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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.