Nissan Sentra — Compact, but roomy sedan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We like small, maneuverable sedans and hatchbacks as our family transportation. They are generally fun to drive, they will fit into virtually any legitimate parking spot without raising blood pressure, they are generally more affordable than their larger counterparts, and they are fuel efficient.

Sounds like the makings of a great friendship, except for one important thing. Rear-seat comfort is not always part of the compact sedan and hatchback equation. Many of these small vehicles have a tight backseat and transporting the rear seated passenger(s) becomes a continual make room compromise with those seated up front.

Enter Nissan who has shown with its all-new 2013 compact Sentra that this does not have to be the case. Nissan has taken its small car and infused it with mid-sized sedan rear-seat legroom. And in the case of the Sentra, trunk space hasn’t been sacrificed with a mid-sized-car-like 15.1 cubic feet of available space.

Combine the enormous passenger space and the excellent trunk room with segment-leading fuel economy, adequate performance, a well-made interior and a competitive price, and the Sentra has the makings of a vehicle that starter families, people on a budget or empty nesters who simply want reasonable, but affordable transportation will be delighted to put in their driveway.

Outside of the aforementioned passenger space the Sentra is a good middle-of-the-road sedan that does most things well, but doesn't stand out in any one area in a very competitive segment. For instance, the new 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine — standard across the lineup — is adequate but garners no performance bragging rights with 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque mated to either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Even with the CVT we found the Sentra's engine pleasingly muted during moderate acceleration. It does raise its voice during hard acceleration, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Its recorded 9.5-second 0-to-60 time is a tick or two below average for the segment. In the real world of driving, the Sentra sedan handled adequately and most will be pleased with its around-town and highway ride. The sedan's gas mileage rating with the CVT is a stellar 30 mpg in city driving, 39 on the highway, and a class-leading 34 mpg overall. We are not CVT fans, but Nissan does the best job in the industry with gear-less transmissions, and presumably it helped Nissan gain these good mileage numbers for the Sentra.

From an exterior styling standpoint, the Sentra is a bit awkward looking, but generally pleasing to the eye from most angles. It seems designers were going for a miniature Altima look attempting to create a strong family resemblance.

It's the interior styling where Nissan scored the most points. The dashboard has a pleasing sweep with touches of wood and chrome accents on the higher-end models. Fit and finish throughout the cabin is first class with quality-looking soft touch materials in abundance. Gauges are easy to read and controls are generally easy to use.

Redundant steering wheel controls are welcome and include audio on one side and cruise on the other. The optional NissanConnect enhanced electronics interface via a 5.8-inch touchscreen allows people to search the Internet, stream Pandora or Bluetooth audio and hear and compose text messages hands-free using a mobile phone's Bluetooth connection.

Navigation is available as a stand-alone option for just $650. Many rivals bundle the navigation system with other features forcing buyers to fork over $2,000 or more for a package they don't want.

The Sentra starts with the S trim level at $16,770 including destination charge and continues with SV, SR and SL. Features standard across the lineup include tilt and telescoping steering wheel, full power accessories, a four-speaker sound system with CD player, and air conditioning. Standard safety includes antilock brakes, stability control, and full-length side-curtain airbags. In brake testing the Sentra stopped from 60 mph in 122 feet, which is near the top of the segment.

We figure most people will opt for the SV or SR trims. The SV trim starting at $18,180 adds cruise control, premium cloth upholstery, and a six-speaker sound system. The SR beginning at $19,480 brings such additional goodies as 17-inch wheels, foglights and a rear spoiler. If you pony up for a couple of options such as navigation ($650) and the Driver's package ($1,080) you add automatic headlights, keyless ignition/entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio. That brings the bottom line to a very competitive $21,210, the same as our test car.

Base price: $16,770; as driven, $21,210
Engine: 1-8-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 130 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 128 foot-pounds @ 3,600 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 182.1 inches
Curb weight: 2,822 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.1 cubic feet
Fuel Capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 39 highway, 30 city
0-60: 9.5 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla

The Good
• Excellent fuel economy
• Upscale interior
• Scads of passenger space
• Large trunk for a compact sedan

The Bad
• Mixed-bag exterior styling

The Ugly
• Acceleration below average