In the 1800s, among America's numerous internal wars bloomed the promotion of the unregulated and untested category of pills, tinctures, creams, drops, powders, liniments and ointments known as patent medicines. These nostrums had been around since ancient times, but with the rise of cheap newsprint, paid advertising and a gullible populace seeking refuge from industrial existence, their advertisement found a frantic foothold, erupting in newspapers, almanacs and at sponsored Medicine Shows, claiming to cure everything from melancholy to syphilis.
Most contained the same impactful (if addictive, and decidedly off-label) active ingredients: grain alcohol, cocaine, novocaine, and/or opiates. So to differentiate themselves, these elixirs played up the inclusion of exotic additives like radon and cresyl phosphate, or mild to useless herbs like baobab, cayenne, and camphor. And they initiated an early form of branding, repeating their names (Bayer! Luden's! Vicks!) ad-infinitum until they became household names, associated permanently with specific, if at times arcane, benefits.
This same phenomenon can been seen today among compact cars -- although, sadly, with less cocaine.
At the recent launch of the all-new 2013 Nissan Sentra, in addition to banners touting requisite claims of best-in-class legroom, two-score highway mileage and a list of amenities that would shame a mid-90s Mercedes E-Class, was a billboard-sized placard. On it was emblazoned the shiny schnoz and (standard!) L.E.Dazzled headlamps of the new Sentra, along with smaller and less flattering images of its archrivals from Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai. After we got over our surprise that the Corolla is still being made (we think of it as the Bil Keane of cars, and assumed it had finally died with him) we read this claim: "The 2013 Sentra has a new grille with more chrome and paint than any other category competitor."
Welcome to the Medicine Show. While most cars in this class were once variations on the same theme — Has Four Wheels! —allowing the cream to rise to the top of the market share pie, modern models have become impossibly competent and competitive. So much so that Nissan, which has sold some 4.3 million Sentras over the past 30 years, has to sharpen some semblance of competitive edge, however specious, just to keep its brand top of mind.
Speaking of edge, this may be the only time a version of that word will ever be used in association with the new Sentra, as this car is almost cumulous in its execution. This is not to say attention wasn't paid to details; it was, as evidenced by their sheer size and quantity. There's lustrous and pendulous door handles that sit strangely low on the door and look like they should be attached to an eight hundred-pound kettle bell; a pronounced character line straking the body's length, like the seam along Joan Rivers' back where the skin lifted from her front are stitched together; and a soft, wide-winged dashboard that resembles something out of a tampon ad.
Not surprisingly, we feel the overall design is unresolved. The daylight openings — windows and windshields — are stylishly kempt. But the tail looks like an ill-fitting graft from a Camry, the front end looks like Sally Draper wearing her stepmom's hip and oversized sunglasses, and the doors and wheel openings look like a boxer who's been on extended bed rest: the muscles are present, but atrophied.
And driving? Well, yes it does, sort of. The Sentra's 130-hp four-cylinder seems like it should be a respectable means of propulsion for a compact car, given how indistinguishable it is from other compacts. Yet while the new Sentra weighs 150 lbs. less than the previous one, it still tops 2,850 lbs. in decent trim, making the powerplant feel as burdened as an Ohio political robocaller. Not helping matters is the fact that the engine is mated—except in the $16,000 stripper model, which comes with a pluckless manual—to Nissan's freshened continuously variable transmission. It features an infinite number of ratios, 27 percent of them quiet enough to make you question whether the car is running, 73 percent of them howly enough to cause a friction headache and none of them feeling the least bit fast or furious. Yes, the fuel economy benefits are undeniable -- highway mileage can top 40 mpg -- but we worry that Nissan has hitched its star to CVTs the way Mazda once hitched its to rotary engines: a radical solution seeking a reasonable Reason to Believe.
Nissan hinted that it is aware of the driver-centricity once baked into its Sentras in SE-R guise, and told us that, "this sporty heritage has not been forgotten." Whether or not this means that we're going to see another, more entertaining Sentra in the future, we can't say. But driving this one leaves us feeling like we've been asked to take our medicine.
2013 Nissan Sentra
Four-door compact sedan
1.8-liter inline 4 cylinder
Continuously variable automatic; 6-sp. manual
3.5 tons CO2/year
30 mpg city /39 mpg highway
$15,990 - $19.760
Excitement not an available option
Salve for the aching bank account