c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

If the redesigned 2013 Sentra has hit its target, what was Nissan aiming at?

The car does everything its competitors in the compact sedan class do, but it doesnít do anything better than any of them.

Itís styled to mimic its bigger brother, the curvy new Altima, but somehow manages to look frumpy anyway. And while it seems ruggedly built, thereís no surface the driver touches that feels as if itís of superior quality.

The new Sentra is relentlessly and comprehensively average.

Average was perhaps enough when the Sentra faced only halfhearted U.S. competition, Korean cars were awful and the only real alternatives were the generic Toyota Corolla and Hondaís perennially excellent Civic.

Today, though, Fordís Focus is great, Chevrolet has stepped way up with the Cruze, and Hyundai and Kia have developed solid compact cars to go with their extended warranties and keen pricing.

And if you really want a small car that drives well, you skip over Honda and Toyota altogether and go out and get a Mazda 3.

Unlike many so-called redesigns, which are actually updates of existing models, this Sentra is built on new vehicle architecture that, Nissan says, is 150 pounds lighter than the outgoing modelís while also marginally larger than the car that came before. Thereís nothing radical about this new platform ó like virtually every compact sedan, it is a front-drive car with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a simple torsion-beam axle in the back ó but its newness does have advantages.

Besides the weight loss, this new Sentra is noticeably stiffer than the previous car. And when a door is slammed shut, thereís a slightly tinny thump instead of a profoundly tinny twang.

The wheelbase now stretches out 106.3 inches, which is 0.6 inch longer than the 2012 modelís, but also 1.2 inches longer than the Honda Civic sedanís and exactly the same as the redesigned 2014 Toyota Corollaís.

So, not surprisingly, Nissanís claim of 37.4 inches of rear legroom is exactly 1.2 inches greater than what Honda states for the Civic. Still, Toyota asserts that the Corollaís rear legroom stretches out another 4 inches beyond that, to 41.4 inches. Go figure.

Even more surprising, Nissan says the larger Altima midsize sedan, with a wheelbase of 109.3 inches, has only 36.1 inches of rear legroom. So, again, go figure.

But the new platform has also allowed Nissan to lower the beltline, which runs across the base of the windows. This means thereís more glass along the sides, and this produces an airier cabin that seems roomier. And the cockpit is, while short of luxurious in the top-of-the-line SL trim grade that I drove, attractive. The seats are squishy and not particularly supportive, but they look good.

The dash looks something like a wave that builds from the right to the left where it crests over the instrumentation. And those instruments exist on a single plane, are easily read and glow with a particular brilliance at night. Like many of todayís cars, the Sentra SL now starts with the push of a button that glows orange in anticipation when the key fob is detected nearby.

Like every manufacturer, Nissan is obsessed with integrating its onboard entertainment systems with whatever digital doodad the driver carries on board. The system in the Sentra nicely plucked music out of my iPhone 4S via Bluetooth, neatly displayed the songs it was playing on the available 5.8-inch touch screen in the center of the dash and sounded great. And if the touch screen is too much of a reach, there are redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Naturally Pandora, satellite radio and every known communications system more modern than the semaphore can be plumbed into the system.

Thereís even a feature that allows voice control over text messaging with some phones, which I wasnít able to test only because no one texts me. Everyone I know prefers to yell in my face.

The available navigation system ó a $650 option ó works well and displays in 3-D graphics if so desired. Thatís cheap compared with, say, the $1,500 premium that Honda asks for a Civic with a navigation system. But itís still expensive compared with the $180 that Best Buy normally charges for a Garmin 2555LMT ó and was on sale last week for $160.

If the SL is too indulgent, there are five less ritzy trim levels. Prices start at $16,800 for the Sentra S stripper model, proceed up to the mainstream SV at $18,200 and reach $20,550 for the SL before options. The tested SL carried a navigation system and premium package that knocked the price to $22,250. Adding leather seats would cost another $1,030.

Powering all Sentras is a 1.8-liter double-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine with continuously variable timing on the intake and exhaust valves. Rated at a modest 130 horsepower, the engine comes hooked to a standard six-speed manual transmission in the Sentra S. All other Sentras come with a continuously variable transmission without the discrete gears of a conventional automatic.

Nissan has embraced CVTs more enthusiastically than any other carmaker, and these have steadily become better through the years. But while the CVT in the Sentra is among the best that Nissan has built, when the accelerator pedal is thumped to the floor it still lets the engine rev up to near its torque peak of 3,600 rpm and stay there as the car accelerates. That still results in an irritating drone and not much speed.

Edmunds.com measured the Sentra accelerating to 60 mph in a leisurely 9.4 seconds and trotting through the quarter-mile in 17.4 seconds at 79.8 mph.

Under part-throttle acceleration ó where most people drive most of the time ó the CVT is relatively easygoing. And partly because the gearbox is simple and efficient, the Sentra carries a solid federal economy rating of 30 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway.

But considering how crisply the six-speed automatics in cars like the Focus and Hyundai Elantra perform, the Sentraís CVT feels wilted.

That same unmoored feel is present in the electrically assisted power steering. The 17-inch tires on aluminum wheels suggest a solid footprint on the road, but thereís never any sense of that connection. In compensation, the Sentra does ride well and handles itself with dignity (and minimal initial impact harshness) over most bumps.

Ultimately, the Sentra seems unambitious, as if it were engineered as a place holder instead of as a robust competitor in its market segment. Itís hard to see where the Sentraís advantages lie.

The Sentra has been around since 1982, and this new car represents its seventh generation. Perhaps the only remarkable thing about the Sentra is how consistent its character has been through those 32 years. Like all those other Sentras ó with the notable exception of the 1991-4 SE-R ó this one is simple, straightforward, unassuming and boring.