It is all too easy for the auto enthusiast to forget that the primary goal of any car manufacturer is not actually to make cars that appeal to us. That they do is a largely necessary consequence of their true objective which is to make money, ultimately for the shareholders. Of course, in a competitive market, unless your product is good, and ideally better than competitive alternatives, then it is going to be difficult to make sales, and hence add dollars, or whatever currency you care about, to the corporate coffers, but the reality is that, despite what engineers may like to think, finance has a pretty strong hold on what a company, any company, does or does not do these days. It costs an awful lot to design, develop and put a new model into production these days, so it should not come as a surprise when those who control the purse strings decide that all those wonderful new concepts that marketing, design and engineering have conceived do not make business sense, and eeking out another year or two is the financially more responsible course to take. There are times when this can carry on for too long, and the product becomes less and less desirable in the marketplace, so there is a necessary balance, of course. No-one needs any reminder of the effects of the credit crunch in 2008/9, as its effects are still being felt today, but in the motor industry, like many others, it did cause most to stop, and think and cancel some of their new product plans, with the inevitable consequence that 3 or so years later, there was something of a reduction in the number of new models hitting the market. To anyone with deep enough pockets, or prepared to take a risk with some to provide the finance, this clearly presented an opportunity to try to outdo the rest of the market, and so on the rebound, it was perhaps no surprise to hear that Nissan, once one of the Japanese brands that everyone feared would dominate the global market in a way that never came to pass, but now a part, and not the dominant one, of the Renault-Nissan organisation, declared that they would deliver a massively ambitious new model plan with something to be unveiled somewhere around the world every few weeks over a three year period. As Nissan have a lot of different models, customised for different markets, that clearly meant that there would be longer periods of relative quiet in some geographies than others, but even so, the clear plan was that within approximately 3 years, the entire product line would be replaced. Accordingly, in America, a vital market for Nissan, that meant that only a few weeks after launching the commercially crucial Altima mid-sized sedan, the next generation compact Sentra followed in its footsteps. Whilst in recent years, the Altima has delivered sales volumes within spitting distance of the Camry and the Accord, the smaller Sentra has never got anything like as close to the Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla. With the latter aging badly, and the 2012 revision to the former having just been panned by the US press for being particularly cheap and frankly not good enough, Nissan must have thought that they were in with a chance. I recently sampled both the Corolla and that ill-received Civic, as well as another competitor, the now replaced Mazda 3, so in collecting a 2013 Sentra, I could form my own conclusions.
If success were judged by looks alone, Nissan could just be on to something here. Whilst no-one would ever describe the 2013 Sentra as “beautiful”, it certainly is not ugly, and in delivering a style which looks very like the 2013 Altima – indeed glance at one quickly and you may well struggle to tell them apart – it is clear that the message that Nissan are sending out is that this is a “grown up” compact. No longer styled and detailed to look cheap, the intent is to make the purchaser feel that they are getting lots for their money, even if this is not quite all the way to the “premium” delivery that everyone seems to be claiming these days. On looks alone, the Sentra ranks as an improvement over the old model, both outside and in, but the acid test is what it feels like to drive and to ride in. Read on.
The previous generation Sentra came with a 140 bhp 2 litre 4 cylinder engine, so everyone was a little surprised when the new car appeared and it became apparent that New Sentra was only to be available with a 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engine. Not only is the latest engine smaller, it is less powerful, putting out 130 bhp and 128 lb/ft of torque. The latest Sentra is an average 150lb lighter model for model, but the real intent of the change to the engine was to improve the fuel economy, to allow Nissan to claim figures that are comparable with the ever improving figures of the many rivals. Base model S cars are available with a six speed manual gearbox, but all the others are only supplied with an automatic gearbox, which achieves notably better official consumption figures. For all their US market sedan models, Nissan have committed themselves to the CVT style transmission for some time now, and by and large, they seem to work well, with few of the disadvantages of this type of gearbox that the critics cite. Sadly, the Sentra proves to be the exception. Indeed, I have to report that the combination of 1.8 litre engine and this gearbox is about as ill-matched as you could imagine. If you never go beyond about 2800 rpm, you probably won’t think anything is wrong, as at light throttle openings, all does indeed appear to be well, with the gearbox responding as you would hope, and the Sentra makes gentle and smooth progress. The problem, and let’s be clear that it is a very significant problem, is that the moment you accelerate at all – such as when heading down a slip road – is that as you build up speed, you build up revs, and because the gearbox does not have defined ratios, whilst there is reasonable acceleration, the noise levels get louder and louder as there is no higher ratio to which to change. Eventually, the transmission catches up with itself and the noise levels abate somewhat, but in ordinary motoring that goes beyond crawling in traffic, you had better resign yourself to the fact that this is one noisy and unpleasant experience. The previous model Sentra did not suffer anything like as badly from this, so no wonder that the press all moaned in their launch assessments that this car was not in all respects an improvement over the old car, as trust me, it is not. Indeed it was sufficiently wearing that I have put the Sentra on my (thankfully short) list of “cars to avoid” solely for this one attribute. And that’s a pity, as in most other respects, it really is not bad. Whilst economy levels did not get even close to the astonishing figures achieved by the Civic I had been driving immediately before this Nissan, at 33 mpg US, or 39.42 mpg Imperial, it is still not exactly thirsty, and a small improvement on the figures I achieved with the previous model which I took on a fairly similar test route.
