2013 Nissan Sentra review:

Economy car adds Google local search

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2013 Nissan Sentra
With an iPhone plugged into the Sentra's USB port, the touch screen shows this music library interface. Josh Miller/CNET

The voice command feature of the Sentra showed impressive depth, if not all the features of competitive systems. For music, it would not let me say the name of an album or artist to start playback, but would at least get me to a screen showing artists, albums, genres, or tracks. I could also enter an address for the navigation system using voice command, but had to input one part of the address at a time.

Screens that came up during voice command showed me all available options, so I wasn't wandering in the dark trying to figure out what I could say next.

The stock audio system in the Sentra shoveled out the sound through six speakers, your basic tweeters and woofers in front, and two more woofers in back. The sound quality fit the Sentra's modest aspirations, tending toward an unrefined mix of bass, treble, and mids. Bass was not particularly strong, but turning up the volume high caused some interior panel rattle.

Nissan offers a premium Bose eight-speaker system for the Sentra as an option, which should be an improvement.

Conventional engine
Standard at all trim levels is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, a mill designed for economy that must somehow figure into the meaning of the Pure Drive badge on the rear of the Sentra. The engine uses variable valve timing for intake and exhaust, but no turbo or direct injection, which means its horsepower comes in at a wimpy 130, while torque is only 128 pound-feet.

That means very little power overhead for passing maneuvers and merging.

Nissan's excellent continuously variable transmission (CVT) wrings as much power out of the engine as possible, always ready to bump up the engine speed when I mashed the gas pedal. Nissan made some improvements to this transmission, which it has spent years refining, putting fixed gears at the bottom and top ends to help efficiency. Despite that improvement, I found the car's accelerator response felt rubber-bandy as I crept along in stop-and-go traffic.

In most driving, the transmission did an excellent job, although the engine gave an unholy groan any time I went for maximum acceleration.

2013 Nissan Sentra
The continuously variable transmission does a good job of controlling engine output, and includes a low range for long hill descents. Josh Miller/CNET

At the push of a button, I could put the car into Sport mode, a bit of a joke considering the Sentra's power and handling capabilities. However, it greatly sharpened the accelerator response. Likewise, there was an Eco mode, which not only detuned the throttle, but also reduced the drag of the air conditioning on the engine.

The EPA estimates for the Sentra's efficiency are an impressive 30 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. My observed fuel economy came in below that range, at 28.2 mpg. From watching the trip computer, I could see the Sentra was more than willing to hit the high 30s on the highway, but in a dense urban environment its economy was looking closer to the mid-20s.

The CVT contributes to a generally easy driving experience, giving the Sentra the kind of get-in-and-go utility preferred by most of the public. Nissan adopts electric power steering for the Sentra, but gives it very light boosting. I could feel the tires rubbing pavement when I cranked the wheel at low speeds or at a stop. I would have preferred a little more boost in the Sentra -- it isn't sporty enough to need excessive road feel.

As I checked its handling through a set of turns, it shifted its weight uncomfortably from side to side, not so much a soft-suspension wallow as a sense that the entire body didn't track well with the wheels. It also shifted the meal I had eaten earlier, and gave me the feeling that the Sentra is best kept in the city and suburbs.

Over city streets, the Sentra rode with economy-car competence, neither excessively bumpy or comfortable. Taking an economical construction route, the Sentra uses a multilink suspension in front and a simple torsion bar for the rear wheels. Also fairly typically for an economy car, it uses disc brakes in front and drum brakes on the rear wheel, although discs are optionally available for the rear wheels.

Convenient tech
Oversized and underpowered, the 2013 Nissan Sentra isn't really designed for those who like to drive. It's a functional car for a low price, although stuffing it with five passengers would really make its small power plant struggle. The engine itself is technically unremarkable, but Nissan's CVT makes up for some shortcomings. The Sentra worked fine for running around a city, although I wasn't impressed with its behavior in stop-and-go traffic.

At the price, the navigation option is a good deal, especially as it incorporates what connected features the car offers. The Google local search capability was particularly impressive, especially as it did not rely on a smartphone's data connection. Pandora integration also worked very well. I was not terribly impressed with the navigation system's small touch screen or maps. The stock six-speaker audio system added nothing to the car, but I would be interested in hearing the Bose eight-speaker system, which must be some kind of improvement.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Nissan Sentra
Trim SL
Power train 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy 30 mpg city/39 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 28.2 mpg
Navigation Optional flash memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Bluetooth streaming, Pandora, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio system Six-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $19,590
Price as tested $21,200

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