Restyled for a new, upscale look, Nissan's Sentra small sedan for 2013 is more fuel efficient than ever and so roomy inside the government no longer ranks it as a compact sedan.
Some people even confuse the new, mid-size Sentra with the larger, 2013 Nissan Altima because from the outside, the Sentra looks a lot like the more-expensive Altima.
In fact, though the 15.2-foot-long Sentra still handles like a small car and is 9.4 inches shorter in overall length than the Altima, the Sentra has more rear-seat legroom — a surprising 37.4 inches. This is more than the back-seat legroom of the typical small-car competitors such as the 2013 Honda Civic and 2013 Toyota Corolla.
Add in affordable pricing and the Sentra's top 34 miles-per-gallon federal government fuel economy rating for combined city/highway travel, and it's easy to see why the Sentra is a noteworthy new model.
And don't think that 34 mpg is an unattainable figure. The test 2013 Sentra SL averaged 34 mpg, even though the car was driven in normal fashion and the travel included a highway in the mountains and foothill roads. The fuel economy was enough to give the test car an impressive range of 440 miles on a single tank of regular unleaded.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $16,780 for a base, 2013 Sentra S with 130-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and six-speed, manual transmission. The lowest starting retail price for a 2013 Sentra with a continuously variable transmission that drivers operate like an automatic is $17,380. No regular automatic is available on the 2013 Sentra, and only the base S model is offered with a choice of manual or CVT for 2013.
All 2013 Sentras come with the 130-horsepower four cylinder that produces a maximum 128 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.
In comparison, the starting retail price for a 2013 Altima, which comes with a 182-horsepower four cylinder, is $22,550.
Meantime, the 2013 Honda Civic sedan has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $18,955 with manual transmission and $19,755 with automatic, while the 2013 Toyota Corolla with manual transmission starts at $17,040 and with automatic starts at $18,990. The Civic is powered by a 140-horsepower four cylinder, while the Corolla has a 132-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.
The new Sentra is upscale feeling, inside and out.
Even light-emitting diodes accent headlights and taillamps on all 2013 Sentras, and chrome-look door handles are standard on all models.
The dashboard has soft-touch plastic with a pleasant appearance, and the center armrest between front seats in the test Sentra SL was cushioned.
While leather-trimmed seats are available, the premium, gray-colored, cloth-covered seats in the SL tester provided good support and were cooler to the skin on hot summer days.
The optional navigation package, which added voice recognition control, hands-free text messaging, a rearview monitor and colorful, 5.8-inch display and touch screen, was only $650. This is an amazing price compared with other carmakers' pricing.
The Sentra's electroluminescent gauges also were a nice, upscale touch.
Nissan didn't scrimp on the front-seat legroom to add space to the back seat. Front-seat passengers get a full 42.5 inches of legroom, and the front seat tracks are long to accommodate many sizes of passengers.
The 15.1-cubic-foot trunk also is generously sized and is 18 percent bigger than the Corolla's trunk.
All this comes from a 2.3-inch longer car than last year's Sentra. The 2013 Sentra is a bit shorter in height than last year's model, but at 58.9 inches is still taller than a 2013 Civic sedan and a 2013 Corolla.
In fact, the Sentra's front headroom of 39.4 inches is better than the Corolla's and Civic sedan's.
Intriguingly, while the Sentra has grown a bit larger, it's some 150 pounds lighter. The reduced weight, plus improved aerodynamics, help account for the fuel economy.
So does the smaller-displacement engine and the CVT, which in the Sentra test car wasn't as onerous and fun-sapping as some earlier Nissan CVTs have been.
The engine now is a 1.8-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder that develops 10 less horsepower than last year's 2-liter unit.
Still, the test Sentra SL felt light, yet solid, and had decent throttle response.
While not a sporty car, the Sentra moved well with traffic. It seemed that Nissan engineers have found the right combination to deliver adequate power and better-than-expected, real-world fuel economy.
Certainly, with the "eco" button activated just a couple times during the test drive to conserve fuel and the car driven without a focus on gas mileage, the range was impressive.
The suspension softened most road bumps for a comfortable ride, but the Sentra tester still handled mountain curves at decent speed with poise.
The Sentra doesn't have the kind of sound deadening and noise isolation that's found in more upscale cars, and sounds from nearby trucks and engine droning came through to the passenger compartment.
The 2013 Sentra earned four out of five stars in overall crash testing by the federal government. The side crash test was good for the top, five stars, but the overall rating was pulled down by a four-out-of-five-stars rating in frontal testing.
In contrast, the 2013 Civic earned an overall five out of five stars.
The 2013 Sentra has been involved in two safety recalls.
In one, Sentras were recalled because a sensor that detected whether a passenger was sitting in the front passenger seat had not been built to specification and might suppress deployment of an air bag.
The other safety recall involved Sentra gas tanks that might not have been fully sealed, resulting in potential fuel leakage when the tank is full. This might cause a fire.