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2013 Nissan Sentra First Drive

Nissan remembers the good ol' days, for better and worse.

What It Is
Nissan's long-unloved compact sedan comes back better than ever, supposedly.
Best Thing
An interior vast enough to engulf your entire comic book collection from your parents' basement.
Worst Thing
Did Nissan put any sound deadening or insulation into the front of the car? We're not really sure.
Snap Judgment
Nissan had an opportunity to make something really great, but ended up with just pretty good.


Nissan has a deep, dark secret that it's tried to correct over the past two years: When its first Versa sedan and hatchback debuted in 2007, it made them too good.

Albeit styled by the most nearsighted design team of all time, the first Versas were packaged better, had better and more usable interiors, and were in many ways built better than the rest of the competition. Couple that with the fact that they started at less than $10,000 at the time, and it quickly became evident Nissan had a problem on its hands. See, the Sentra was supposed to a step up, but the Versa gave Nissan shoppers no reason to, especially since the Versa cost less. Consequently, the Versa became a best-seller for Nissan, and the Sentra that was introduced around the same time never really caught on in the same way. It quietly faded into the background as solid, reliable transportation, but nothing worth getting over the class leaders without a hefty discount. Last year, Nissan debuted a redesigned Versa, and it's still the best-selling subcompact car.

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But now, Nissan has introduced the 2013 Nissan Sentra. Banking on its space-efficient design -- the 2013 Sentra is one of the roomiest and lightest cars in its class -- the automaker is back with a vengeance, looking to regain the market share it enjoyed back in the 1990s when American automakers couldn't make a decent compact car, and Korean cars might as well have come with a laugh track as standard equipment.

Times have changed, but the mission hasn't: to eat into a decent chunk of the compact car market. Nissan invited us to the urban jungle of San Francisco to see for ourselves if this car has what it takes to break back into the pack, whether it could finally free itself from the big shadow of its little brother.

Walkaround

The first thing you should know about the 2013 Nissan Sentra is that it's a world car, destined to sell in great numbers in Asia as well as the U.S. Despite some more radical designs coming from the Far East, Asian markets are still pretty conservative. That's why Nissan's going for staid over swoopy; handsome over controversial; a suit and tie over red and blue spandex. It worked for the Versa and the larger Altima; it can work for the Sentra.

Where the old Sentra looked like it was inspired by a soft quarter-pound stick of butter, the new car echoes the larger Altima with gentle creases in its body work and a character line on either side that stretches from front to back. Unique to the car in what Nissan refers to as "class-above" styling, the Sentra gets LED headlight accents and LED tail lights as standard; other compacts with LEDs have them only as part of pricey top-range option packages.

Nissan hopes that its details will help the Sentra stand out in an awfully crowded segment; we simply find the car to be handsome and distinctive without being overwrought.

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Sitting Down

Anymore, the compact segment is a cacophony of quality, from the chintzy interior of the 2012 Honda Civic to the high-class Chevrolet Cruze -- quite the reversal of fortunes from just a decade ago. It's the same story with space utilization, with some cars having gargantuan rear benches that rival some midsizers for space, while others merely have glorified jumpseats. For as long as the modern compact has had to evolve -- since the Oil Embargo of the 1970s -- there's still no one size that fits all. Surprising, really.

With the 2013 Sentra, there's a whole lot of good and a little bit that's not as much. The interior materials are all pretty high-quality, with soft-touch plastics covering nearly everything you're ever going so much as graze on a regular basis. The overall look is modern, but far less radical than what we've come to expect with most new compacts. We're looking at you, Honda and Dodge. In the Sentra, you're not going to get multiple built-in color screens like those two, just regular ol' gauges and a 5.8-inch monitor available with the optional navigation system, which houses a suite of technologies like Google Send-to-Car navigation planning and Pandora wireless streaming.

Also worth noting is the Sentra is perhaps the only compact car that could double as a limousine, with rear accommodations that are better than the front. Unless your name is Kareem Abdul Jabbar, you're going to be comfortable sitting in back. And even if you are NBA-height, there's still a decent chance you're going to be just fine. The same might not be said for the Sentra's front chairs, which are well-padded but generally shapeless. We also found them lacking thigh support. If there's one last gripe to be had with the interior, we'd focus it around the trunk, which, while it's among the largest in its class, does not have a seat that folds flush with the trunk floor. Not a huge deal unless you're looking at picking up a new armoire or are into extreme pizza delivery, but it's still something we wish Nissan would have worked out.

