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Test Drive: 2013 Nissan Sentra

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     (Nissan)

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     (Nissan)

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     (Nissan)

Honey, I shrunk the Altima!

Not literally, but…well, yea, just about.

The 2013 Nissan Sentra is the 7/8ths scale spitting image of its big sister sedan. The chrome grille, flowing bodywork, and boomerang lights? All there, just pocket-size.

But the all-new Sentra takes the style thing one step further with a set of LED accents under each headlight cluster. They might have been distinctive if they weren’t arranged in simple straight lines, but since they’re the only standard ones in the competitive compact segment you can be sure that the salesman will point them out. Often.

Behind them is a 130 hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder that delivers 39-40 mpg on the highway, depending on the model, and a best-in-class 34 mpg combined. That’s for cars fitted with the CVT automatic transmission, which start at $18,110. A $16,780 six-speed manual version checks out at 30 mpg combined.

Further back, you’ll find a spacious cabin that’s easily accessed through large door openings and nicely appointed with a variety of colors and high-quality trim that avoids the monochromatic trap many econoboxes fall into. Legroom is plentiful front and rear, and visibility is top-notch all around.

The trunk? Fit for spelunking.

Overall, the Sentra is a relatively elegant little car with a ride to match. It’s comfortable with no sporting intentions, instead focused on soaking up the ruts and ridges carved into urban pavement, and it does this very well.

The only thing noticeably unrefined about it is the engine. Unfortunately, that’s something you notice every time you pull onto a highway. Under hard acceleration it moans like a sick coffeemaker, a noise exaggerated by the way the CVT works, sending the engine to the upper reaches of its rpm limit as the shiftless transmission changes its “gear” ratios catch up. The flipside, and upside, is that once you are at speed it goes into super-overdrive and the motor barely makes a sound.

Nissan is pitching the new Sentra as the most innovative ever, which might technically be true, but it doesn’t really move the technology bar in any direction compared to its peers. Bluetooth and USB connectivity aren't even available on all models, and you won't find a blind spot warning system on the options list.

That said, the Sentra can be had with a comprehensive and reasonably priced $650 infotainment system that includes Pandora integration and Google Send-To-Car-compatible navigation. It has an unfussy and intuitive interface, but there are still plenty of buttons and knobs on the center console for audio and climate control so you don’t have to rely on the touch screen for simple tasks. (Counter-intuitively that may be the innovation Nissan is referring to.)

As everyday value heroes go, the Sentra checks all of the right boxes, just like the Altima does. Sales of that car have gone through the roof recently, and there’s no reason to expect its little sister won’t follow.

As low-budget sequels go, the Sentra ain’t half, or even 1/8th bad.

"Honey, I Blew Up the Kid?" That's a different story.

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2013 Nissan Sentra

Base Price: $16,780

As Tested: $23,490

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan

Engine: 1.8-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 130 hp, 128 lb-ft torque

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 30 city/39 hwy