Nissan's compact is more mature for 2013, but is it better?

During a stretch from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, the Nissan Sentra was a top dog in the compact segment.

With little in the way of competition, Nissan routinely sold more than 300,000 Sentras per year. But that was then and this is now.

The compact segment has grown into one of the most fiercely contested in America, with cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Volkswagen Jetta now eating away at the Sentra's market share. Nissan is hoping it can reverse that trend an all-new version of the Sentra for the 2013 model year.

Premium styling

One of Nissan's biggest focuses when redesigning Sentra was to give the car a much more premium look, a goal the automaker accomplished by ditching the old Sentra's hard edges in favor of a more sculpted shape.

The Sentra's "grown-up" look is highlighted by a new front end that is much more sleek looking than the outgoing model. That's not just an optical illusion, either, as the 2013 Sentra has a drag coefficient of 0.29 cd, besting the outgoing model's rating of 0.34 cd.

Standard LED headlight accents don't help much in the way of slipperiness, but they do add to the Sentra's upscale aspirations.

Whereas the 2012 Sentra was a slab-sided affair, the 2013 version of the compact sports a body-long character line that integrates nicely into the rear taillights. Those units also utilize LED technology which Nissan says not only look better than regular bulbs but also illuminate faster, giving the person behind you a split-second advantage in case of emergency braking.

Shorter overhangs are typically the name of the game when remaking a vehicle, but Nissan opted to give the Sentra a slightly elongated rear end in order to improve trunk space. That styling gamble paid off as the 2013 Sentra retains a proportional stance while adding 2.0 cubic feet of cargo volume.

Refined interior space

The previous Sentra suffered from a cheap-feeling interior, but Nissan has largely fixed that shortcoming in the latest version of the car.

The 2013 Sentra's main eye candy is a new dash design that wouldn't look out of place in an Infiniti model. The upper section of the dash is covered in a soft-touch material, but the lower portion is made of hard plastic. Normally we wouldn't ding a compact car for such a material choice, but the hard lower section butts up against a soft panel in the door, resulting in a mismatched look that isn't exactly befitting of Nissan's premium target.

The Sentra's door-mounted arm rests are among the most comfortable we have ever tested, but the same can't be said for the center console arm rest, which is not only too far back to be reasonably used but also far too small to accommodate all the gadgets a modern driver might bring along.

The Sentra's Fine Vision gauges are clearly laid out and the white font on a black background is easy on the eyes. And speaking of eyes, you should be able to keep them on the road thanks to the Sentra's multi-function steering wheel.

Our top-of-the-line SL test car was loaded to the gills and included Nissan's new NissanConnect infotainment system and dual-zone automatic temperature control.

Part of the $650 Navigation Package, the NissanConnect system includes a 5.8-inch touch-screen that is loaded with NavTraffic rerouting, NavWeather updates, Google's Send-to-Car technology and other advanced features like warnings for curves and speed limit information. The navigation bundle also includes a RearView Monitor.

The SL trim level comes standard with an upgraded dual-zone climate control system which, for better or for worse, replaces the standard HVAC system's blower and temperature knobs for buttons.

The 2013 Sentra boasts best-in-class front seat head and legroom, but we found the front seats to be a bit uncomfortable during extended driving. Perhaps Nissan should have used some of the soft material from the Sentra's armrests in the seat cushions.

Rear seat passengers are treated to best-in-class legroom, although headroom is a bit tighter than other vehicles in the segment.

Updated powertrain

These days it's rare for a vehicle to be redesigned with a less powerful engine, but that's exactly the case with the new Sentra. With an eye toward fuel economy, Nissan ditched the Sentra's 140 horsepower 2.0-liter in favor of a new 1.8 developing 130 horsepower. The new mill produces 128 lb-ft of torque, down from the previous unit's 147 lb-ft.

The entry level S model can be equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, but all other models come standard with Nissan's second-generation CVT.

Naturally, the six-speed version of the Sentra is the more entertaining of the two to drive, but the gearbox isn't exactly sports car crisp. Although clutch operation is light a predictable, the six-speed manual suffers from long throws and a rubbery feel.

The CVT is fine during steady-state driving but drones on during acceleration. And with just 130 horsepower on tap, you'll find yourself on the gas more often than not. However, the new CVT is lighter and more efficient than Nissan's previous design, netting fuel economy ratings of 30 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.

Those wanting even better fuel economy can opt for the FE package. Available for $400, the FE package includes low roll resistance tires, under-car aero bits and a rear spoiler, boosting the Sentra's highway fuel economy to 40 mpg.

Uninspiring transmission options take away from the Sentra's sporting flair, but the four-door is actually surprisingly fun on the back roads. The new Sentra is 150 pounds skinnier than the outgoing model, which helps it feel light on its feet. The Sentra's suspension feels taught rather than stiff, smoothing out road imperfections while also keeping body roll in check. Steering feel and feedback is quite good, but the Sentra could benefit from a better on-center feel.

There is currently no performance model in the Sentra lineup, but for those wanting to at least look the part there is an SR trim package. Starting at $18,870, the Sentra SR includes unique 17-inch wheels, sport front and rear fascias, lower body sill extensions, a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tip and fog lights.

However, we suspect a true performance version of the Sentra is in the works. When we asked John Curl, head of Nissan product planning, if there were any plans for a sporty SE-R model , he responding by saying Nissan "hasn't forgotten about that heritage."

And we know they remember the zippy SE-R of two decades ago.

Leftlane's bottom line

Thanks to improvements across the board, Nissan has transform the Sentra from an also-ran into a class contender.

Although a few niggling issues keep the Sentra from being tops in our book, those looking for decent dynamics, excellent fuel economy and handsome styling will want to check out the all-new 2013 Sentra.

2013 Nissan Sentra base price range, $15,990 to $19,760.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.