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2013 Sentra: Reborn pennywise, pretty

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POSTED March 13, 2013 6:08 p.m.

The redesigned Nissan Sentra is an economy compact with aspirations for midsize greatness.

The seventh generation of this model has been given a big beauty makeover with similarities in structure and styling to the 2013 Altima sedan. It is a new platform and 150 pounds lighter with slightly larger overall dimensions and more interior room. For example, rear seat legroom of 37.4 inches improves by almost three inches and trunk space of 15.1 cubic foot trunk is two cubes bigger than before.

The weight savings also allowed for a smaller engine, a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder with a standard six-speed manual or optional CVT. (For California and other states with similar emissions laws, horsepower is 124 with 125 foot-pounds torque.)

Nissan claims Sentra has the highest combined mileage — city/highway — of 34 mpg among compacts. The Fuel Economy Plus models (FE+) are estimated to get 40 mpg on the highway. Standard models are rated 30 mpg city, 39 highway on 87 octane.

Starting prices range from $16,770, with six-speed manual transmission, to $20,540. The FE+ model starts at $18,440. Pricing includes the $780 freight charge from Canton, Miss.

Standard features include remote keyless entry, air conditioning with microfilter, tilt and telescopic steering column, power windows with driver's one-touch auto up/down with auto reverse, four-speaker CD-MP3 audio system, six-way manual driver's seat and four-way manual front passenger's seat

The SV tester was $18,750 to start and $21,600 as-tested, comfortably equipped with entry-luxury conveniences.

First impressions are meaningful: The front door grabs are in the ideal position for max leverage. The door and center armrests are comfortably padded. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a meaty grip, which translates to a reassurance of safety.

My iPhone connected with the Bluetooth in nanoseconds, and I was on my way quickly with good views of the hood and shoulder.

With 125 foot-pounds of torque, take-off can be tire-chirping quick, with brisk acceleration up to cruising speed. But there is noticeable engine groan as the engine and CVT hustle performance. The CVT's finesse is in delivering fuel economy, which for me averaged 34 mpg around town and was moving north of 36 mpg on highway runs. I know the computer can give false positives and calculating mileage at fill-ups is the best mileage record — BUT other compact sedans I've tested struggle to get mileage anywhere near what the EPA claims.

The new foundation feels tight and solid, and the cabin is well isolated from road noise and harshness. The rear torsion-beam suspension can give jolts on rough patches of road, but the flat arrangement of the suspension pieces allows for a huge trunk of 15.1 cubic feet.

The front seat area is tidy and compact. But there isn't an ideal location to drop your iPhone and the covered ash tray and lighter seem to take up space more valuable to this market. The fabric seats feel plush, but after an hour on the road my butt felt as if it were sagging through straps on a lawn chair. And I wanted more lumbar for my lower back. It's possible the leather-trimmed seat option may be more supportive.

Only the sporty SR and top-line SL get four-wheel disc brakes. But the standard setup of front discs and rear drums seemed an acceptable budget item without compromise in my testing.

And there are upscale options including a navigation system 5.8-inch color screen, which also works with a rearview camera, Bluetooth streaming audio and phone connection, a Pandora radio app and leather-trimmed upholstery.

Combine those assets with the upscale options on the test car, and the package becomes a commuter's haven.

This sedan compact segment has strong competition in the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra, to name a few. In a segment of cars that once were known as "Cheap and Cheerful," Sentra is now penny-wise and pretty.

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