New models of Nissan Sentra and Pathfinder hint at what's to come

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These are busy times for Nissan. Besides introducing several new models in 2012, the Japanese company is on track to unveil at least two more in 2013 and recently held the Canadian launch of two of its most popular models—the Sentra and the Pathfinder—in Vancouver.

With a completely new body style and mechanicals, the seventh generation, built-in-Mexico Sentra couldn’t be more different from its predecessor.

For starters, gone is the stodgy, outdated body style. In its place is a sleek, contemporary-looking sedan that represents a bit of a market shift for Nissan. “The new Sentra is aimed at buyers who aren’t necessarily looking for an ‘economy car’ as such,” explains Nissan Canada senior manager of product planning Tim Franklin. “It’s as much a concept statement as it is a new car.”

Longer and taller than its predecessor, the new Sentra will be powered by a revamped 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that develops 130 horsepower. Among other things, this engine has a “smart” alternator that disengages itself during acceleration to lessen engine load and, theoretically at least, enhance fuel economy and performance.

Unfortunately, this engine is mated to a constantly variable transmission, but Nissan has wisely also madea six-speed manual gearbox  available with certain models. Adding about $1,000 to the price of the car, the CVT has three built-in driving modes—Normal, Eco, and Sport—and the new power train delivers the best fuel economy in this segment. A combined average of 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres apparently puts it ahead of the Hyundai Elantra, the Mazda3, the Chevy Cruze, the Ford Focus, and even the Honda Civic, according to Nissan.

Elsewhere, expect a new, refreshed interior layout that isn’t quite as proletarian as the last version. One of the most commonly heard criticisms of the previous version of the Sentra (and the Versa, for that matter) was about the plasticky, overly utilitarian interior layout. That seems to be gone now, and Nissan is claiming that the Sentra has one of the largest trunks and roomiest back seats in this category. Its closest rival in this regard is the Chevy Cruze.

This is an important model for Nissan. The compact-sedan market is the biggest in Canada, and it’s growing. Just look at the success of models such as the new Elantra and Cruze, and you can see that Canadian consumers are moving toward nicely equipped, fuel-efficient sedans in growing numbers. Nissan wants a piece of that action.

Prices for the new 2013 Sentra will range from $14,898 for a base S model with a manual transmission to $22,998 for a well-equipped SV with a CVT. There are plenty of options, too, including a navi system, heated seats, Sirius satellite radio, a climate-control system, a sunroof, and so on.

Moving on to the Pathfinder, this, too is an upmarket shift for Nissan. Initially, the Pathfinder was meant to be a rough-and-tumble SUV that could function perfectly well in the city but was also up for serious off-road duty. It can still go off-road, to a point, but it’s become more citified than before.

This is due in no small measure to a new unibody body structure, as opposed to the body-on-frame setup of the previous version. According to Nissan’s Franklin, unibody construction is lighter, which translates into a weight loss—about 500 pounds overall—and, consequently, better fuel economy. It also makes things easier to “package”, in terms of extras and options.

“The Pathfinder is still an SUV,” Franklin maintains, “but not a crossover.” The latter rigs tend to be models like the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, the Nissan Murano, and so on. The new Pathfinder’s fuel economy is slightly superior to that of models such as the Honda Pilot, the Ford Explorer, and the Chevy Traverse, according to the company, and about on par with the Toyota Highlander.

Power duties will be handled by a 3.5-litre V-6 engine that Nissan has been utilizing for at least the past decade—with various refinements along the way, of course. In this configuration it develops some 260 horsepower, with a chain-driven CVT being the only transmission choice. Nissan is claiming that the new Pathfinder is the first midsize SUV to have a CVT and, in response to critics, points out that it has sold over nine million vehicles worldwide equipped with its CVT. Whether this non-gearbox transmission can stand up over the long haul (off-roading, trailer-towing, et cetera) in a vehicle of this size remains to be seen. The bottom line is that Nissan has committed to CVT technology wholeheartedly, and buyers who want an automatic transmission are getting it whether they like it or not.

The new Pathfinder will be offered in a range of trim levels and will be available with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. With the former drive-train layout, prices start at $29,998 for the S model; with the latter, they run up to $45,198 for a loaded Platinum Premium model.

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