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2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Compact Competitive Comparison

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
March 4, 2013
7 min. Reading Time

It's a time of renewal in the compact segment where the past few years have seen several members of the old guard rejuvenated in order to stay current and continue to capture a slice of this increasingly competitive area of the market.  Two of the compact world's major players - the Nissan Sentra and the Mazda MAZDA3 - have both been significantly updated over the course of the last 12 months.  What is interesting, however, are the very different tacks taken by each respective Japanese brand in bringing new life to their entry-level sedans.

Naturally, the corporate behemoth that is Nissan is in a better position to thoroughly revamp a particular model, and this shines through in the 2013 Nissan Sentra which has seen a wide variety of changes made to its platform, styling, and drivetrain.  Comparatively smaller Mazda has to be more judicious about the upgrades it applies to its vehicles, which explains why the 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 wears very similar duds compared to previous models but packs a new and explosively efficient engine and transmission combination that vaults it to the front of a very frugal pack.

Two car companies, two compact sedans, and two diverse approaches to making something old new again.  Let's see how these entry-level rivals stack up against each other.

2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Pricing and Trim Levels

The 2013 Nissan Sentra provides buyers with several different trim levels, starting with the base S (MSRP $15,990) and ending up with the SL (MSRP $19,820).  Entry-level Sentra S models comes with steel 16-inch wheels, power windows and door locks, a basic entertainment system, and air conditioning, while paying the extra cash for the SL introduces 17-inch allow wheels, dual climate controls, wood trim, an upgraded stereo with an LCD display, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, automatic headlights, keyless entry, and greater access to options packages.  There are also four versions of the Sentra sandwiched between the S and the SL: the SV, the SR (which comes with a sporty body kit), and FE + versions of the S and the SV which are focused on fuel efficiency.

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 is available in both sedan and hatchback editions, but for the purposes of this comparison I will focus exclusively on the four-door model.  Getting behind the wheel of the least-expensive version of the Mazda MAZDA3 sedan, the i SV, will cost you more than the comparable Sentra (MSRP $16,700).  Despite the additional cash outlay, the base MAZDA3 essentially matches the Sentra in terms of features.  Moving past the i Sport, the i Touring, and the i Grand Touring editions of the sedan brings you to the s Grand Touring (MSRP $24,350), which reigns from the top of the model ladder with heated leather seats, Internet radio, a navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity (only available as an option with the Sentra), HD radio, a dual exhaust, rain-sensing windshield wipers, adaptive HID headlights, better brakes, LED tail lights, a rear spoiler, and a host of other comfort items.

Winner: What's clear when comparing the pricing structure of the Sentra and the MAZDA3 is that the Nissan is more oriented towards providing basic transportation that can be customized via options packages while the Mazda aims to offer comprehensive models in place of customization.  The Sentra gets the nod here for its value-based pricing - especially at the entry-level - but it's important to note that loading up the Nissan with Mazda3-levels of equipment sees the two vehicles rapidly approaching price parity.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Styling

The 2013 Nissan Sentra was in dire need of a visual refresh after years languishing in an inoffensive but clearly dated design backwater.  The new Sentra sports sheet metal that compares well against other members of the Nissan family, particularly the larger Altima, and the update keeps the small sedan recognizable while also giving it a maturity that has been missing from the older model.  Although it's not currently possible to order an SE-R high performance version of the Sentra as in years past, the SR trim level gives you most of the boy-racer looks despite being saddled with the stock drivetrain.  The interior of the 2013 Nissan Sentra follows a similarly grown-up theme, as smooth plastic trim covers the center console and the dash while hard plastics are minimized on the vehicle's door panels.

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 is a more arresting example of compact car style, with its extroverted grille, its large front fascia, and its curvier sheet metal.  That being said, the MAZDA3 doesn't stretch into the garish, with a perfectly respectable overall package balancing 'zoom-zoom' with a more conservative approach.  Inside the car, drivers will be pleased with the materials used throughout the MAZDA3's cabin, and LED lighting is used to great effect in creating a more upscale feel than would be expected in such an affordable automobile.

Winner:  It's a tie.  The Sentra presents a clean and simple interior, while the MAZDA3 displays more of a personality, and on the outside each car makes a well-reasoned play for the hearts and minds of compact shoppers.  It's really a matter of personal preference.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Comfort, Cargo, And Features

The 2013 Nissan Sentra offers a big interior for a compact car, and this is immediately obvious the first time you crack open one of its rear doors and gaze at the expansive amount of passenger room that is waiting for those assigned to ride in its back seat.  With a wheelbase that is 0.6 inches longer than the previous model, the Sentra has boosted interior volume an appreciable amount and it stands out in segment where front passengers typically enjoy the most comfortable accommodations.  The vehicle's trunk is equally spacious, capable of swallowing 15.1 cubic feet of gear.

The Sentra is adept at absorbing bumps in the road, and it never feels bouncy or skittish even when hitting potholes or construction leftovers.  You are always aware that you are behind the wheel of a small car, but one that feels solidly-made.  From an equipment perspective, the Nissan is not exactly bursting with high tech gear, and having to pay extra for features such as Bluetooth via the options list is a bit of an anachronism.  Don’t expect the same amount of advanced infotainment features in the Sentra that one might be able to find in the Ford Focus or the Chevrolet Cruze.

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 tells a similar story when it comes to its equipment levels.  Mazda includes very nice-to-have features such as Bluetooth connectivity for both phone calls and music streaming, and its heated leather seats were quite comfortable, if appropriately-trimmed for their price point.  Where the MAZDA3 lags behind the Sentra is passenger room.  Snug but acceptable up front, the Mazda is positively prison-like for backseat riders, with no room to stretch out for full-size adults shunted to the rear of the car.  The vehicle's trunk is also three cubic feet smaller than that of the Nissan.

