It's been 30 years since the first Nissan Sentra was launched in the U.S. market, competing with the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. This mighty trio dominated the compact class in the late 1980s, with the Sentra finding more than 300,000 buyers at its sales peak.
The 2012 Sentra still attracts buyers, but its sales are nowhere near those sales heights. The sixth-generation model's distinctive style may be too adventurous for this conservative buyer segment.
In reworking the Sentra for the seventh time, Nissan mellowed the styling excesses, giving this car the smooth, upscale look the company used on the midsize Altima. Designers reinforced the upmarket appeal by employing a large chrome grille -- a rarity in this segment -- and headlights laced with a strip of LED lights. In the rear, LED taillights are standard.
Combined with its artful side window shape, which gracefully flows rearward to a point, this seventh-generation Sentra should age a bit more gracefully than the current model.
The premium feel continues once you open the door. Inside, little things give this inexpensive car the suggestion of being more expensive, even if its plastic trim tells you otherwise.
The truest luxury here is space, and the car has a remarkable amount, both in the front and rear seats. More remarkably, Nissan increased the trunk space to a generous 15.1 cubic feet, so there's little reason to pack lightly.
Once you fill the Sentra with friends, family, cargo and pets, you'll want to move.
For this task, Nissan has designed a new double-overhead-cam 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 130 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque. There's more than enough power on tap for most drivers. The engine is fairly quiet except when pushed. Then, it moans forlornly, typical of a driveline using a CVT.
Fuel economy is fairly good. Although the EPA hasn't yet rated the Sentra, Nissan expects it to return 30 mpg city, 39 mpg highway. Nissan achieved this through a number of weight-reduction measures, including the use of lightweight high-strength steel. Still, you can feel engine and chassis vibrations in the floor and front-door armrests.
The Sentra's comfortable ride and quiet cabin takes precedent over sporting pretensions. Soft, supportive cloth seats and an inviting instrument panel design mimics some of the exterior's flowing looks.
With this new model, the Sentra once more re-enters the mainstream with the space and styling to capture their hearts and a price that's sure to please their wallets. The driving experience may not be sporty, but most drivers won't care.
2013 NISSAN SENTRA
BASE PRICE: $15,990
PRICE AS TESTED: $19,720
ENGINE: 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder
LENGTH: 182.1 inches
WEIGHT: 2,851 pounds
CARGO SPACE: 15.1 cubic feet
EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 30 mpg city; 39 mpg highway(estimated)
BOTTOM LINE: Same economy, more style