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2013 Nissan Sentra: New and improved for the people

They don’t make small cars like they used to. Sure, it’s a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. In fact, cars simply aren’t small anymore – at all. Nissan has pushed the envelope a little further with its new Sentra, which marks the seventh generation of this series that first appeared in 1982.
Instead of doing what the competition has been doing for years and simply increasing the size of its compact, Nissan seems to have compressed a mid-size sedan, with all its features, to offer it in a more practical format and, of course, at a better price.

The striking resemblance between the Sentra and the Altima, which has also been completely remodeled for 2013, is no accident. The Sentra is set to steal some of the Altima’s sales, just as the Altima did to the Maxima. Why? The Sentra is able to meet the needs and expectations of buyers looking to reduce costs by changing car categories. Yes, there’s method in Nissan’s madness.

Style and substance
One thing is certain: while it doesn’t have the magic name, bulletproof reputation or sexy contours of some of its rivals, the new Sentra has what it takes to finally step into the limelight in the compact car category, which is Canada’s most popular segment.
It’s a rather nice-looking sedan, with fluid, sculpted curves that make you forget the vaguely postmodern style of the previous version. The new Sentra is much more dynamic as well, with a drag coefficient (Cx) that has dropped from 0.34 to 0.29. The manufacturer credits these gains primarily to the fact that the new Sentra is lower and narrower by 15 and 30 millimetres, respectively.

The Sentra is also 58.4 mm longer on a wheelbase that has been increased by 15.2 mm. The beneficiaries of these modifications are the backseats and especially the trunk, whose 428-litre capacity is an impressive 57 litres more than that of the previous version. The trunk is huge and its floor is very low since the smaller gas tank has been installed under the rear bench.

The new Sentra owes this clever feature to its new extended B platform. Its contemporary design and a greater use of high-resistance steel have helped reduce the weight of the body by nearly 70 kg while improving structural rigidity. This also improves fuel consumption, performance, handling and ride.

Have a seat
Nissan proudly flaunts the passenger compartment volume numbers to demonstrate that the Sentra is the roomiest compact sedan – sort of. Its front seats are larger than many of its current rivals – the Civic, Corolla, Cruze and Focus – but the manufacturer conveniently forgot to include the Elantra sedan in its comparison. It may have been an honest mistake, but the sleek Korean car’s front area is suspiciously roomier.

But when it comes to comfort, the numbers never tell the whole story. You have to consider whether the front seats are comfortable, the driving position adequate and fully adjustable, and whether there’s a good footrest. While the tape measure will tell you that the Sentra’s backseats are the most spacious of all, they aren’t necessarily the most comfortable. It has, by far, the most legroom, but there isn’t a lot of room for your feet under the front seats. Furthermore, the headroom is the worst in the category. The seatback lowers in asymmetrical (60/40) sections to extend the enormous trunk even more when the need arises.

Attention to ambiance
On board, there are no flagrant errors or cheap materials, even in the most affordable version, the S. The other three trim levels, the SV, SR and SL, feature more complete and plush equipment. You’ll have to start with the SV to get cruise control, rear speakers, wheel-mounted secondary controls and an anti-theft system. This version should account for half the sales of the new Sentra, according to Nissan’s projections.
The next step up is the SR, with its sporty look, 17-inch alloy rims, more sculpted body, spoiler on the trunk, fog lights and chrome exhaust tip. What’s more, it has silver dashboard mouldings.

The SL is the next version up and it thinks of itself as a luxury mid-size. I must admit that it manages rather well. In addition to leather upholstery, there’s a wide array of accessories and electronic systems, many of whose controls are displayed on the central screen in the middle of the dashboard that measures nearly six inches and is decorated in faux maple accents. And it comes factory standard with a glass sunroof.
The controls are very ergonomically sound, even in the best equipped versions where a screen in the central part of the dashboard helps you plug in to the NissanConnect system and the GPS, or view images from the rear backup camera.

The right speed
The only truly and wilfully modest characteristic of the new Sentra is the 1.8-litre capacity of its four-cylinder engine. It’s brand new, however, and its design is particularly well adapted to this little sedan’s sensible purpose. Plus, it helps the vehicle meet its ambitious fuel consumption objectives.

The engineers have lengthened the piston stroke to favour torque and smoothness rather than power. By modifying the variable valve timing, they obtained figures of 130 horses at 6,000 rpm and 128 lbs.-ft. of torque at a very reasonable 3,600 rpm. They can boast city/highway/combined fuel consumption figures of 6.6/4.9/5.8 L/100 km thanks also to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) whose size, weight and internal friction have been reduced.

This second generation of the XTronic gearbox comes standard on the SR and SL. It can also replace the six-speed manual gearbox that comes standard on the S and SV. The first Sentra I drove at the California launch was a fully equipped SL, and its enthusiastic city accelerations, especially on cold starts, immediately surprised me.
Of course, the engine is noisier in flat-out accelerations, since the CVT keeps it at the optimal output speed. Generally speaking, however, both the torque and smoothness are surprisingly good for an engine of this capacity. Same goes for the versions with the manual gearbox, whose shifting, while a little on the long side, remains precise.

Mind your manners
Sublime or memorable, this new Sentra’s ride is not, even on the legendary Highway 1 that runs along the jagged Pacific coast north of San Francisco. It performs rather admirably just the same, with its precise steering, respectable handling in turns and good overall balance. Moreover, noises and bumps are very well filtered by the not-overly-soft suspension.

I also took an S on a short test drive on a more battered road in the same area, which allowed me to note its nice cushioning and ride. The steering is perhaps a tad light in the middle on this version, which is fitted with 205/55 size tires mounted on 16-inch steel rims, just like on the SV. All Sentras have a front strut suspension and a rear torsion bar suspension. On the SR and SL, disc brakes replace the rear drum brakes.
All things considered, this new Sentra makes a very good first impression. It’s a decent, comfortable, practical and well put together little sedan. I thought it even had a good chance to win at the annual AJAC awards, but it ended up finishing third in the Best New Small Car (under $21,000) category. This much is certain: with all the qualities that it now has, its days of playing a bit part in this category are over.