Disclosure: Test vehicles and a pre-determined driving route were provided to the writer by the automaker.
For seven model generations, the Nissan Sentra has been standing on-guard for many Canadian compact car buyers. In that time it's been sensible, durable, efficient, and – in the case of the SE-R models – even something of a pocket-rocket. Thirty years later, off come the wraps on the latest-and-greatest version of what is Old Faithful for many folks.
Fuel economy is up. Rear legroom is class-leading. From 20-feet away it looks like a midsized offering – are you sure that's not an Altima?
Nissan is touting its compact as a premium offering: big-car feel for those with a compact-sized wallet. In highly competitive and frequently bloodied waters, can it take a big enough bite of the small-car market?Performance
Nissan has two halo cars: the scalp-taking GT-R supercar slayer and the maximum green-creds all-electric Leaf. Think of them as an imaginary devil and angel sitting on an engineer's shoulders.
In the Sentra's case, both the piously cooing angel and the evilly-grinning imp were apparently completely ignored. Yes, the little Nissan sees fuel economy figures jump to a very competitive 5.8 L/100km combined, but there's nothing in the way of high-tech trickery here; instead, there's some weight loss (68 kg/150 lbs. lighter versus the out-going model), a next-gen Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with less friction loss, and reduced engine displacement from 2.0- to 1.8-litre from the gas engine.
Horsepower is down too, to a total of 130, and if that sounds a bit low, you're not mistaken. Line the Sentra up against hot-selling competitors like the Honda Civic (140 hp), Hyundai Elantra (148 hp) or Mazda3 (155 hp), and it gets left in the dust.
What's more, the CVT imparts a certain amount of lag to the way the car reacts. Stab at the throttle and the engine note instantly rises, but not the car; if you've seen the viral video
of a Japanese tuner playing “Jingle Bells” with his exhaust note, you may be interested to note that you can pull off the same trick with the Sentra.
On the twisting, twining roads out to Belcarra Regional Park in British Columbia, the numb electric power-assisted steering, laggy throttle and merely-competent power wove themselves into a giant wet blanket that snuffed out any flame of enthusiasm. In the same breath, it is exactly the sort of car you would want to ferry around a small child in: drive the Sentra safely and sanely and it's really quite relaxing.
Slow your roll and you'll find the ride quality very good, the handling inoffensive, the cabin quiet and the CVT smooth in operation. In fact, the worse the traffic gets, the more sense this little car makes.Ergonomics/Comfort/Quality
The Sentra is longer and taller for 2013, with a stretched-out wheelbase; these expanded exterior dimensions make for a spacious cabin that pips the competition in nearly every metric. Every measurable metric that is – when it comes to qualitative observations, both my co-driver and I noted the front seats provided church-pew levels of squirming discomfort. What gives, Nissan? The veritable Lay-Z-Boys in the old Versa Hatchback would be better here.
However, Nissan has sprinkled soft-touch materials around the sensibly laid-out interior and the soft fabric of the armrests is nice. Additionally, the SR trim of my tester had painted-plastic aluminum-style trim that won't fool anyone – overall though, it's a solid effort that will please, if not exactly impress.
The back-seat is large enough to swallow a rear-facing child-seat with ease, and the trunk is also similarly ginormous. Slightly missed is the old Sentra's flat-folding rear seat with the extra-wide trunk pass-through; while the new car's seats flop down, there's a noticeable ledge. This is a minor niggle (how often do you actually fold your seats?); of somewhat more concern is the odd way in which the rear springs for the trunk lid actually intrude into the cargo cave. Most of the time, this'll be no big deal, but the mechanism could catch on a stroller or get bent closing on a hockey bag.Functionality/Usability
As with pretty much everything automotive these days, the Sentra's headlights and taillights boast standard LED accents. I hope that made somebody's head explode over at Audi's design headquarters.
Also standard: 16-inch steelies and, uh, hubcaps. That's about it – Nissan hits an attractive $14,898 base MSRP to advertise in big red numbers, but will make you pony up a little extra to get the options you actually want. Still, the Value Option Package with A/C, cruise control and Bluetooth is nicely bundled, and the volume-selling SV includes Altima-grade equipment like keyless push-button start and automatic headlights for right around the $20,000 mark (after Freight and PDI).
The premium theme continues in the sportier-looking SR and very-well-equipped SL models, which can be got with luxuries like a heated steering wheel, Bose audio (tuned to accommodate for cloth or leather seating surfaces, apparently) and a reverse camera. Dual-zone automatic climate control, a power moonroof and navigation are all standard on the top-spec SL, making it an interesting alternative to a basic midsize sedan.
Nissan championed affordable navigation systems in their previous-gen Sentra, and returns here with slightly expanded touchscreen size and some unique features. For instance, the ability to use Google Maps on a laptop to send routing information directly to the car is bound to be much more useful than, “take your third left and then the next two rights”.Conclusion
There are two types of Nissan fans out there: folks who obsess over the letters “Z” or “SX” or “SE-R,” and who take deep personal satisfaction every time a GT-R shaves a few tenths of its Nürburgring lap time. With the new Sentra, Nissan seems to have realized that this small but vocal minority isn't picking up a new car every other year.
Instead, they've gone after the other kind of Nissan fan. The kind who nursed a hand-me-down first-generation Stanza through university and is now ready to settle down with their first real car. The guy with a lifted Frontier for the weekend and a commuter job in the city. The retiree that used to drive a Maxima back-and-forth to Arizona for the winter but now flies.
It's styled for the long-term, priced to maximize appeal, and engineered for at least two generations of ownership. You might not fall in love with it, but it feels like it'll always be there for you.