Saturday, November 9, 2013
Review: 2013 Nissan Sentra SL
The Nissan Sentra has been on the market for more than three decades, and is now on its seventh generation. Despite its long history in the U.S. (and the fact that my wife owned a '91 Sentra E, and I owned a '99 Sentra SE Limited), I've always viewed the Sentra as a vanilla vehicle (sans the SE-R versions). It was never at the ranks of the sophisticated Honda Civic, with its fully independent suspension and high-revving VTEC engines. It was generally more interesting than the Toyota Corolla, but didn't have the cred for running forever. I never found Sentras to be as enjoyable to drive as a Volkswagen Jetta or Mazda3/Protégé, again sans SE-R-spec models. They were better than most of the American compact sedans from the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s (freezer-burnt vanilla?), but I always felt them to be decidedly middle-of-the road; ideal for rental car fleets and those looking for a less-expensive alternative to Honda and Toyota. Nissan is trying to change that with the latest Sentra, and the good news is the car has been thoroughly updated, modernized, and made more competitive against a rabidly competitive compact segment. So has the car gone from store-brand vanilla to gourmet ice cream?
EXTERIOR: The best vanilla yet
The redesigned Sentra carries a familiar shape: Have you seen a Nissan Altima lately? The ’13 Sentra looks like an Altima that was in the dryer too long and shrunk a half size. All attempts at humor aside, I do find the sheet metal to be much more stylish than any other Sentra of the past, and its clean flowing lines have an air of sophistication. While it isn't a car that’d stop me in my tracks for its drop-dead good looks, I can look at this vehicle and appreciate its clean appearance. It may be vanilla, but it’s at least it's good vanilla.
INTERIOR: An OK flavor
The Sentra’s interior is a mix of good and not-so-good for me. Starting with the good, the cockpit is open and airy. There’s an above-average stereo and very good infotainment system with navigation, simple connectivity, and an easy-to-use climate control system. There’s also a lot of room, and its comfy in there. The back seat features outstanding leg room, and the trunk could fit at least a couple of bodies, if you’re into that sort of thing. One of my favorite features is a dash gauge that shows your accelerator position and where to keep it for optimal fuel economy (keep in the green highlighted area). While you might think it'd be annoying, it did help me get better-than-expected mileage.
The not-so-good starts with the faux wood trim, which looks like the car is trying to be something it’s not. Also, the front seats feel overstuffed and feature nearly zero side bolstering. If you take a corner enthusiastically, you feel like you’re about to fall out of the car. Thank God for doors. The overall appearance looks a bit like an Infiniti, but from about 10 years ago.
DRIVING: Soft serve
The Sentra rides softly and corners lazily. The suspension does a good job soaking up the bumps and delivering a quiet and compliant highway ride, but spirited handling isn't a forte. Exciting? No. Refined? Certainly more than past Sentras.
Under the hood is a 1.8-liter four banger making 130 hp and 128 ft/lbs of torque mated to a CVT. The performance is mediocre, and the engine is fairly noisy under wide-open-throttle. Unlike many compact sedans, the Sentra offers both ECO and Sport modes, both recalibrate throttle response to either help save on gas or haul some ass, both being relative, of course. The Sport mode definitely makes things happen a bit more rapidly, and ECO definitely makes things feel more sluggish, although I was able to get a bona-fide 31 MPG combined with the Sentra, and that is pretty decent for a compact of this size, and most of that combined MPG was in the city.
OVERALL: Better flavor and a good value
So how much will a '13 Sentra SL set you back? This model was priced at a very fair $22,570. You don’t get heated seats, auto-up windows, manual shifting capabilities (is that an oxymoron on a CVT?), or cutting-edge interior styling. You do get a solid-feeling, fuel-efficient vehicle that is comfortable, rides well, and has a lot of interior room. Let’s put it this way. If you’re shopping the 2013 Honda Civic (Haagen Daz Vanilla) and the 2013 Toyota Corolla (store-brand Vanilla), you should probably look at the Nissan Sentra, too. While a Civic might be a bit more techy and precise, and the Corolla might have a reputation for longevity, the new Sentra is definitely now a competitor in the compact class—think premium name-brand vanilla. I wonder if Nissan will release an SE-R variant? Think vanilla with a double shot of espresso.