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The 2013 Nissan Sentra is aimed at buyers seeking ‘value’. In other words, people who don’t want to spend a lot. (Nissan)
The 2013 Nissan Sentra is aimed at buyers seeking ‘value’. In other words, people who don’t want to spend a lot. (Nissan)

Brand Strategy

Nissan Sentra faces tough competition in compact car category Add to ...

Nissan has thrown down its cards in the compact car game and, as its 2013 Sentra rolls into dealer showrooms at the end of the month, this Japanese car company looks to have a pretty good hand.

Nissan has no choice, really. In a new light vehicle market of what will be 1.7 million this year, compact car sales will account for 340,000, according to Nissan Canada senior product planning manager Tim Franklin. By 2016, he adds, nearly 360,000 Canadians will buy a Nissan Sentra, or a Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3, or even a Volkswagen Jetta. Whew! Today, seven of the top 10 best-selling cars in Canada are compacts.

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And the Sentra isn’t one of them. Nissan dealers I’ve spoken with, in fact, have bemoaned the lack of a compelling, competitive Sentra. They have been unhappy for some time now, in fact. The outgoing 2012 Sentra has been a bland, underperforming small car playing against some truly compelling rivals. The reality in Canada is that no mainstream car company can be taken seriously without an affordable, reliable, fuel-efficient and practical small car for the masses – something that’s well equipped at a starting price of about $15,000 or less. Nissan needed to get into this game.

And it’s a tough one, too.

The 2013 Nissan Sentra is aimed at buyers seeking ‘value’. In other words, people who don’t want to spend a lot.
 

Ford, for instance, launched the latest Focus with racy styling, a base 160-horsepower engine, lots of available electronic do-dads and two body choices: sedan ($15,999) and hatchback ($19,599). Ford’s idea from the start has been to position the Focus as an upmarket compact car. Ride, handling, design and technology have been at the forefront of Ford’s message here. Personally, I’d argue that the Focus is the most entertaining compact out there from a driver’s perspective, but it’s also possible to load up a Focus with so many features, the price lands in $30,000-land. The Focus is Canada’s sixth best-selling car.

Or take Hyundai. The Elantra ($15,949 for the sedan, $19,149 for the GT hatchback) has made a name for itself with swoopy styling, a responsive and fuel-efficient engine and plenty of standard features for the price. Canadians have responded, too. The Elantra is Canada’s No. 2 seller and many believe that if Hyundai could get enough Elantras from the factory, it would unseat Honda’s Civic as Canada’s No. 1.

Ah, the Civic ($14,990). Just a little more than a year ago, Honda launched a reinvented Civic – a car met almost immediately with a barrage of criticism. The then-new Civic was, in the opinion of many, a step backward for Honda. As Consumer Reports put it, the redesigned Civic lost some of its trademark agility and refinement. The ride of the reinvented car had become choppy, stopping distances had increased, road noise was up and the quality of the interior had gone down. Still, the Civic has a loyal following and one thing remains true: this runabout is reliable.

The Toyota Corolla ($15,450) is, too. Canada’s third best-selling car is a bit on the dull side, and the current version will be replaced by an all-new Corolla next year. Yet, with the help of some juicy sale incentives and a loyal following, the Corolla soldiers on and on. Let’s face it: the Corolla has sterling reputation for reliability and because of it, the following remains loyal.

This brings us to the Mazda3 ($15,898 for the sedan, $16,895 for the hatchback). This Mazda’s calling card today is the SkyActiv powertrain – a slick engine paired with a choice new transmissions that put Mazda at the head of the pack when it comes to what’s under the hood. That said, the rest of the 3 is due for a remake and that’s coming next year.

Of the last two of the seven best-selling compacts in Canada, the Chevrolet Cruze (No. 5, with a starting price of $14,995) has the credentials of a solid all-around car. It’s roomy, with a nice interior. Fuel economy is among the class leaders and the Cruze is proving to be a dependable performer for its owners. No wonder Chevrolet is on track to sell one million Cruzes around the world this year.

Then there is Volkswagen’s Jetta ($15,875). The bigger, more affordable Jetta went from being an overpriced bit player among small cars, to an affordable one that today ranks as Canada’s No. 8 seller. VW’s formula has been simple: lower the Jetta’s price and make the car bigger. That formula has worked.

Into this fray comes the 2013 Sentra ($14,848). Franklin says it’s aimed at both twentysomethings and empty nesters. That confused me. I mean, millennials and baby boomers would not seem to have much in common, car-wise. Apparently they do.

They want “value,” which translates into a lot of car for not much money. They want to drive something with personality, not just an “economy car.” And not only do they want to spend as little as possible at the gas pump, they want fuel economy in a car that looks expensive and won’t break.

Nissan, says Franklin, knows all this. The plan has been to deliver a Sentra that will outshine others in all these ways – and in all the ways that grab attention for the Cruzes and Civics of the world.

The Sentra does look the part of an aspiring market leader. That’s not to say it will crack the top 10, but it is to say I like the low stance, the headlights with LED accents, the character line that runs down the length of the car at the side and even the silver door handles. Inside, it looks and feel refined, too. The places where your elbows and hands are likely to touch the car, you’ll find soft-touch materials, not bruising plastic.

Under the hood is a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower. It’s available with a six-speed manual or the fuel-thrifty continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Nissan says combined fuel economy comes in at 5.8 litres/100 km, which is best in class – better even than the Elantra at 5.9 combined and the Cruze Eco at 6.0. Not only is the Sentra’s engine/transmission combo good at saving fuel, the slick design (drag coefficient of 0.29) and a weight loss program have also contributed to the fuel economy story.

Yet the Sentra is bigger than before – with more back-seat legroom than a Corolla, Civic, Mazda3, Cruze, Focus and Elantra. All that and a bigger trunk, too.

Franklin argues these talking points, then ladles on the technology story. The new Sentra, he says, has NissanConnect with navigation, which includes a large colour touchscreen and a load of Google-driven information about points of interest, fuel prices and more. There’s also an available eight-speaker Bose sound system, Bluetooth connectivity and dual zone automatic temperature control.

Franklin’s pitch boils down to this: The 2013 Sentra is a player. The car looks the part of a “premium” compact car and has the technology to back up the image. Fuel economy is a winner, too, and the cabin has enough room to accommodate a family – young or older.

For me, well, my first experience was positive enough. This Sentra seems more Cruze– and Jetta-like than anything else. As with that pair, the Sentra is being sold only as a four-door sedan. That seems a mistake. Ford and Mazda, to name two, sell plenty of four-door hatchback versions of the Focus and the 3 – and if I were buying a compact car, I would only consider the versatility of a hatchback.

The Sentra also lacks the raw horsepower of many rivals, though clever throttle management and a lightweight design offset some of that lack of oomph. Realistically, I doubt many buyers will be disappointed by the Sentra’s acceleration and everyone will like the fuel economy.

Yes, Nissan is in now in the compact car game in a real way. It’s about time.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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