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2013 Nissan Sentra gets its destinations from Google (first drive)

2013 Nissan Sentra

The latest generation of Nissan's Sentra employs new, attractive exterior styling.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As the 2013 Nissan Sentra's weight shifted dramatically for the umpteenth time on a winding California road during Nissan's press introduction of the newest generation of its compact car, I realized this type of driving was exactly what the 2013 Sentra was not made for. Driving along the very urban streets of downtown San Francisco, cruising across the Golden Gate Bridge, and sailing along the freeway, the car did fine. Its suspension felt firm yet pliable, rolling along the road with no unpleasant jolts.

But when it came to my attempt to turn a California back road into my own personal racetrack, the Sentra's handling was just not up to the task. The car did not sway, instead exhibiting a feeling of the entire weight shifting about a foot to the side for each turn. And the breakfast I had eaten earlier began to raise its own objections about being shoved from side to side.

Nissan offers the new Sentra in four trims: S, SV, SR, and SL. The base S model comes in at an inexpensive $15,990, and gets a six-speed manual transmission. All other Sentras use a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and Nissan's version of this type of transmission is the best in the business. For the new Sentra, Nissan refined its CVT, adding a planetary gearbox that has the effect of putting fixed gears at the high and low ends of the drive ratio. And Nissan says the breadth of the CVT's drive ratio, at 7.3:1, matches that of a typical seven-speed automatic transmission.

The CVT showed excellent programming during my day of driving, kicking the engine speed up substantially when I hit the brakes so I would not be left wanting power as the car slowed. Nissan does not include any virtual shift points on the Sentra's CVT, just a Low range to complement Drive. At cruising speed on the freeway, the CVT let the engine run just under 2,000 rpm. Under heavy acceleration, the CVT was willing to let the engine run up to redline, maximizing power.

Tortured groan of acceleration
However, the 1.8-liter engine, used at each trim level, does not have that much power to give. It delivers 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, adequate for most daily driving but a little short on oomph for passing on a two-lane highway. In one such situation I remained content to follow traffic going about 5 mph under the limit because the Sentra did not inspire enough confidence to attempt a pass. Flooring the accelerator also wrings an unpleasant tortured groan from the engine.

2013 Nissan Sentra

All but the base Sentra model come with a newly engineered continuously variable transmission.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Nissan applies variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams of this engine, but it does not employ direct injection, which would get a bit more efficiency out of it. That technology exists in Nissan's toolbox. Witness the Juke, which churns out 188 horsepower from a turbocharged, direct injection 1.6-liter engine. It would be nice to see Nissan standardize around that mill for its small cars.

On the other hand, the 1.8-liter combined with the CVT does give the Sentra good fuel economy, rated at 30 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. Nissan achieved this rating through a weight reduction on the car over the previous generation, and also by employing a smart alternator. This technology makes the alternator drop its connection to the engine under acceleration, so as to let more power go to the front wheels. When braking or coasting downhill, the alternator reattaches, using the excess kinetic energy to recharge the car's battery.

Nissan complements the drivetrain with Sport and Eco buttons for the driver placed inconspicuously by the driver's left knee. Both change the CVT's program, with the Sport mode making the accelerator more sensitive and giving the driver a stronger feeling of power from the car. Eco mode drastically detunes the gas pedal, making it harder to burn fuel for most of the pedal's travel. It also reduces the air conditioning power, further helping to save gas.

Drivers interested in saving even more gas can opt for the $400 FE+ package at the S or SV trims, which gets the highway fuel economy up to 40 mpg by adding some aero components and low rolling resistance tires.

Basic tech optional
Nissan's attitude toward tech in the Sentra seems a bit odd. At a presentation about the car, a spokesman said buyers don't care about gadgets, a surprising statement considering the low price of the car should make it attractive to younger prospective owners who grew up with smartphones being a fact of life. As such, only the top SL trim comes standard with Bluetooth and a USB port. Buyers will have to add a $1,000 Driver package to get these features on the SV and SR trims. I would rather see Nissan make the CD player optional, and put a USB port in standard.

2013 Nissan Sentra

The navigation system includes a connected component, which reaches out to Google for POIs.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Navigation package is a better tech story. Optional on the SV, SR, and SL trims, it only costs $650, although it requires the Driver package, so SV and SR buyers would add a total of $1,650 to tech up their cars.

The navigation system, showing on a 5.8 inch LCD, runs off an SD card. It includes 2D and perspective views, and includes traffic and weather. Better yet, Nissan implemented a new connected technology that uses the driver's smartphone as a data conduit to get points of interest (POI) from Google. This feature makes it less likely you will navigate to defunct restaurants, and makes for a much broader selection of businesses than a typical stored POI database. It also includes the capability to find a destination on your computer, then use the phone to bring it into the car.

The navigation touch screen reacted promptly to my inputs and kept good track of the car's location, but I was not able to test the Google POI system. The Nissan representatives on hand were sketchy on the details of how it works, although I assume there must be an app that you have to install to let the car use it as a data conduit.

Other features included with the Navigation package are a rear-view camera and Pandora integration. After plugging a thumb drive into the car's USB port, I was able to view its contents as a music library on the LCD. The touch screen showed the same instant response as it did for the navigation system. There was no voice command for the stereo, only for the Bluetooth phone system. The car I drove also had the Premium package installed, which brings in an eight-speaker Bose audio system, but I was not really able to judge its sound quality during this drive. At $1,200 for the package, it is a pricey addition.

Room for a writer in the trunk
The exterior styling of this new Sentra is very attractive, and much better than the outgoing model. Nissan also boasts the most rear-seat legroom compared with the Sentra's competition. The trunk itself looked massive, and I was able to get in easily.

2013 Nissan Sentra

The trunk was surprisingly roomy, and might qualify as third-row seating.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Strangely, a fully optioned 2013 Sentra in SR trim is more expensive, at $22,750, than a fully optioned top SL trim, due to the latter car coming standard with the Driver package. Along with the Driver and Navigation packages, Nissan offers the Premium package with its upgraded audio system for $1,200 and a Leather package for $1,030. A sweeter tech spot in the line-up would be the SV trim with just the Driver and Navigation packages, coming in at $19,620.

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