VANCOUVER - If you measure style by the size of your ride and performance by the number of miles to the gallon it can achieve, the 2013 Sentra should positively blow you away.
To misquote Honest Abe Lincoln, you likely can fool most of the people most of the time with Nissan's new Sentra sedan. Whether conducting a walk-around examination or admiring the view from inside, this car gives off a too-big-for-its-britches appearance. In fact, more than a few mid-town Vancouverites eyeing the half-dozen preened and prepped sedans awaiting road testing, wondered aloud why so many Altimas were lined up as if awaiting inspection.
Their confusion was understandable; from the shape of its grille and the curve of the front fenders, to the roofline that tucks smoothly into a truncated rear deck, the compact Sentra appears as a modestly scaled-down Altima.
It makes you wonder if owners of the equally new Altima, which was also recently launched, will be flattered by such obvious design mimicry or will kick themselves thinking they could have saved some cash if only they had waited a few months for the less-expensive Sentra to arrive.
Compared to the outgoing model, it's only slightly longer overall and with more space between the front and rear wheels, while surprisingly being a bit narrower. The illusion of more generous proportions is partially due to a 0.6-inch reduction in overall height. The reshaped body means 15 percent more trunk space, which is now only slightly smaller than the Altima in that department.
More good news abounds with the Sentra's interior layout that's plenty attractive, especially the straightforward and intuitive dashboard/control panel. There's zero sense that you're riding in a cramped, uncomfortable small car. Rear-seater passengers will also appreciate the generous leg and headroom.
Another big plus for the Sentra is that it's more than 150 pounds lighter than before. That's particularly good news since the standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine makes 10 less horsepower and generates 19 pound-feet less torque than the 2.0-liter four-cylinder it replaces. The missing power would have been handy for heading up any number of Vancouver's steeply inclined roadways (think San Francisco, only on a smaller scale) and isn't helped by the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that feels like it's impeding forward momentum instead of assisting it. Fortunately, a six-speed manual is available, but only on the lesser-equipped base model.
What the CVT does best is assist on the fuel-economy front. Thus equipped, the Sentra's rating of 30 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway beats out the previous 27/34. A late-arriving "FE+" option will up the highway ante to 40 mpg.
Smaller engines with CVTs are clearly the way of the future for the Sentra, but at least there are some offsetting luxury-type features offered that make the car more livable. Moving up near or at the top of the four trim levels that begin with the $16,800 S edition is where you'll find the SR with its sporty body cladding and trim, plus unique 17-inch wheels (16s are standard). But it's the premium SL that displays definite luxury leanings with dual-zone climate control, up-level interior trim, push-button start and other niceties not always found inside the Sentra's peers.
The SL is also the portal for extra equipment, including leather-covered seats, power moonroof, eight-speaker Bose-brand audio package and a navigation/rearview monitor system.
The new Sentra is an overall positive blend of five-passenger ride comfort and quietness, balanced with go-where-its-pointed handling competency. These are all traits that any decent commuter/grocery-getter sedan should possess. Add to that a successful attempt to push the mpg levels to greater heights and you have a better-than-average urban compact that won't cramp your style, or put a crimp in your wallet.
What you should know: 2013 Nissan Sentra
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact sedan
Engine (hp): 1.8-liter DOHC I4 (130)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; continuously variable
Market position: These days, "compact" and "cheap" are no longer synonymous as the latest Nissan Sentra will attest. They're larger and more refined and even luxurious in some cases.
Points: Sentra's focus is on spaciousness and fuel economy; Standard four-cylinder engine is down on power, but will likely go unnoticed by most buyers; Sporty Spec V option missing, for now; Comfortable, inviting cabin a big selling point; Optional CVT a possible deal breaker for some; For some, choosing Altima or Sentra will require some thought.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy): 30/39(CVT)
Base price (incl. destination): $16,800
Base price: $17,600
Excellent style and price. Coupe and hatch versions also available.
Base price: $17,000
A great driver's car.with impressive fuel economy. Hatch model optional.