After Years In The Desert, Nissan's Sentra Is Relevant Again

nissan sentra test drive review 2013

Photo: Nissan

When Nissan first brought the Sentra to the American market in the early 1980s, it was a success: After a year of sales, it was the best-selling import and fourth best-selling passenger car in the country.But by the early 2000s, it had fallen behind competitors like the Honda Civic and Ford Fiesta.

The 2012 Sentra landed at number 40 on U.S. News’ list of best affordable small cars.

To return the Sentra to the top of the list, Nissan has worked to meet the new realities of the small car market, which now demands fuel economy and amenities long reserved for luxury cars, as well as affordability.

It worked.

The 2013 Sentra is not a remarkable car; driving it is not especially enjoyable. Jalopnik complained about the noise of the engine (an issue I did not notice so much). Autoblog criticised the wood trim and “thin-rimmed” steering wheel.

But the Sentra has best in class fuel economy and is loaded with bells and whistles, from a rear view camera for backing up safely to the nifty tire fill alert.

After an afternoon driving the car from San Francisco to Napa Valley, I found plenty of things to like.

The S Model starts at $15,990; the SL premium model starts at $19,760.

Disclosure: Nissan provided travel and lodging expenses for us to visit San Francisco and drive the 2013 Sentra.

1. It's a good looking car.

Nissan shortened the front and lengthened the rear of the Sentra. I personally prefer longer hoods, but there's no way to call this car ugly.

2. It's spacious.

The rear seat offers an impressive 37.4 inches of legroom. The front has 42.5 inches. I'm 5'11', and had plenty of room, though a taller driver might be uncomfortable.

3. It's efficient.

The fuel economy numbers are the best in its class: The Sentra gets 40 mpg on the highway and 30 mpg in the city, for a combined 34 mpg, just shy of what some hybrid cars get.

4. You can drive how you want.

Drivers can toggle between Eco, Sport, and Normal modes with the touch of a button.

Eco mode lowers the RPM level and offers improved fuel economy. Sport mode is better for getting on the highway and tackling hills.

Driving in Eco mode is not a lot of fun (the acceleration suffers), but it is efficient.

5. There's a manual model.

The new-generation Xtronic Continuously Variable Timing Control (CVT) system contributes to the improved fuel economy number.

And for drivers who insist on having a stick shift, the S model has an optional six-speed manual transmission. There's even an alert to change gears for maximum efficiency.

6. Throw away the pressure gauge.

The Easy Fill Tire Alert eliminates the need for a gauge when filling the tires: The horn sounds when the appropriate pressure is reached.

The feature is available across Nissan's 2013 lineup, and is the focus of a pretty funny Altima commercial.

7. It sounds great.

For a low-end car, the Sentra has an impressive sound system. The optional Bose Premium audio system has eight speakers, with an amplifier in the trunk.

To make sure it sounds as good as possible, it is tuned differently for leather and cloth interiors. I'm not audio expert, but with the volume all the way up, it sounded excellent.

8. There's a 5.8-inch screen for information and entertainment.

The Nissan Connect system uses Google services to provide points of interest and navigation. That's a smart move (that Audi has also made) -- Google is popular, familiar, and it works better than anything Nissan could put together itself.

A rear view camera makes backing up safe and easy. When my driving partner and I had to move through a tight parking garage in reverse, this was really useful.

Now read our review of the 2013 Pathfinder.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.