The compact segment is fiercely contended, with strong competitors coming from every major carmaker. With increasing quality deriving from each geographical location, expectations are rising, and customers are no longer willing to settle for a crappy econobox.
Rather, they expect midsize sedan-like luxuries, with improved fuel efficiency to boot. An engaging driving experience is no longer an unanswered wish, it's now an expected demand. Simply put, the compact buyer expects to receive more, but not pay more.
They are, by all accounts, a bunch of greedy buggers.
(Full Disclosure: Nissan wanted me to drive the new Sentra so badly they flew me out to San Francisco and put me up in a delightful hotel by the ocean. At dinner a lovely gentleman kept calling me Alan. I left it too long to correct him, so in the end I went along with it. So, from this day forth, please refer to me as Alan.)
The 2013 Nissan Sentra is Nissan's bullet designed to elevate the Japanese manufacturer to the forefront of the compact segment. For 2013, the Sentra receives a full model change, boasting a sleeker exterior, trickle down technology from the Altima, and competitor-crushing rear legroom. The Sentra has even spent time with Nicole Richie's dietician, dropping 150-pounds. And let's not forget the class-leading impressive 34 MPG combined.
So, on paper, it all looks jolly good. Perhaps Nissan have indeed delivered on the promise of reinstating the Sentra to the head of the pack, a place it has not seen since its inception back in the 1980's. As previously alluded, the competition will not give way easily. The Focus is a great little car, along with the Elantra, Cruze and Mazda 3. The Civic was a miss but it's got so much positive name recognition it continues to sell, and the Kia Forte is, well, a car. The popular Corolla, however, is less than a car. It is a shed. But a new model is on the way.
The Sentra therefore needs all of these improvements, and, unfortunately, a fair bit more. It's a solid car, but irritatingly, only if you are deaf.
The Sentra is a decent looking car, besting many of its competitors aesthetically. A lower roofline gives the car a more forward stance and a dynamic character line runs from front to back. The best part of the exterior is the addition of LED head/taillights as standard. This provides a richer feel, and if you opt for the SR model, you are granted a few sporty extras, too. Extras such as an athletic front grille, and lower body side sill extensions. A snazzy rear spoiler comes adorned along with an earth-shatteringly aggressive chrome exhaust tip. Ok, it isn't earth-shattering at all. But it is a nice touch.
All in all, the new Sentra ticks the right boxes. It's fresh and modern and appears a touch more expensive than it really is.
Like the exterior, the interior boasts some nice features. The armrest is like a pillow stolen from a Four Points Sheraton, and use of plastic is relatively minimal. The center console is adequately laid out, and the steering wheel is functional and pleasing to touch.
There are, however, some down points. The seats feel like sitting back on a large slab of wood, the storage bins are tiny, and there is no place to put your phone.
So, with the interior, you take the good with the bad. Fortunately, it isn't ugly.
The Sentra has a new 1.8-liter engine, producing 130hp at 6,000 rpm and 128 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. It isn't fast. But it is on par with the competition.
Three drive modes are available: Eco, Normal and Sport. Switching between the three settings provides a more aggressive transmission and crisper throttle response. You'd think, being a racer, I would only use Eco mode if I happened to find a member of the MS13 gang situated in the passenger seat with an AK47 pointed at my head. Why a gangster would want to be driven in Eco mode, I don't know. But you get the point.
The fact is, Eco mode is the only way I would drive this car. And that is not because I am a cheapskate, but because I am not deaf. And it's all because of the CVT gearbox that Nissan has fitted.
More on that in a minute...
If you opt for the SR and SL models, then rear disc brakes will be your reward. And they do their job. They stop the car. The pedal has a good feel to it, even on the non-disc base models. The only negative is the car has a tendency to hunt slightly under heavy braking. But to summarize: They work.
The ride on the Sentra is on the stiff side, which I personally like. Sure, you feel the bumps a little more abruptly, but you don't get the body roll and floppiness of a softer setup. Excluding the annoying seats, it's comfortable and poised, even when traveling over bumpier, winding Northern California roads. Alan likes.
The stiffer ride provided nicer handling, unsurprisingly. Grip level was good and the car feels light on its toes. The 150-lb weight loss program is naturally responsible, made possible due to an increased use of high strength steel — meaning less of it was therefore needed. A smaller fuel tank was also installed, yet range was not compromised due to the better fuel efficiency delivered.