Driving

Nissan put fuel economy over all else with the 2013 Nissan Sentra. At 30 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway with the FE+ package, the Sentra is on par with the better numbers in its class, but that's nothing too astounding anymore. What is, however, is the 34 mpg mixed fuel economy rating it earned, with only the diesel-powered Jetta rivaling its efficiency.

Part of that can be attributed to the car's smaller 1.8-liter engine; part of it takes from the fact that the Sentra has lost about 150 pounds. And part of it comes from the Sentra's continuously variable automatic transmission, whose performance replicates that of a much heavier seven-speed auto. Particularly with gas prices still edging higher, we can't help but think Nissan has put stock in the right priority. But it's also cut 10 horsepower compared to the previous Sentra, and it shows.

You're not likely to notice the deficit around town, where the Sentra's engine and transmission run nearly silently. But when merging on a highway, the car's CVT settles the engine at a high rpm, and then has the transmission slowly pull the car up to speed. The sensation is unlike that of a normal transmission and works well in most of Nissan's applications, from the Altima midsize sedan on up. But in a car as light as the Sentra, the engine sounds raucous, and there's a vibration that comes from the floor pan. But when the car settles at a constant 60 or 70 mph on the highway, it quiets down. All you can hear is a hint of road noise underneath the front tires, which needs some help from the stereo to be drowned out. It's just an economy car, you may say -- and a cheap, yet feature-packed, one at that -- so a little harshness is to be expected. And only 10 years ago that would certainly be the case.

But with the competition improving so much, it's hard for us to not expect a little more sound deadening under the front-passenger space, and we hope that Nissan goes ahead and rectifies that issue from the early build models we sampled.

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Summary

If today's compact cars were a group of comic book heroes, they'd be the Avengers: each disparate, uniquely talented, and imperfect. But when put together, they make for an outstanding group, an unbeatable combination. As a car shopper, you just have to know what you're shopping for; which talents you want exaggerated and which flaws you're willing to accept.

For the 2013 Nissan Sentra, it comes through as a remarkable value and a car that is easy to figure out what you want with four unique trims and only a handful of options. Where a Ford Focus can top out at over $27,000, a Nissan Sentra won't budge more than a few hundred dollars over $23,000 with everything, largely because Nissan doesn't offer fripperies like an automatic parallel parking helper; thankfully, the Sentra's rear visibility is good enough that it doesn't need it.

The 2013 Sentra feels like a throwback to the good compact cars of the 1990s, with plenty of space, a stylish wrapper, a decent price, and a spunky around-town performance that won't leave you worried when venturing into the narrow lanes of the big city. Of the Avengers, it'd probably be Nighthawk, armed with remarkable accuracy as to what its goal is, but lacking a specific superhuman power. It's not particularly sporty, even in the body-kitted SR guise. It's not especially quiet. It doesn't come with high-tech toys beyond the rearview cameras and navigation systems we've come to expect in compact sedans for a few years now.

We wish it were the Incredible Hulk, though, able to take out demigods, save Earth, and even do complex math problems. But truth is, no compact sedan is. Not yet, at least. A little more power and some highway-speed refinement would go a long way to getting the Sentra there.

But with a plush ride that feels composed over most roads, a styling that we're sure will age well, fantastic fuel economy, and a humongous interior, the Sentra makes a robust case for itself as to why we should take it seriously again. In the months ahead, we foresee the Sentra picking up steam, doing for Nissan in the compact segment what the Versa did in its subcompact lineup. The only questions left won't be about Nissan's efforts; rather, we're eager to see if an apologetic and reactionary Honda's November surprise, the thoroughly revised 2013 Civic debuting at the L.A. Auto Show, and the upcoming redesigned 2013 Toyota Corolla are able to leapfrog it back into obscurity, or whether the Sentra will finally gain some ground again against its arch nemeses. Let the battle begin.

Basic Specs

1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual (base only) or continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 130-hp, $16,780, 30 mpg city/39 mpg hwy (40 mpg hwy w/ FE+ package)

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