Nissan has a way of introducing new vehicles that instantly feel familiar. Earlier this year we drove the 2013 Nissan Altima, which felt like a more polished version of the 2012 Altima. The 2013 Sentra feels more like a baby Altima than an improved 2012 Sentra, which is a good thing.
More Curvaceous Exterior
Let's not beat around the bush: the old Sentra needed a fresh look. While other compact sedans were receiving exterior designs that looked modern and upscale, the Sentra soldiered on with a dowdy exterior that hadn't aged well. For 2013, the Sentra looks like a scaled-down Altima. Although the design is easily forgettable after you walk away from the car, the smooth lines should age gracefully and offend no one. Nissan hopes its corporate trapezoid-shaped grille and standard LED accent lighting will appeal to buyers who aspire to drive something more substantial than a compact, but don't quite have the cash for an Altima.
Compact cars have quickly moved from cheap penalty boxes on wheels to surprisingly luxurious transportation. Nissan does an admirable job of catering to the crowd that demands in-car connectivity, with its optional navigation system that includes Pandora and iPod integration as well as Bluetooth audio streaming and a rear view camera. The optional heated leather seats are also a nice touch on top-spec SL models and the wood trim looks pleasant as well. Unfortunately we weren't able to check out an S or SV trim level interior in person, so it's tough to say how the majority of Sentra interiors will feel or look. For comparison, a fully loaded 2013 Altima is very nice inside but Altimas with cloth seats feel too much like rental cars.
Trimming it Out
Nissan doesn't include a whole lot of standard equipment on the average Sentra. For S models, it is pretty much limited to air conditioning, power windows and locks, keyless entry, and a four-speaker audio system, for a base price of $16,770, including destination, for manual transmission cars. (And the S is the only version available with a manual.) A CVT-equipped Sentra S runs $18,040. The only factory options for the S trim level are the FE+ package and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Moving up to an SV trim level adds nicer cloth seating, cruise control, an alarm, another pair of speakers and steering wheel-mounted controls for the audio system, and $710 to the sticker. SR models are supposedly the sportiest of the Sentras, but none of the upgrades are mechanical: 17-inch alloy wheels are the most exciting bit and the SR also includes unique front and rear fascias, side skirts, a rear spoiler, and silver interior trim for $19,650. Top-spec SL models start at $20,540, which adds unique 17-inch wheels, keyless start, Bluetooth, satellite radio, automatic headlights, and heated mirrors.
SV and SR trim levels offer a driver package that includes keyless ignition, automatic headlights, an upgraded audio system with Bluetooth, USB input, satellite radio, and a 4.3-inch color display, and Nissan's easy fill system that honks the vehicle's horn once the correct air pressure is reached in each tire. SR models add rear disc brakes with the driver package, which explains the $80 increase over the $1000 SV driver package.
SV, SR, and SL models can all be equipped with premium and navigation packages. The former includes a power moonroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, illuminated vanity mirrors, and a Bose audio system with eight speakers for $1200. The navigation package runs a mere $650 and includes a navigation system with 5.8-inch touch screen, NavTraffic and NavWeather capabilities when combined with a satellite radio subscription, Pandora integration when paired with a smartphone, and a rear view camera. Finally, there's the leather package, which includes leather seating, heated front seats, and disc brakes for $1030; it's available only on the SL.
Under the Skin
Nissan managed to shave as much as 150 pounds from the 2013 Sentra, depending on trim level and equipment. A large part of that weight loss comes from the smaller, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine (last year there was a choice between 2.0- and 2.5-liter engines) and a revised CVT, which also increases fuel economy to a respectable 30/39 mpg. We briefly drove a loaded SL model around Dallas, Texas and found the 130 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque to be adequate. The revised CVT doesn't feel different than any other Nissan CVT.
If you absolutely must see 40 mpg on your compact sedan's Monroney, upgrade to an FE+ package on the S or SV trim levels for 30/40 mpg ratings. The $400 FE+ package includes low rolling resistance tires, underbody air splitters, and a unique rear spoiler. Keep in mind the FE+ package is rated at the same 34 mpg combined as every other CVT-equipped Sentra, so there will likely be little to no real world fuel economy benefit for your $400.
On the Road
Our limited drive time in preproduction, fully loaded SL models around Dallas was a perfectly acceptable experience. The Sentra exhibited a good balance between body control and comfort with a clear emphasis on comfort over handling. Under hard acceleration, the CVT can leave the engine at high revs for longer than we'd prefer, but many cars in this class are rather loud during acceleration even with traditional automatic transmissions. Shoppers looking for a more involving experience will want to strongly consider the Mazda3 or Ford Focus, but the Sentra should satisfy the majority of compact car drivers.
If your first stop on a compact car shopping trip were to be a Nissan dealer, odds are the Sentra would do nothing to offend you and there really wouldn't be a reason not to buy one. But if you continued your shopping to Mazda, Ford, Hyundai, and Chevy dealers, you'd probably have a difficult time remembering the Sentra. The 2013 Nissan Sentra is a perfectly adequate well-priced compact sedan with a large trunk and spacious rear seat. Competitors offer more distinctive looks and driving experiences for similar money. While there's nothing really wrong with the Sentra, Nissan didn't get anything so right that it stands out from the crowd.
2013 Nissan Sentra
On Sale: Now
Base Price (with destination): $16,770
Engine: 1.8-liter I-4
Power: 130 hp
Torque: 128 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, CVT
EPA Mileage: 27/36 mpg (manual), 30/39 mpg (CVT), 30/40 mpg (FE+)