And what all this fasting does is provide a well-balanced, solid handling machine. It isn't engaging to drive though, which is shame.
You might say that a buyer in this segment probably doesn't care about an engaging drive if it is practical and efficient. Would your mother care? Well, she would, actually. Only subconsciously. For instance, if you put any driver in a car they form an opinion about how it drives, even if they don't actually care or understand about handling dynamics. Your mom would say, "hey, I love my little car, it's fun to drive." She won't be able to explain why it is fun, but rest assured it will be because the car successfully engaged her.
I will admit that my theory appears flawed, given the success of the uninspiring Corolla. My reasoned response to that fact is that Toyota drivers must be weird. I mean, who would buy a Corolla?
I AM WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS TO EMPHASIZE MY GREIVANCE AT WHAT MUST BE THE WORST GEARBOX KNOWN TO MAN.
Ok, calm, Alan. The problem is that a second generation CVT gearbox was installed on the new Sentra. This, of course, helps provide better fuel economy, which is understandably what buyers want. A good CVT transmission is tolerable in the right car. The Sentra, however, is not the right car.
A cheaper vehicle provides little noise deadening, and the engine generally sounds like a whining toddler being refused chocolate. Accelerating hard with a CVT means the gearbox picks an RPM that produces the most amount of power, and uses its variable ratios to maintain that power. So, in this case, the car jumps to 6,000 rpm and will not move until you slow down. Visualize the dreadful drone of a rental car engine, then imagine that high-end whine prolonged for all eternity.
Whenever I accelerated I let out a scream of anger. The noise was simply unbearable. You yearn for the car to shift down a gear, and rid you of this disturbing racket, but it never does. I felt like I was being punished for bad behavior. I kept wondering what I could possibly have done to this car to be deserving of such woeful treatment.
That is why I left the car in Eco mode. Because it wouldn't allow the motor to run as high in the rev range, therefore the noise would not make me suicidal. A manual six-speed gearbox is available in the base, rental car/pond dweller model. But even if you are a dingy, swamp inhabitant, you won't find it performs much better. It's horrendously notchy and feels like it's made out of cardboard.
Up until this point, the Sentra was in the ballpark. But this issue would prevent me from ever purchasing one.
I'm not going to punish the Sentra anymore for the pitiful exhaust note that ruined my entire day, although I feel perhaps I should. To be fair, the sound isn't actually worse than what you would expect from this segment. It is the fact the gearbox holds it at such an unbearable rev range.
So let's focus on the sound system, shall we? As standard, the audio quality makes you feel rather apathetic. But opt for the Bose Premium Audio System and life gets far more interesting. 8-speakers are placed throughout the car and a unique amplifier is tuned for either cloth or leather seats, preventing unwanted distortion.
The Sentra borrows some technology from its big bother, the Altima. And that is welcomed, with the addition of the NissanConnect optional navigation, with Pandora radio capability through Bluetooth. The 5.8-inch screen features NavTraffic and NavWeather along with a rear view monitor. Dual automatic temperature control is available too, along with Nissan's new Easy-Fill tire alert, and hands free texting.
All of these goodies certainly make you feel like you are in a class above the compact segment, and after the gearbox fiasco, that is a needed boost.
Expect to pay $19,760 (excluding destination) for the top level SL model. Knock off a grand for the SR model, another for the SV model, and around 700 bucks for the S with the CVT gearbox. You can pay as low as $15,990 for the base S with the crappy manual, but you would have to be an idiot to do that.
Prices have stayed consistent with the outgoing model, and you do get more car without spending additional Benjamin's. Nissan have priced the Sentra well, making it one of the cheapest cars in the segment. But you have to ask whether you could live with the pesky CVT transmission. I for one could not. With a normal, six-speed automatic transmission, the car could be in the mix. But without it, it becomes annoying and tedious.
This car is not a crappy econobox. It's better than that. It has some of the key ingredients that could make the Sentra a winner, but it falls flat because of its lousy gearbox. Some cars you can get away with a CVT (the Nissan Pathfinder's works great) but others you simply cannot. I'm all for better fuel economy, but I would rather sacrifice a couple of MPG's in the essence of a less irritating transmission.
Of course, if you are deaf, then this will not be an issue. Therefore the Sentra might be the car for you. Hopefully, an SE-R version can right some of these wrongs in the future. We're keeping an open mind.