Roomier Sentra Moves Up in Style

Njuguna Kabugi | 2/13/2013, 4:43 p.m.

The compact car segment is overflowing with stylish performers from the U.S. and abroad. Thanks to record-high gas prices and a lethargic economy, nationwide automotive downsizing is well underway. Within the last two years, more than one in four new-car sales have been a compact. They are built using global expertise and must satisfy a worldwide customer base. In short, they have to be more than good; they must be excellent.

The sheer talent of small cars on sale today presents better performance, safety, comfort and technology than was available just a few years ago. Class competition is brutal and upstarts seeking to jostle with stalwarts such as the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus better present seriously compelling offerings to sway the suddenly empowered car buyers.

Nissan, maker of this week's test car, once intimidated Sentra rivals with fresh designs and spirited handling. In the last few years, however, the Japanese automaker has been widely panned for slacking off with models that offered sterile styling and less than riveting drive character.

The completely redesigned 2013 Sentra presents a complete turnaround that has catapulted the Sentra into a niche just below a mid-size sedan. By getting larger car accoutrements into a smaller package, the new Sentra looks like Nissan's larger Altima sedan on a diet. It exudes a laid-back profile and upscale, Infiniti-influenced persona in a way the outgoing car never could.

The Sentra will easily fit the bill for buyers looking for a comfortable and affordable commuter that's confident enough for everyday-driving demands. They will appreciate the soft, cushy seats as well as rear-seat legroom now among the best in class due to the new car's additional 0.6 inch of wheelbase and 2.3-inch increase in overall length.

For buyers looking for zippy small-car performance, this car will be a disappointment. The Sentra does not by any stretch provide the thrill one gets scooting around town in the Ford Focus or Mazda3. Throttle jocks will also not get the kind of refined, reassurance drivers get from the Chevy Cruze or VW Jetta powertrains.

Nissan dropped the 2013 Sentra down from a 2.0-liter engine to a 1.8-liter. While fuel efficiency saw a significant boost - from 30 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway - the switch handcuffs performance. The four-cylinder engine and Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) combo, feel out of kilter, resulting in poor acceleration and some seriously loud revving.

Whether in sport, eco or normal mode, the Sentra exhibits peculiar qualities that give CVTs a bad name: slipping clutch sensation and breathless acceleration, droning acoustics when you need the car to pick up, and a general lack of linearity.

Subtract the challenged powertrain, and this is well-equipped car. The cabin has pleasing materials, and there is a decent amount of options for the money. This new Sentra also looks sharp even against the swooshy-styled Hyundai Elantra's design which I suspect may be innovative now, but could look as dated as a flip phone in five years. Despite my misgivings, I suspect this Nissan will sell well. There are many buyers who will not mind how a CVT behaves if the car, on the other hand, is reasonably priced, looks good, gets good fuel economy and rides comfortably.

At a starting price of $16,770, the base Sentra represents a savings of $440 over last year's car. Loaded up with heated front seats, a sunroof, navigation, and a rearview camera, the up level SL still costs less than $24,000. The fancy LED-accented headlights and LED taillights are standard.