Uneven 2013 Nissan Sentra faces stiff competition
By KIRK BELL For Sun-Times Media November 5, 2012 2:41PM
2013 NISSAN SENTRA
ENGINE: 130-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic
DRIVETRAIN: front-wheel drive
FUEL ECONOMY: 30 city/39 highway
BASE PRICE: $15,990
AS TESTED: not available
Perhaps no class of vehicle has is improved more since the U.S. economic meltdown than compact cars. The Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra are all impressive cars that have raised the bar for quality and refinement in this low-priced segment.
Into this new norm wades the 2013 Nissan Sentra. Redesigned for the first time since 2007, the new Sentra promises premium styling and “class-above equipment.” We drove the Sentra to find out if it has enough to compete with the best in the compact class.
The 2013 changes are pretty substantial. Styling is all new along the lines of the redesigned 2013 Altima, which is to say fairly generic. The wheelbase is 0.6 inch longer and the car is 2.3 inches longer overall. Most of that length is found behind the rear wheels, which opens up more trunk space. Aerodynamics are improved to aid fuel economy, and a new 1.8-liter four-cylinder replaces a 2.0-liter four-cylinder for the same reason. Inside, the car gets a completely new design and some features the Sentra has never offered.
The interior makes an effort to live up to the best in class, hitting that target in some ways and missing it in others. The soft-touch dash is an unexpected plus as are the padded armrests, electroluminescent gauges and available leather upholstery. Most of the other materials are hard plastic, but that can be said of most other competitors as well.
Among this year’s cool new features are a Bose audio system, dual-zone automatic climate control and the NissanConnect system, which is run through a 5.8-inch touch screen and includes a rearview camera and a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather information. The system pairs with smart phones to stream Bluetooth audio or Pandora Internet radio, and it can read text messages and let drivers reply with predetermined responses.
While systems like NissanConnect haven’t been offered in compact cars for very long, they are the wave of the future as we become more connected to our gadgets. The newer competitors have similar systems, and while we find NissanConnect works well and is fairly straightforward, our favorite is the 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen in the Dodge Dart.
Space is also a plus and a minus for the Sentra. Small-item storage is sorely lacking due to a poorly designed center console. It has a pair of cup holders, but there is no bin at the front for cell phones.
Passenger space is quite good. The front seats have plenty of travel for tall drivers and a standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps as well, but the driver’s seat lacks the sculpting to be supportive and the front passenger seat is worse. The rear seat, however, is among the roomiest in the class. Adults can fit front and rear without grousing about space. That’s impressive for a compact car.
The trunk is roomy, too, with a full-size sedanlike 15.1 cubic feet of space. That space can be expanded by folding down the rear seat. The load floor isn’t flat with the seats folded, which is a minor annoyance, and we’d also like to see a hatchback body style for those who carry more cargo.
In general, the interior is nice, but it lacks the refinement of the best in the class. The real disappointment, however, is the engine. A combination of the engine’s coarseness, a lack of sound deadening material and, most importantly, the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) makes the Sentra too loud to live with every day. The problem is that during hard acceleration the CVT, which has an infinite number of gear ratios instead of stepped gears like a regular automatic transmission, sends the engine to 6,000 rpm and keeps it there until the driver backs off. During this time the droning buzz of the engine fills the cabin.
Buyers can get around this issue by opting for the manual transmission. With the manual, the revs build between shifts, limiting the amount of time the engine is at full song. Unfortunately, the manual comes only with the base model, the shifts are long and notchy, and the gearshift feels cheap.
While the Sentra is down 10 horsepower from last year, its 130 ponies are class competitive. It’s certainly no rocket, with 0 to 60 mph coming in the 9- to 9.5-second range, but that’s the case with most cars in this class.
The tradeoff for that lack of power and for the noise is outstanding fuel economy. With the CVT, the Sentra is rated at 30 mpg city/39 highway. The combined rating of 34 mpg overall is best in the compact class.
Sentra pricing starts at $15,990 and goes up to about $23,000 for a fully loaded model. It’s a pretty good deal, but time will tell if it can hang with the new-age compacts or not.
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