Compact cars rank among the more in-demand vehicles at dealers these days, and there's good reason for that; most outclass what a midsize sedan could offer several years ago, and no longer sport bargain-basement looks or option lists. Here's the latecomer to the party, the 2013 Nissan Sentra, a much-needed update that's bigger, more efficient and more likely to lure shoppers glancing at the Hyundai Elantra. Even though its new from the ground-up for the first time since 2007, the Sentra sticks to the worn formula of small cars; the most unusual engineering choice is the use of Nissan's continuously variable transmission as the only automatic choice. That system, paired with a new 130-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine gives the Sentra a fuel economy rating of up to 40 mpg on the highway and what Nissan claims is a best-in-class combined EPA rating of 34 mpg. Also helping the cause: a body that's 150 lbs. lighter than the previous generation.
Outside, the Sentra has been liberated from the unattractive angled design of the past and given Nissan's current look with its larger chrome grille and flowing bodylines. It's 2.3 inches longer, but slightly narrower and lower; the interior volume is a tic larger, with more room carved out for rear-seat passengers. And like all new cars, if you want an info disco in your dash, Nissan will oblige with a touch screen that carries the Bluetooth and the satellite radio and the Pandora streaming music and whatnots.
Two years ago, this Sentra would have been a big deal. A year ago, it would have been current. Today, it's following strong redesigns of the Elantra, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze and VW Jetta -- not to mention running updates from the Honda and Toyota. Even the Kia Forte has become a player for this corner of the lot. There's no pricing yet, but like every other challenge Nissan faces with the Sentra, the template has been set.