The compact car segment is a fickle one for automakers looking to lure in and subsequently keep buyers, but that's not to say that Nissan hasn't been here before.
After all, anyone with a grasp of automotive history probably remembers with some fondness the vaunted Nissan Sentra SE-Rs of the early 1990s. Plain and simple but remarkably sporty, they were like throwaway bargain basement BMWs for those who relish getting behind the wheel.
Times changed, though, and the Sentra poked along through subsequent generations with little of the zeal it once possessed.
But a new model arrived for 2013, promising the most upmarket look and feel ever seen in a Sentra. And, appearing to all the world like a downsized Nissan Altima, it follows in the footsteps of a hugely successful big brother.
What is it?
Nissan's entry into the lucrative compact car segment, the latest Sentra arrived for the 2013 model year promising improved fuel economy and a more refined feel. The standard set by its predecessor wasn't exactly high.
To that end, the Sentra rides on a revised small car platform and uses a new - but smaller and less powerful - 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine. Pumping out just 130 ponies, it is at the bottom of class charts, although a 150 lbs. diet compared to the old model more or less negates the downsizing. Base models offer a six-speed stick shift, but nearly every Sentra you'll ever come across uses Nissan's continuously variable transmission. With an infinite ratio of gears on offer, the CVT theoretically keeps the engine right where it needs to be for power and fuel efficiency.
A wide variety of Sentras are on offer, ranging from bargain basement S to our range-topping SL. For those looking to channel a little of the old SE-R, there's an SR trim that, frankly, doesn't go very far.
Our particular tester was an SL optioned up with $650 worth of navigation. Other available features include a leather trim package (that also includes rear disc brakes) and a moonroof/Bose audio package.
What's it up against?
From a sales volume perspective, Sentra needs to unseat the 800 lbs. gorillas: Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Our tastes lean more toward the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Mazda Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta.
How does it look?
Take Nissan's nearly-as-fresh Altima
(which was also new for 2013), and shrink it. There, you have the Sentra.
Nissan's design language isn't quite as fluid as, say, Mazda's, but it has become more refined with its latest introductions. Swoopy and bulbous, the Sentra generally seems to wear its curves better than its big brother. Multi-reflector headlamps, LED running lights and ample doses of chrome accents give the Sentra a classier feel than most rivals.
Simply put, it looks richer than its relatively modest price tag might suggest.
And on the inside?
Again, Sentra generally scores points here for a more upmarket feel than many more trend-oriented rivals. Our tester's tan and grey/brown look won't win it awards for creativity, but what's there is well-assembled and classy to touch by compact car standards.
A thick three-spoke steering wheel wrapped in premium-feeling leather sits in front of clean and simple gauges. In the center stack, drivers and passengers have the same reach to intuitive climate and audio/navigation controls. Nissan's navigation system, seen in a number of its products, has a bright touchscreen that allows for easy panning. Other than being a little slow to choose a route once a destination has been selected, the audio unit's only real fault is its small virtual preset buttons. Either larger touchscreen buttons or traditional hard buttons would go a long way.
Space is about par for the compact car segment, although we'd rate rear seat leg room slightly above average. Our tester's mouse fir upholstery feels more grandmotherly modern, but it feels more substantial than that used in most rivals.
Speaking of materials, we were pleasantly surprised with the soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard and the armrests, which were free of the low buck look seen elsewhere in the segment.
But does it go?
Here's where the Sentra's humble beginnings really show through. With just 130 horsepower and 128 lb-ft. of torque on tap, there's really not much for the Sentra to work with. Those were pretty normal figures for the compact car market a decade or two ago - and that's back when we called vehicles in this segment economy cars
Careful tuning of the Sentra's CVT generally masks its power deficit in gentle around town driving. It keeps up with traffic without having to be revved too much. But add a few passengers, an uphill grade or some elevation and you'll find the Sentra to be a poky operator. Add in all three, as we did for a short road trip, and the Sentra's engine spends entirely too much of its time reaching for the upper limits of its tachometer.
This 1.8-liter four-cylinder isn't the world's least refined engine, but even the finest engine growl can be come tiresome when all you want to do is relax on the highway. In this regard, the Sentra comes up grossly short, especially against rivals.
On the other hand, the Sentra is reasonably fuel efficient. We sipped fuel at a rate of 29 mpg in the city, just shy of the car's 30 mpg rating, and a highway jaunt at 65 mph returned nearly the advertised 39 mpg. Turn the wick up to 70 or 75 mph, though, and the Sentra's CVT responds by forcing the engine into fuel-sucking higher rpms. A longer road trip at sustained 75 mph speeds returned just 33 mpg.
Those figures are about par with the compact class, but one thing to remember is that nearly all rivals are more powerful.
And most rivals are more fun to drive. Impact absorption from the Sentra's conventional independent front and torsion beam rear axle imparts a premium enough feel over rutted terrain, but that's due in part to a high degree of wheel travel. When the road gets twisty, the Sentra becomes floppy, feeling highly out of place. There's little precision here, although at least the steering is nicely weighted.
Highway cruising is more its forte, where the tiller stays arrow straight and below average road rumble enters the cabin. But this is a study in contrasts given its little engine is just barely powerful enough to keep up.
Leftlane's bottom line
The best Sentra in well over a decade, this latest small Nissan has grown up into a pleasant enough runabout with a calming demeanor and a quality feel.
It's far short of fun, however, and even an engine room upgrade isn't going to rectify that deficiency.
2013 Nissan Sentra SL
base price, $19,590. As tested, $21,050.
Navigation, $650; Destination, $810.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.