Winner: The Sentra, which is positively enormous inside.  The MAZDA3 simply can't compete on passenger or cargo room, even though it does provide a very nice feature set.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Engines and Fuel Economy

The 2013 Nissan Sentra offers a 1.8-liter, 130 horsepower four-cylinder as its sole engine option.  New for the current model year, this unit also delivers 128 lb-ft of torque and can be matched to either a six-speed manual transmission or a continuously-variable automatic.  Fuel economy, when tethered to the latter, shows as 30-mpg city and 40-mpg highway (FE+ editions of the car).

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 provides a somewhat confusing trio of four-cylinder engine options.  The base motor displaces 2.0-liters and generates 148 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque, while the mid-tier Skyactiv-G engine (also 2.0-liters) pushes out 155 horses and 148 lb-ft of torque.  The most powerful MAZDA3 engine is a 2.5-liter mill that is good for 167 ponies and 168 lb-ft of twist.  Of the three, the Skyactiv-G returns the most impressive fuel economy, posting a rating of 28-mpg city and 40-mpg highway when matched with its optional six-speed automatic.  A five-speed auto, five-speed manual, and six-speed manual transmission are also available with the sedan, depending on engine choice.

Winner: The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 takes this one by a mile.  Not only is its Skyactiv engine more powerful than the Sentra's similarly-sized motor, but it also delivers comparable fuel economy.  Throw in two additional drivetrain options and Mazda has the Sentra beat in every department.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Driving Impressions

The 2013 Nissan Sentra is designed to go from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss and bother.  Neither exciting in its execution or engaging in its design, the Sentra's chassis provides steady and predictable driving in a wide variety of situations, benefiting from increased stability due to its lengthened chassis and what seems like softer suspension tuning compared to years past.

The Sentra's 1.8-liter engine is merely another cog in what happens to be a weaker mechanical package than it offered in 2012.  Exacerbating the fact that it generates fewer horses then the previous generation is the continuously-variable transmission it is yoked to.  Nissan typically excels at CVT tuning, but in the Sentra I had to push the Eco button in order to prevent the gearbox from revving the engine up to a very noisy 5,000 rpm and keeping it there under heavy acceleration.  All sound with no fury, the Sentra must be driven conservatively as it doesn't offer the ability to dart through traffic and steal an open spot between two other vehicles.  Fuel mileage, however, is quite strong, providing some solace for the mundanity of its mechanicals.

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 couldn't be more different.  The sedan's chassis offers far more exhilaration than one should reasonably anticipate from a vehicle that is so inexpensive, and it gives enthusiasts a commuter car option that is actually fun to drive.  The steering system's useful feedback is the antithesis of that provided by the Sentra, and although the suspension is adept at keeping the car flat while cornering it doesn't transmit any additional harshness when traveling over rough pavement.

Perhaps even more impressive is the way that the Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine doesn't compromise on drivability in order to squeeze out miles per gallon.  Giving you both reasonable power and excellent efficiency, there's no need to opt for the not-actually-quicker 2.5-liter unit or the less-frugal 2.0-liter base motor in the MAZDA3's lineup: it's Skyactiv-G all the way to get the best possible experience with the car.  The choice between a traditional manual or a automatic tranny also means you won't have to deal with the buzzing that is inherent in the Sentra's CVT.

Winner: The MAZDA3's ability to combine fun, frugality, and power in the same package indicates just how much care Mazda takes in developing its chassis and drivetrain packages, and wins this category.  The Sentra is a driving appliance, which is appealing to some, but in the face of far more competent and appealing competitors out there (beyond the MAZDA3) its hard to recommend it.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Safety

The 2013 Nissan Sentra is equipped with seat-mounted side airbags up front, dual forward airbags, side curtain airbags that deploy along the entire length of the cabin, and the option of four-wheel disc brakes (on certain models).  Electronic stability control and traction control are also standard.  Federal crash testing sees the Sentra earning four out of five possible stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 comes with the same complement of airbags as the Nissan Sentra, and it also features electronic traction control and stability control.  Where the MAZDA3 pulls ahead is with its standard four-wheel disc brakes and its available blind spot monitoring system.  The NHTSA also gives the Mazda a four out of five star crash safety rating.

Winner: The MAZDA3, due to its superior standard braking and available advanced safety system.


2013 Nissan Sentra vs. 2013 Mazda MAZDA3: Final Thoughts

The 2013 Mazda MAZDA3 triumphs over the 2013 Nissan Sentra in this comparison by a score of three to two, with one tie.  Are these two cars really as close as the voting would seem to indicate?  It all depends on your perspective.  The superior handling of the MAZDA3 is a point in its favor, but not every driver is looking to hit the apex of each corner on the way to work.  The Sentra's ride is just as composed as the Mazda's, and with its generous passenger room it handily cleans the clock of the MAZDA3 in terms of practicality and comfort.

The real issue here is the 2013 Nissan Sentra's drivetrain.  In attempting to keep up with the times, Nissan has saddled the Sentra with a drivetrain the errs on the side of sloth in favor of fuel mileage.  Unfortunately, most of the sedan's peers have been the target of engineering efforts that provide both power and efficiency in the same package.  If a small company like Mazda can get the job done, it's clear that Nissan could have achieved similar results.  There's still time for the automaker to re-tune its CVT, pump up the output of the sedan's four-cylinder engine, and make a more valiant effort to join the fuel-sipping party that won't see it lagging behind when the stoplight turns from red to green.



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