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July 29, 2013

Nissan Sentra is bigger, more upscale for 2013

Nissan made two bold moves when redesigning the 2013 Sentra.

First, it did a particularly good job on the tried-and-true plan for freshening compact cars: make it bigger, smoother, quieter, nicer and prettier looking.

The new generation Sentra does all that, which makes it a dramatically better car than the rather forgettable 2012 model. It's a big step above the Versa sedan, which currently slots at the bottom of Nissan's sedan lineup, and is closer to what drivers used to expect from the mid-size Altima.

It's a solid-feeling car, one that doesn't seem like the bargain-basement economy car that the Sentra was 10 years ago. It's a more grown-up car now, aimed at "professionals" who want something mature, comfortable and stylish.

A new look for the body, complete with Audi-style LED accents, and classy cabin materials are a big part of that.

But the second major change is a geeky mechanical advancement found deep within the Sentra's transmission: a sub-planetary gear.

For some background, Nissan has been deeply committed to continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), and the new Sentra includes a big, noticeable advancement in CVT technology.

CVTs don't typically have traditional gears with teeth. Instead, they have a system of pulleys that change the gear ratio depending on the vehicle's speed, making the car feel like it's powered by rubber bands.

Personally, while I understand the logic behind them, I've never been a fan of CVTs because they don't feel as responsive as a modern, traditional automatic with real gears in it.

In this new Sentra, though, I had my best CVT experience to date. This transmission uses what Nissan calls a sub-planetary gear to shift between very high and very low ranges, which means the transmission can use smaller pulleys and respond faster to input from the driver.

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