2013 Nissan Sentra: High achievement at the low end

I make no attempt here to compare the 2013 Nissan Sentra, a subcompact economy car, with something from the ranks of substantially more expensive, bona fide luxury automobiles. But there are samples of the new Sentra, notably the upscale Sentra SL sedan driven for this column, that make you wonder what “luxury” means anymore.

The Nissan Sentra line — including the base S, the popularly equipped SV, the sporty SR and the surprisingly well-appointed SL — has been reworked for 2013.

The front-wheel-drive cars are two inches longer than their predecessors. Interior space has been increased, and the cabins have been made more appealing and comfortable. The top-of-the-line SL, driven for this column, is so loaded it raises the question: Why access luxury at a higher price?

The SL, also the most expensive of the lot, has a starting price of $19,760 — deliberately set below $20,000 to bait more buyers. The idea: If I get all these goodies in a car starting under $20,000, surely I can add a few thousand dollars more in options.

Of course you can. Nissan has Sentra options aplenty. This column’s SL, which included optional onboard navigation with high-definition backup camera, premium leather seat coverings, a power sliding glass roof and a premium sound system, came with a manufacturer’s price of $23,430.

Still, that is not a bad deal for a well-made commuter car (in terms of fit and finish) that is also safe, luxuriously outfitted and engineered to get 30 miles per gallon in the city and 39 mpg on the highway using regular gasoline.

(I wrote “engineered to get.” I should’ve written “advertised to get.” My real-world mileage was okay, but several miles per gallon less than advertised.)

But the new Nissan Sentra line is made to address growing consumer worries over fuel economy and pump prices. That is largely why Nissan has jettisoned — at least for the time being — its high-performance Sentra SE-R and SE-R Spec V models. The current corporate thinking is that consumer concerns about fuel economy nullify demand for more consumptive high-performance models in what was supposed to be an economy-car line in the first place.

Nissan is likely to get criticism for that decision from recalcitrant throttle jockeys, whose need for speed frequently outpaces their incomes. But the company is likely to do well among drivers who just want a small, affordable, well-tailored car with at least decent miles-per-gallon numbers.

The new Sentra offers all that and more in the SL version. There is none of the bland styling and use of subpar cabin materials of predecessor Sentras. Everything is nice and tight. Exterior styling flows in attractive lines front to rear. Cabin leather feels rich. The design of the car’s instrument panel, replete with a handsome center console that is also easy to use, is first-rate. This is a very likable little car quite capable of competing with anything in its size and price class.

“FE” (fuel economy) versions of the new Sentra S and SV are designed to get slightly better mileage. Their enhancements in that endeavor include a rear aerodynamic spoiler (to help mitigate wind resistance), underbody aerodynamic deflectors, and low-rolling-resistance tires (to help reduce fuel-sapping tire-road friction).

For those of you who define luxury as power and crisp handling, you are hereby advised to look elsewhere. Despite its seductive trimmings, the new Sentra SL is what it was designed and engineered to be — an economy car. Like all its Sentra siblings, it comes with a 1.8-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (130 horsepower, 128 foot-pounds of torque). Add to that a continuously variable automatic transmission that continues to leave many drivers (me included) in its transmission of power to the front drive wheels.

But, in the pursuit of more miles per gallon with no loss of safety, style or comfort, I’m willing to accept those deficits. On most highly regulated roads in the United States, I can only go so fast anyway. I might as well settle back and enjoy the drive in what is without a doubt the best Sentra sedan that Nissan has ever made.


**A special thank you to Warren Brown from The Washington Post for this article!**

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