observed fuel economy: 33.6 MPG
- Where built: Japan
- Best rivals: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3