Whilst the steering and handling are not up to Ford or Mazda levels, they were both better than the Honda and in a different league to the truly sensation-less Corolla I drove a few weeks ago. The steering does have some feel, and there is not too much body roll, and the handling is such that you would have to be driving very hard or irresponsibly to get into trouble. The ride was generally good, coping well with the varied and often poor surfaces of the LA area streets. There was some “bump thump” evident from some ridges and surface imperfections, which coupled with other road noise meant that even when the engine had quietened down as the gearbox had found the right ratio, this plus a bit of wind noise made the Sentra not that relaxing a car to be in. The footbrake needed quite a firm push, but once you did so, stopping performance was good. A central pull-up handbrake is fitted between the seats. Decent amounts of glass and a relatively short tail end made manoeuvering the Sentra quite straightforward, and there were no significant blind spots from the door mirrors.
The driver’s seat has 6 way adjustment, all manual, in the SV spec of the test car, with 4 ways on the passenger side. As is usual with American market cars, the backrest rake is altered in a series of steps rather than a continuous wheel, but even so, it was not hard to get the seat to the shape and position I wanted. The steering wheel goes in/out and up/down, as well, so finding the optimum driving position was not difficult, and I was quite comfortable driving the car. I did not take the Sentra on one long non-stop journey, instead heading into the canyons, and then doing lots of hopping in and out for photos and to enjoy the stillness and quiet that is surprisingly easy to find not very far away from a vast metropolis, but nothing suggested that the seat would trouble me, were I to sit on it for hours and hundreds of miles. Of course, the assault on my ears would have had me pleading with myself for mercy long before my back and posterior called for a break.
The interior of the Sentra is one facet which evidences a significant improvement over the old car. Using many components from the corporate parts bin, what you get is a neatly presented, well laid out cabin, made of decent quality materials, assembled with care and precision. Having just endured the truly awful 2012 Civic’s terrible materials quality, this Nissan was a welcome and significant improvement, feeling like a much classier car. There’s not much design flair, but then that’s not really the point with cars in this class, which are largely designed to get the job done without fuss. The main dash moulding of the test car was black and there were some dark grey trim inserts on the doors, and around the air vents and gearlever. The dash itself looks pretty conventional, with a single cowled binnacle covering the two large dials. These are the usual rev counter and speedometer, and there are smaller gauges for fuel level and water temperature. All are very clearly marked and easy to read. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit, a relatively simple device in the test car, with just AM and FM capability, as well as a CD slot and AUX connector. Repeater buttons for some of the audio functions are on the left hand spoke of the steering wheel, though they proved a little fiddly to use. Beneath this unit are two rotary dials which flank a series of buttons that operate the air conditioning system.
For a car in this class, still regarded by the EPA as a “compact”, rear seat space is generous, with a lot more leg room than in many of the Sentra’s rivals. Indeed, there is far more space in this car than in the ostensibly much larger Chevrolet Malibu. Leg room is in particularly copious supply, and I found no headroom shortage, either. As the Sentra is not that wide, three adults might find it a bit of a tight squeeze. There is a fold down central armrest, which has cupholders in the front of its upper surface. The boot is similarly generous, and far bigger than that in the Civic. Space can be extended further by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests forward. There is a large split level glove box. Like all Nissans, it seems, this is far bigger than you will find on almost any rival. There are also pockets on all four doors, a small cubby under the central armrest and a small tray in front of the gearlever. Rear seat passengers get a map pocket just on the back of the passenger seat.
Sentra is available in 4 trim levels: S, SV, SR and SL. Unlike the previous generation, they all have the same engine and power outputs, so the differences are solely confined to trim and equipment The S is a somewhat stripped out version, specced so as to achieve a headline grabbing price, of $15,995, but lacking much in the way of things that buyers think of as must-have features these days. It does at least have electric windows, air conditioning and LED tail lights, though. The test car was an SV, and whilst far from plush, it adds a few more convenience features, for its extra $1400 cost. Among these are the loathsome CVT gearbox as standard, cruise control and what Nissan call premium cloth trim (it’s OK as these sort of materials go, but not exactly “premium” to my mind!). The audio unit gains an extra pair of speakers and wheel mounted audio unit controls. Although it boasts no more power, the SR model tries to appear more sporty, with its 17″ alloy wheels, a sport grille, front fog lights, body sill extensions, a rear spoiler, and what Nissan call “premium sport” cloth interior trim. Slightly meanly, the SR loses 2 of the speakers from the audio setup so it shares a system with the S and not the SV. Top of the range SL listed at $19,590 includes everything that features on the SV, and also adds Nissan’s “intelligent key”, dual zone automated climate control and automatic headlights, as well as a 7 spoke 17″ alloy wheel design, front fog lights, heated door mirrors with repeater indicator signals in them, a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear lever, bluetooth connectivity, Sirius XM satellite radio, a 4.3″ audio unit display monitor, iPod connectivity and wood tone trim accents which will not be to everyone’s taste. There are FE versions of both the S and the SV which have a rear spoiler, aero deflectors and low rolling resistance tyres all of which contribute to a small improvement in quoted fuel economy, in exchange for a $400 purchase price increase. I’d say it is particularly debatable whether this package is worth having. A number of option packages are available, allowing the purchaser to add things such as satellite navigation and a rear view camera.
There was much to like about the Sentra. Its scaled-down Altima looks give it the impression of being a larger and more costly car than is actually the case, and it is particularly spacious for rear seat passengers and with a roomy boot. It is nicely finished inside. But it has one achilles heel which is so bad that I simply cannot recommend it. That ill-judged combination of 1.8 litre engine and CVT gearbox makes the driving experience so loud and unpleasant that you would have to be a committed Nissan enthusiast to prefer this car over many of its rivals. Until Nissan does something about it, I’m afraid this one joins the previous model Corolla and the Civic as cars that are on my “avoid” list. Luckily, this sector of the market is replete with alternatives, not all of which I have yet sampled. You can be sure that next time I get a car in this class, I will be looking to do so, rather than to repeat the Sentra (or the Civic or Corolla) experience.