Some of the auto industry’s biggest sellers reside in the compact-car segment. Names such as Civic, Corolla and Focus are recognized immediately by most American car buyers.

Nissan wants the same success for its Sentra but failed to find it with the prior-generation model.

WardsAuto data shows Sentra sales hit their zenith with 119,489 units in 2005, the year before the outgoing sixth generation was introduced.

Sentra demand declined in subsequent years, until growing back to 114,991 last year, but still falling short of the 200,000-300,000 of the car’s rivals.

The new Sentra, at Nissan U.S. dealers now, hopes to run with the big boys once again.

No compact sedan checks all the boxes. But the new model, after test drives in San Francisco and Detroit, is merely adequate.

The ’13 Sentra has a high-quality interior, with good fit and finish; spacious cabin; and estimated average fuel economy of 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km), which several WardsAuto editors achieved easily during Detroit-area testing.

But there’s too much coarse-sounding engine racket permeating the cabin, even in the upper trim levels.

The Sentra rides on Nissan’s new C-platform, which means its dimensions have grown, helping improve interior roominess in nearly all seating positions, as well as increasing trunk volume.

The Nissan compact exceeds almost all the other players in the segment in terms of rear legroom, with 37.4 ins. (95.0 cm). However, because of the car’s low roofline, rear headroom of 36.7 ins. (93.2 cm) is less than all its major competitors, including the Ford Focus’ 38.0 ins. (96.5 cm).

On the upside, the low profile contributes to snappier styling when compared with the awkwardly tall previous-generation model.

The Sentra and upsized Dodge Dart roughly tie for class-leading interior volume of 110.0 cu.-ft. (3.1 cu.-m).

The Sentra is powered by a 1.8L 4-cyl., rather than the 2.0L I-4 from the outgoing car. Nissan claims the engine is “all new,” however there is a scant amount of shared content with the Versa subcompact hatchback’s 1.8L, a Nissan spokesman says.

While the 130-hp rating and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) of torque exceed the 122 hp and 127 lb.-ft. (172 Nm) in the Versa 5-door, the ’13 Sentra’s engine specs lag many competitors and Nissan’s own outgoing 2.0L I-4, which delivered 140 hp and 147 lb.-ft. (199 Nm).

Nissan credits engine improvements for the majority – 29% – of the 34-mpg mileage figure.

Twin continuously variable valve timing control is used on both intake and exhaust cams; the stroke is lengthened beyond what is typical for a 1.8L, to 90.1 mm, matching that of the old 2.0L; and beehive-shaped valve springs with a smaller diameter near the top lessen inertia weight to improve engine responsiveness.

The Sentra uses Nissan’s smart alternator, which decouples from the engine and battery while the car is accelerating, thwarting power loss and improving fuel efficiency. The alternator re-engages to recharge the battery via the brakes and drivetrain, the auto maker says.

Once again, the Sentra gets a continuously variable transmission in lieu of a step-gear automatic. The CVT is reworked, however, with a 7-speed-automatic-like 7.3:1 gear ratio and runs more efficiently in both low- and high-gear ratios.

Friction, the enemy of good fuel economy, is reduced 30% from the prior-generation CVT, while weight is down 13% and overall size drops 10%, Nissan says.

The auto maker, long a proponent of manual transmissions, relegates a 6-speed manual to the base S- grade ’13 model.

Thanks to more applications of light high-strength steel, plus a smaller fuel tank, the Sentra loses 150 lbs. (68 kg).

An Eco mode, one of three driver selections along with Normal and Sport, reduces air-conditioning draw on the engine. All three modes vary throttle response and transmission tuning.

While some might question the torsion-beam rear suspension, carried over from the previous Sentra, it is agreeable during testing of the SL grade Sentra. The SL is a welcome relief from the SV’s bouncy, nauseating ride.

Nissan officials say the suspensions are identical between the SV and SL trims, but the SV has 16-in. steel wheels, as does the base S, while the SL and sport-oriented SR ride on 17-in. alloys.

Those living in switchback country who like to drive aggressively on these curvy roads should think twice about the Sentra.

A drive along miles of twisties from San Francisco to Napa Valley amplifies the car’s high steering ratio, 18.6:1. Arms and shoulders scream after hours at the wheel.

Loud engine noise infiltrates the cabin of all test cars, even under moderate acceleration, and gas-pedal vibration is felt consistently, including during steady-state cruising.

The next-gen CVT lacks the rubber-band feel of older units but isn’t responsive enough in some situations, such as when a traffic light suddenly turns from red to green upon approach.

Nissan invested well in the Sentra’s interior. Quality materials, including a soft-touch skin on the instrument panel and soft, suede-like fabric are attractive, complementing the flowing lines and few hard angles.

The front seats’ un-adjustable lumbar support is uncomfortable at first but after hours of sitting proves welcome.

Fit and finish is good, with plastic door pockets free of flashing and pillar trim that fits evenly and tightly.

Exterior styling for the new Sentra is improved, but perhaps not enough. The car’s proportions are good, but the design is a bit too straightforward and simplistic. It doesn’t set hearts aflutter as does the Hyundai Elantra, which abolishes the notion that high volume only comes with bland looks.

The ’13 Sentra starts at $15,990 for the 6MT S grade, $440 less than the ’12 base car. The price hits $19,760 for a top-of-the-line SL, comparing favorably with the ’12 Civic and other compacts.

Option packages boost prices.

The fuel-economy-focused FE+ package, which includes low-rolling-resistance tires and additional underbody panels, is $400.

Kudos to Nissan for its $650 navigation system, one of the industry’s lowest-priced, but Bluetooth should be available separate from a $1,000 package for SV and SR grades.

As with most compact cars, Nissan is targeting college graduates, singles or childless couples, with an annual household income of $50,000.

For those wanting a roomy backseat, affordable navigation, good fuel economy and straightforward styling, the Sentra is a good choice.

But those with sensitive ears might wants to keep shopping.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'13 Nissan Sentra SL
Vehicle type 4-door, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger compact passenger car
Engine 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 130 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 79.7 x 90.1
Compression ratio 9.9:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 182.1 ins. (463 cm)
Overall width 69.3 ins. (176 cm)
Overall height 58.9 ins. (150 cm)
Curb weight 2,851 lbs. (1,293 kg)
Base price $15,990 (SL $19,760, neither includes $780 handling)
Fuel economy 30/39 mpg (7.8/6.0 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Jetta, Dodge Dart
Pros Cons
Quality interior materials $1,000 Bluetooth for SV, SR grades
Fuel-efficient engine What? Can’t hear you.
Roomy backseat Front seat lumbar un-adjustable