Over the years, Nissan has turned out some truly exciting models, from the sporty 370Z to the sleek Murano to the oddball Juke and Cube. Then there’s the Sentra, Nissan’s entry-level compact sedan. It’s been a reliable, functional car for decades, but exciting? Not exactly.
For 2013, however, Nissan redesigned the Sentra, endowing it with sharper-looking sheet metal, a comparatively roomy interior and an unexpectedly smooth, quiet ride. The excellent continuously variable transmission gets the most from the Sentra’s 140-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine, and Sentras with FE+ trim can reach 40 mpg. With a stick shift and basic equipment, the Sentra starts at $15,990.
Our Sentra SR test car had a sticker price of $21,560. The extra $5,600 added the CVT transmission, satellite radio, rear-view camera, navigation system, NissanConnect hands-free phone system with Pandora radio, and a number of lesser features.
The Sentra didn’t handle as crisply as the all-wheel-drive Juke we drove recently, but it rode much more smoothly. The near absence of road hum and engine noise was particularly striking, considering the price, the Sentra’s segment, and the history of this model. The back seat is spacious enough for two tall, long-legged passengers, with room for a smaller rider in the middle. And the trunk is as big as those on some high-end, midsize cars, with 15.1 cubic feet of luggage space, as well as split-folding rear seats that increase the Sentra’s cargo-carrying capacity.
Having rolled out the new model, Nissan has yet to introduce a sporty version of the Sentra to continue the SE-R performance tradition.
Our test car, which Nissan calls “the most innovative Sentra ever,” was well equipped, but one wouldn’t be inclined to call it lavish. It had a pushbutton starter, XM satellite radio, and sport front and rear fascias, but it didn’t have leather upholstery, climate control or rear disc brakes.
Its fuel economy was rated at 30 mpg city, 39 highway. A driver with a light foot easily could achieve those numbers.
This segment includes such compact-car stalwarts as the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla.
The Sentra was rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety despite performing poorly in a new test, the small overlap frontal crash, which shows how a car reacts to collisions affecting part of the front end. Past Sentras have been average to better than average in Consumer Reports magazine reliability surveys.
Overall, we found our metallic blue test car pleasant to drive, and easy on the eyes as well. The CVT transmission was unobtrusive and the engine quite responsive, given its modest power output.
Compared with Sentras we’ve driven in the past, this one seemed to be of higher quality in terms of materials, fit and finish. The Sentra is a staple of rental-car fleets, but the new model exhibits a clear intent to rise above rent-a-car status.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
Engine: 1.8-liter inline Four, 130 horsepower, 128 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Weight: 2,847 lb.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
Wheels: 17×6.5 in. alloy
Tires: P205/50R V all-season
Seating capacity: 5
Luggage capacity: 15.1 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons
Fuel economy: 30 mpg city, 39 mpg highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded