Back in the early 1980s, Nissan and Toyota began producing American-sized cars, vehicles that were meant to compete with contemporary domestic vehicles in terms of size and interior content. To that end, vehicles like the Toyota Cressida and Datsun/Nissan Maxima reached our shores, with spacious interiors and plush, somewhat more modern dashboard layout, and cushy upholstery meant to elevate those manufacturers’ offerings beyond the “econobox” mold of former products, and onto the shopping lists of Americans looking for a competent, comfortable family sedan. The optimistic imitation of American tastes found in the large Japanese sedans from that era has a distinct feel, that of an ersatz, 7/8 scale near-luxury sedan that pre-dates the current “perforated-leather-and-driving-dynamics” definition of that term. It seems to me that the English language is missing a word to describe cars like that, with that feel and ambience of the early ‘80s Cressida and Maxima – which is really a shame, because that word would be the one I would use in my description of the 2013 Nissan Sentra SV.
Nissan launched their first car with the Sentra name in 1982, replacing the Datsun 210. Thirty-one years later, model year 2013 sees the introduction of the seventh-generation Sentra. The new Sentra is the largest vehicle ever to wear than name, being about two inches longer than the previous Sentra. Available only as a sedan, the Sentra has a chrome strip between the tail lamps, chromed door handles and side window trim, and LED running lights flanking the chrome grill (yes, such LED lamps have officially “jumped the shark”). The trunk is larger than expected thanks to a low floor which allows a significant cargo height. The suspension is soft, and the seat and door upholstery is even softer. The seats themselves are fairly firm, in a sit-on-them rather than sit-in-them way. The Sentra I tested was even equipped with keyless entry/start and an in-dash navigation system, which do tend to be features reserved for luxurious cars. In many ways, it is old-school imitation of a larger, more luxurious car.
Although I felt the Sentra offered “pretend” rather than genuine luxury, the interior has some impressive features, especially given the Sentra’s price point. Leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, a navigation head unit, high-end-looking instruments with a clear, high-quality display for odometer/trip computer in the instrument cluster. The interior is dual-toned, with oyster-colored materials on the dash/door tops, and lighter-colored materials below. The dash-top is a soft-touch plastic, while lower materials are all a harder plastic with a grain that matches the dash top. While the two-tone color scheme lends an “elegant” look, the light-colored lower upholstery and carpet was showing dirt after just one week of use – and I tend to be obsessive about keeping vehicles clean. I’m afraid what it might look like after a few months’ use.
Despite the Sentra’s name recognition in the compact sedan category, the new-for-2013 Sentra has enough room for me to “sit behind myself”, with the knees of my 6’4” frame barely grazing the seatback in front of me. Some of that does have to do with the limitations of fore/aft travel of the front seat: I didn’t have quite enough legroom up front even with the driver’s seat slid fully rearward; using the manual height adjustment for the driver’s seat didn’t help in freeing up more space. The driver’s seatback cushion felt convex-shaped to my back, meaning that I never felt “embraced” by the seats, though the upholstery prevented me from sliding around. Although the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, I was never able to get particularly comfortable behind the wheel.
The touchscreen display for the navigation/audio system is not very tall, and maps are rendered in such a way that it is difficult to see very much detail. The “cartoonish” drawing of the streets takes up too much space, so you can only see a few blocks around the car on the map, and zooming out beyond 600 feet per unit only shows arterial streets, even if you are driving on a non-arterial, making it useless for seeing where adjacent roads end up. The navigation system’s storage of map data on an SD card rather than a hard drive means that route calculation can be very sluggish… it took 20 seconds to route me to a destination in my same town about four miles away, which is incredibly slow by modern standards.
The Sentra I tested was equipped with NissanConnect, a data-connectivity system to which can do things like fetch information about local attractions and current weather conditions. The system accesses Google Connected Services through a Bluetooth-paired phone, but not through your phone’s data connection. Instead, the connection is through a modem-like dial-up connection. When I initiated the service in the Sentra, a phone call was placed using my Bluetooth-paired iPhone, which downloaded the Google Connected data. My first thought was that this seems a bit antiquated, but on second thought it makes sense for those on limited data plans (or with no data plan). The connection speed is not significantly different than the speed I remember from using Google in Audi’s A7.
The dash of the Sentra isn’t unattractive. The climate controls are single-zone and not automatic, but are straightforward to operate. The shape of the air vents in the center of the dashboard is a bit overdone, seemingly a knockoff of the vent shape seen in Infiniti vehicles. When underway, the Sentra is remarkably quiet inside, with plenty of sound damping materials seeming to be used. In that regard, it is a mini luxo-mobile.
Those are appearances, though. In operation, the engine produces plenty of NVH, causing vibrations at idle and underway that are noticed in things like rapid vibration of the unused passenger-seat belt buckle. Exterior panel gaps are large, and I felt the front fender panels were poorly aligned with the leading edge of the front doors. Despite the steering wheel and shift knob being leather-wrapped, they felt like leatherette thanks to low-grade materials being used.
On the road, the behavior of the CVT in the Sentra reminds me of the reason I tend to dislike continuously variable transmissions. The Sentra’s CVT causes the engine to drone on acceleration, as the engine quickly speeds up to 5250 RPM and holds there while the transmission varies its ratios. The Sentra has buttons to enable both ECO and Sport modes; ECO seems to dull throttle responses, while Sport mode does improve responsiveness, seemingly through improved shift algorithms which do a slightly better job mimicking the feel of a standard automatic transmission, keeping RPM higher and even downshifting when braking aggressively from speed. While that is somewhat entertaining, the 130 HP, 1.8 liter four still drones on acceleration in any mode. Adding that “performance to the Sentra’s soft suspension, handling is totally predictable yet the driving experience is decidedly unexciting.
The EPA fuel economy rating for the Sentra with CVT is 30/39/34 MPG city/highway/combined. During my week with the Sentra, I drove 215 miles, with a fuel economy of 33.3 MPG according to the trip computer (at 32 MPH). That said, I did take a 75 mile highway trip with speeds between 65 and 80 MPH, and had achieved 41.2 MPG on that segment, beating the EPA estimates. Thanks to my heavy right foot, I can’t remember the last time that happened.
The 2013 Sentra SV starts at $17,970. The vehicle I reviewed was equipped with the SV Driver Package (Nissan Intelligent Key with Pushbutton Ignition; smart auto headlights; Bluetooth handsfree phone system, AM/FM/CD/MPD/AUX-in Audio system with 4.3 inch color display and six speakers; SiriusXM Satellite Radio, USB port, leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel; TPMS with easy-fill tire alert); $170 carpeted floor mats and trunk mat; $55 hideaway trunk net; and $650 Navigation Package (NissanConnect with Navigation system; 5.8” color touchscreen display, Nissan voice recognition for audio and navigation, NavTraffic and NavWeather; Streaming audio via Bluetooth, hands free text messaging assistant, rear view monitor / backup camera), plus $790 destination fee, for a total of $20,635.
The fact that the Sentra looks and feels upscale may be what ends up attracting the majority of buyers; feature count on this Sentra SV with its $20,635 as-tested price is impressive. In this case, the Sentra provides frugal motoring with an upscale looks. For entry-level sedan shoppers not looking for a particularly sporting car but wanting for an upgrade in features and perceived luxury, the Sentra may be just right.