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2013 Nissan Sentra review: Economy car adds Google local search

Economy cars tend to be the last to receive high-tech features, but Nissan managed to fit its new Sentra model with a rather ingenious means of getting Google local search into the navigation system.

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

8 min read

As I saw previously with the new Altima model, Nissan has taken to a strategy of offering its customers more for the money, in this sense "more" being larger vehicles, bucking a trend in the industry toward smaller cars. The 2013 Nissan Sentra, the newly updated seventh generation of a once compact car, qualifies as midsize under EPA classifications.

2013 Nissan Sentra

2013 Nissan Sentra

The Good

The <b>2013 Nissan Sentra</b>'s inexpensive navigation system integrates Google local search, and the stereo includes Pandora. The continuously variable transmission delivers efficiency and improves the car's driving character.

The Bad

The four-cylinder engine leaves the Sentra feeling underpowered. A small touch screen and poor turn graphics reduce the navigation system's usability.

The Bottom Line

The 2013 Nissan Sentra serves as cheap transportation for urban areas, and offers connected navigation for greater convenience, but a weak engine and bland styling highlight its mundane nature.

The Sentra SL model delivered to CNET was the top trim model, but its base price still came in at just under 20 grand. For that money, the Sentra offered a roomy cabin and a surprisingly large trunk, a full 15.1 cubic feet. Overall length of the car is 15 feet, 2 inches.

2013 Nissan Sentra brings in Google local search (pictures)

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The new Sentra's headlight casings, fitted with LED parking lights, give the mostly bland body styling a modern look, while the chrome grille punctuates the front-end styling. Nissan makes the roof line swoop back toward the trunk lid in an almost fastback design, a cue that has become very popular amongst automakers lately.

Lacking the leather package, this Sentra SL instead had seats covered in a soft cloth with similar cloth insets on the door panels. The front seats felt like overstuffed arm chairs, an interesting means of improving passenger comfort.

Connected search
But the real bargain came in the navigation head unit, a $650 option. The navigation software, running maps from an SD card, looked and worked like a portable navigation device. But Nissan includes a secret weapon, Google local search, using an ingenious method to make the Sentra a connected car with little increase to owner cost.

Other automakers' online search options rely on either a pricey data connection directly to the car, or an app that integrates the driver's smartphone with the navigation system, using the smartphone as the data conduit. Nissan's system does not require an app, but still uses the driver's phone, and requires minimal setup.

2013 Nissan Sentra

The Sentra gets its Google search results delivered through any mobile phone paired with the car.

Josh Miller/CNET

After pairing my phone with the car through Bluetooth, I chose the POIs Powered by Google button from the destination touch screen. I was able to enter any search term I wanted on the ensuing alphanumeric input screen, after which the system used my phone to place a call. After a little wait time, search results populated the car's screen.

I tapped one of the results, telling the navigation system to set it as the destination.

This Google search implementation does not actually use a phone's data connection (so it should work with any mobile phone, not just smartphones). Instead, a technology developed by Airbiquity transmits data over the phone's voice connection, similar to how old modems sent and received data via telephone service. As mobile phones use digital service, the technology is more efficient than those old modems.

The Sentra's head unit has a preprogrammed number for a server, which picks up the call and interprets the search term and the car's GPS location. It sends the results back through the phone line, and the car displays them on the touch screen.

It proved to be a handy system which worked well enough that I was never tempted to perform the search using an app on my smartphone.

Additionally, the Sentra's navigation includes Google's "Send to car" feature, which let me look up destinations using Google Maps on the Web and have them sent to the car. That feature can be useful when planning a road trip or a day's errands at your desk.

The navigation system itself had a solid feature list, including traffic data and dynamic routing around traffic jams. The maps showed in plan and perspective views, while route recalculation was quick.

2013 Nissan Sentra

The small touch screen showed minimal graphics for upcoming turns.

Josh Miller/CNET

However, the voice prompts did not read out street names, and I was underwhelmed by the turn graphics. The system did not show lane guidance for every turn, just freeway junctions. And the 5.8-inch screen was rather small, with zoom and menu buttons covering a good portion of the map. Worse, the maps highlighted freeways and other major roads with thick, colored lines, which tended to make big freeway junctions look like a toddler had cut loose with a felt-tip pen.

Connected music
The Bluetooth hands-free phone system and USB port for the stereo come standard in the SL-trim Sentra, but you have to get the navigation option for Bluetooth audio streaming. As is typical in cars these days, the USB port also supports iOS device integration, and worked fine with my iPhone 5 through its Lightning-to-USB cable, showing a full music library on the touch screen.

As a connected bonus, Nissan includes Pandora integration with this head unit. With my iPhone cabled to the car, I could choose the Pandora audio option from the touch screen, then select any of my personalized stations. The integration worked seamlessly, even letting me switch back to the music loaded on my iPhone without a glitch. I have noticed that Pandora implementation in cars from other automakers can be buggy when trying to switch back to an iPhone's stored music library.

My one complaint about the Sentra's stereo is that it does not include a screen displaying all the audio sources. Instead, I had to repeatedly push a hard button on the stereo labeled Media to toggle through different sources. It would be nice to be able to see all available sources at a glance, on a single screen.

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
Model2013 Nissan Sentra
Power train1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy30 mpg city/39 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy28.2 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportStandard
Digital audio sourcesBluetooth streaming, Pandora, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio systemSix-speaker system
Driver aidsRearview camera
Base price$19,590
Price as tested$21,200
2013 Nissan Sentra

2013 Nissan Sentra

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 6Performance tech 5Design 6


Available Engine GasBody style Sedan