First Look: 2013 Nissan Sentra

The latest car to break cover in Nissan's 15-month product onslaught is the 2013 Sentra compact sedan. It follows the earlier debuts of the Altima sedan and Pathfinder crossover, and precedes the updated Versa hatchback. The Sentra is almost entirely new, with a lighter chassis, more efficient powertrain, and a longer list of optional technology. Best of all, the sheetmetal looks considerably more interesting than the current Sentra that has been on sale unchanged since 2007.

The new Sentra bears little resemblance to the dowdy 2012 model, instead aping the new 2013 Altima. That's no bad thing, as it makes for one of the segment's more eye-catching entrants. Nissan's new curved-trapezoid grille and LED running lights define the car's face, while a swooping character line leads from the front fenders, between the beltline and door handles, and into the LED taillights. The roofline slopes only gently before descending toward the trunklid. Triangular rear-quarter windows and taillights that wrap onto the fenders make the Sentra's profile look even more like that of the new Altima.

The Sentra has grown 2.3 inches to 182.1 inches long, but the body is now 0.6 inch lower and 1.2 inch narrower than before to reduce the car's frontal area. Trimming those dimensions paid dividends in the wind tunnel, where the Sentra earns a 0.29 drag coefficient, compared to 0.34 for the old car. Despite the slight shrinkage, Nissan claims interior room is a smidge better than in the 2012 Sentra, and trunk space increases two cubic feet to 15.1.

The cabin looks much more modern than the current car's collection of squared-off, rough plastics, although it's still clearly the interior of an economy car. Black plastics dominate, though the instrument panel and driver's door have soft-touch materials. The instrument cluster has bold, legible gauges with an LCD trip computer. The center stack is finished in silver plastic that leads down to the center console, with simple buttons for the audio and climate-control systems. The seats are quite plain, with cloth on base models and leather on higher trim levels.

New Engine, Transmission, Chassis

The only engine choice is a new 1.8-liter inline-four that produces 130 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. That's a power deficit of 10 hp and 19 lb-ft compared to the 2012 Sentra's 2.0-liter inline-four, but we doubt buyers will notice the difference. A six-speed manual transmission is available, but it's a token effort that is relegated to the stripped-out base model. Almost all buyers will end up with a revised continuously variable transmission that has a greater ratio spread, less internal friction, and reduced weight to help increase fuel economy.

The 2013 Sentra is said to be 150 pounds lighter than its predecessor, bringing base curb weight to around 2750 pounds. That's due in part to the lighter CVT, greater use of high-strength steel, and various other fat-cutting measures.

Hitting 40 MPG

Nissan says the 2013 Sentra will return 30/39 mpg (city/highway) with the CVT, a huge leap over the old CVT-equipped model's ratings of 27/34 mpg. The new numbers stack up well against other compact sedans with automatic transmissions: the Hyundai Elantra is rated for 29/40 mpg, the Honda Civic manages 28/39 mpg, the Ford Focus does 28/40 mpg with its SFE package, and the Mazda 3 hits 28/40 mpg with its new SkyActiv powertrain.

In order to meet the benchmark 40 mpg highway rating, Nissan Sentra buyers will have to opt for a special FE+ version of the S and SV trim levels. Doing so adds low rolling-resistance tires, a rear spoiler, and underbody air deflectors that lower the drag coefficient to 0.27, increasing fuel economy to 30/40 mpg.

Modest Equipment List

Standard equipment on the Sentra S is limited to power windows, 16-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, air conditioning, and a four-speaker audio system with a CD player and auxiliary input. Upgrading to the SV trim level adds cruise control, a six-speaker sound system with steering wheel controls, an alarm, and "premium" cloth seats. The SR model is supposed to be the sportiest trim level, although it receives no mechanical upgrades. (The old Sentra's warmed-up SE-R performance variant is gone.) Seventeen-inch alloy wheels, unique front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler, silver interior trim, and new side skirts help dress up the trim level. The top-spec model is the Sentra SL, which gets different 17-inch wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors, push-button start, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.

Other options include wood interior trim, dual-zone climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a backup camera, heated seats, and a touch-screen navigation system. All models receive Nissan's Easy Fill Tire Alert system, which the horn when owners have inflated tires to the correct level.

Nissan won't reveal any pricing information on the 2013 Sentra until closer to the on-sale date this fall. Although the company tells us that Sentra pricing will be "competitive" in the segment, all the extra equipment in the new car will certainly push the price tag above its 2012 entry price of $17,030 (after destination).

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