Nissan Sentra holds its own among the competition

When it comes to the automotive industry, probably the least desirable job is being a designer of compact economy cars. The competition is so stiff that your tireless efforts at such a post could all be for naught. Up against the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, the compact car field is one of the toughest games to play.

It is within this context that the Nissan Sentra should be understood. The 2013 Sentra has been redesigned for the first time since 2006. In those past six years, engines have improved and new technology has made its way into even the most economical rides. Nissan has been cognizant of that, and has updated the Sentra for 2013 as an entirely competent daily driver with the features and fuel economy that will make the average commuter more than happy.

The Sentra receives the benefit of Nissan’s current sedan styling cues. Lines that have been expertly crafted onto the larger Altima sedan have been downsized successfully to a smaller package. The flowing curves and softly angled headlights are attractive, even on the Base S model, which boasts an MSRP of $15,990. Compare that to the $16K starting price of the Corolla and the wallet-pilfering $18K price of the Civic, and the Sentra looks even more attractive. Our up-rated SR trim came with a starting price of $18,930, adding 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, a sport grille, a sport-inspired lower front valence, and side skirts.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Inside, the SR trim features bolstered sport seats with blue accent stitching, as well as unique silver interior trim. Our test model also featured the available Driver’s Package, consisting of push-button start, Bluetooth hands-free calling, satellite radio, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift-knob. The navigation package adds— you guessed it—navigation, with Google points of interest. This package also features Pandora streaming radio and XM Nav/Traffic. If this does not satisfy you, the additional Premium package adds a moonroof and Bose eight-speaker stereo. All told, these packages will take a Sentra SR up past $22,000. For a fully loaded sedan, that is still impressive, especially when you consider $22K gets you a midrange Civic.

Nissan was wise to label our test model the SR, as opposed to the available SE-R of previous generations. In past decades, Nissan had a strong following in the SE-R trim, which featured more powerful engines and performance oriented handling.

The SR is more of a visual package, as all models of the Sentra receive a 1.8-liter inline-four. It sends 130 horsepower to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. In basic terms, the CVT is capable of any gear ratio within certain parameters. It is always adjusting itself to find the optimal ratio to deliver adequate acceleration while maintaining optimal fuel economy. This type of transmission is gaining popularity in the automotive industry, though few do it as well as Nissan. The Sentra never struggles for power under hard acceleration, though I would not egg on a granny driving a 454 Chevelle SS at a red light.

The power is just enough to make most drivers happy, while its fuel economy is a welcomed attribute for all type of drivers. The Sentra achieves 30 miles per gallon city, 39 miles per gallon highway, and a combined 34 miles per gallon. In driving that involved a variety of terrain, we managed an impressive 33.4 miles per gallon.

Nissan also offers a special fuel-miser FE set of trims. The FE+S as well as the FE+SV feature low rolling resistance tires and underbody aerodynamics, resulting in 40 MPG highway, and a best-in-class 34 combined MPG. Careful on the tradeoffs, as the FE+SV is just $400 more than the SV, but the FE+S is a full $1,730 more than the S. That extra coin is for what the EPA estimates as just $50 saved on fuel per year.Weight your options and figure out where your priorities are when buying the FE lineup of Sentras.

While the Sentra might not have the best performance in class or may never overtake the Corolla or Civic in sales, it is a fetching proposition both in appearance and content. Where the Civic has a space-age dash that would confuse even an astronaut, the Sentra has a traditional yet stylish layout. It may not have the responsive handling of aVW Jetta, but the independent front suspension with advanced ripple control shocks provide the smooth ride that the average commuter will fully appreciate.

Forgive the apologetic tone, but the field of competition has gotten so good that even an impressive execution of a compact car by Nissan may be drowned out by the competition. But those other offerings can create new Sentra customers who don’t want to be just another number in a Corolla. In a way, this makes the Sentra an“It”car; it does everything the competition can do, at a price that undercuts, and in a stylish package that separates it from the pack.