Nissan reworks compact Sentra for wider appeal
SAN FRANCISCO -- The redesigned 2013 Nissan Sentra that went on sale this month represents a change in strategy for Nissan North America. The company no longer will position the Sentra as a peripheral alternative to the compact sedan segment leaders, the high-volume Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Nissan now wants to put the Sentra dead center in the high-volume heart of the market.
The basics: Over the past decade, the Sentra has lost sales ground not only to the Corolla and Civic but to other compact sedans, such as the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. The Sentra once sold more than 200,000 units a year. But more recently, it has been selling half of that -- at a time when consumers are moving to smaller, fuel-efficient cars.
For the Sentra's seventh generation, Nissan has tried to hit compact sedan buyers' hot buttons.
Fuel economy: Nissan now claims segment-leading fuel economy for traditional internal-combustion vehicles, boasting 30 mpg city/39 highway/34 combined with its continuously variable transmission.
Space: The Sentra has an enlarged trunk. It has more front headroom, front legroom and rear legroom than the segment's top competitors.
Resemblance to the brand's top seller: Possibly most important for the brand, the 2013 Sentra bears a clear design connection to Nissan's highest volume product, the Altima sedan. The design disconnect between the previous Sentra and the Altima was an intentional move that didn't pay off. Nissan had wanted a Sentra that was "something different" to appeal to customers who did not buy the Altima. The real-world result, though, was that customers often left the dealership without buying anything. Nissan now wants customers to feel that when they opt for the smaller car, they are still getting the best of the Altima -- in design and technology.
Notable features: Nissan's challenge has been to turn the Sentra from an economy car into a compact that appeals to upwardly aspiring young families. The new Sentra receives LED accent lighting on headlights and taillights and a soft-touch interior cabin material with plush armrests and smooth contours around the center console. Options include a maple wood trim and leather seats and trim.
Starting with the car's SV trim level, which Nissan expects will be its high-volume package, the car is available with the NissanConnect information system. NissanConnect uses a 5.8-inch touch screen to display navigation, weather, Google-provided data for points of interest, hands-free text messaging and warnings for upcoming curves in the road. A RearView Monitor display comes onto the screen when the car is in reverse.
Despite the improvements, Nissan has reduced the Sentra's starting price. For an entry-level S the starting price with a manual transmission is $16,770, including shipping -- a reduction of $440 from the 2012 model. An S with a new generation continuously variable transmission has a starting price of $18,040, including shipping.
What Nissan says: "Customers in this segment really want it all," Fred DePerez, Nissan North America's chief marketing manager for the Sentra, said at a press event here. "They want the technology. They want distinctive styling. And they don't want to have to pay extra for it."
Shortcomings and compromises: One key to the Sentra's higher fuel economy was switching to a smaller 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with 130 hp and 128 pounds-feet of torque. The 2012 Sentra had a 2.0-liter engine that delivered 140 hp and 147 pounds-feet of torque. The new engine and CVT combination delivers a surprisingly fast and smooth acceleration and a satisfying 0 to 60 mph. But beyond 60 can be an effort. To satisfy more pressing market concerns, Nissan has given up some of the Sentra's highway power.
The market: The compact segment will be a battleground in the coming years, with competitors turning up the heat on packaging and technology, as Nissan has now done. The automaker believes the compact market will grow from about 2.1 million sales this year to nearly 2.4 million in 2015.
The skinny: The Sentra has an established a foothold in the segment. Nissan's mission is to see if the model can become a market leader.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.