2013 Nissan Sentra SR: This grown-up small car is a contender.
Price: $21,560 ($18,870 base price).
Marketer's pitch: "The most innovative Sentra ever."
Conventional wisdom: The most innovative Sentra ever. Isn't that actually kind of mean?
Seriously, though, what are others saying? Edmunds.com says it likes the "upscale and spacious interior; high fuel economy; generous trunk space; useful electronic features." But it's not so pleased with its sluggish acceleration or steering that lacks feel.
Reality: This little guy is not so bad, and I even liked the parts Edmunds didn't.
Preconceived notions: I don't know why but Nissans are like the little brother I love to pick on, especially small versions like the Sentra or Versa. Perhaps it could be the continuously variable transmission in the tester. It does give the little car rather golf cart-like performance. I sure would like to try the six-speed manual. It's not the better fuel economy choice but it's probably more fun.
Weird ride: Or could it be the oddly shaped seats? The seatback was a little too rounded downward and the seat bottom too short for the legs that come standard with my very average-sized 5-foot-10 frame. It seems to be designed for short-legged, humpbacked dwarves.
But it knows how to go: Unlike the cranks at Edmunds, I thought the Sentra had nice acceleration. I found it peppy pulling out and getting around town.
On the turns: The handling is OK. Not as floaty as Toyota and not as zoom zoomy as Mazda.
Easy listening: The stereo system is easy to navigate. The steering wheel controllers are clear and simple to operate. Two-sided buttons around the stereo are a nice touch; they keep the look clean and uncluttered while offering multiple functions without having to wade into the touchscreen mire. A $650 bump in price added a 5.8-inch screen and navigation.
Classy touches: Nissan has long had a handle on making its smaller vehicles not scream "This is a cheap car!" Cloth touches on the doors and brushed chrome handles add a bit of goodness, and the steering wheel feels like it's from a pricier car. The gauges are clean and easy to read. (The SR Driver Package adds $1,080 for the leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus Bluetooth phone connection, a stereo with 4.3-inch display, tire-pressure monitoring and more.)
Lack of choice: The steering wheel doesn't telescope, which is par for the course in these econocars, making it extra hard to get lined up for viewing the gauges.
Friends and stuff: The rear seat is not bad. Headroom is a little tight but legroom is good and the pedestal seats make for good foot room.
Samsung Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 owners will be sad, because the cell phone slot in the Sentra is fairly tight. Another in front of the shifter is a little shallow.
The trunk is actually fairly roomy, and of course the seats fold down.
Outside: The new look for the 2013 Sentra results in a pretty handsome car as well, and it's grown up quite a bit from previous incarnations.
Fuel economy: The Sentra averaged a very respectable 33 mpg in highway and city driving.
Where it's built: Aguas, Mexico.
How it's built: Nissan overall gets just an average reliability rating from J.D. Power and Associates.
In the end: Nissan is the one Japanese brand that has never quite found its niche, as far as I can tell. Honda and Toyota both play the reliability card while Mazda goes for sporty. Mitsubishi aims there as well, but with a hip-hop chic.
But in the Sentra, Nissan has built an attractive small-car package, and should be a good choice for someone who likes to feel like he or she is driving a classier car but doesn't need an especially sporty ride.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.