2013 Honda Civic Versus 2013 Nissan Sentra

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In our makeshift compact-car Olympics, our long-term 2013 Honda Civic has had a bumpy ride. It trounced the outgoing Toyota Corolla but was KIA by a Kia — the brand's redesigned 2014 Forte. It wasn't the fairest fight, given our particular Forte test car stickered for considerably more, but then again, so did our test Corolla, which lost big anyway. This time around, we pit the Honda against another redesign: the 2013 Nissan Sentra, a car that went on sale in October 2012. Sentra sales are up 18.7% through June, but the Civic still outsells it by more than a 2-1 ratio — an extension of sales history, where the Civic has thumped the Sentra for the past decade.

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Sales popularity and strength of product often have little relation, though (see the Corolla review). We received an automatic-equipped Sentra SL, which had a few more features than our Civic LX — most notably dual-zone automatic climate control, alloy wheels and a navigation system. Still, its $21,370 sticker, including destination, came closer to the Civic's $19,755 than the optioned-out Forte EX or absurdly equipped Corolla S.

We drove the new Sentra in 2012 and came away unmoved, but back-to-back competitive drives always shed more light. Editor Kelsey Mays and Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder drove the new Sentra alongside the Civic to find out.

SentraCivicFront

Cabin Quality: Sentra
KM: Nissan designers need to rethink the logic behind padding the dashboard but leaving the upper doors shod in cheap stuff — rather than the other way around — but I still give the Sentra an edge for better materials in often-used areas: cushier door armrests, softer sun visors, chrome door handles. The 2013 Civic has more consistency across all materials, but the Sentra feels richer in the most important areas. It would have spanked the 2012 Civic redesign, but Honda's emergency interior update narrowed the margins. I think Nissan wins, but only by a nose.

JW: Kelsey makes some good points, but quality is partly about feel and not just how armrests physically feel. The cars have similarly uninspiring cloth upholstery. The Civic's instruments still impress. The Sentra's are illuminated but more conventional. I can't give either car the win here, so I guess Kelsey's conviction tips it in Nissan's favor, but not by much.

Noise: Sentra
KM: The Sentra is a quiet experience that soothes the morning commute, and that's something right up most commuters' alleys, I suspect.

JW: I agree on the noise levels. Occasionally the continuously variable automatic transmission causes the Sentra's engine to drone at seemingly inappropriate times, but it's better than previous generations. Overall, a quieter car.

Ride: Sentra
KM: The Sentra rides softly, if a bit clumsily at times. Despite repeated efforts over the years to refine its character, the Civic is still a noisy, busy-riding car — less so than before, but still in that vein.

JW: If the Sentra rides clumsily, it's only a little, unlike the Corolla. Definitely softer than the Civic, and I welcome it.

Handling: Civic
KM: After beating the Forte and Corolla, the Civic chalks its third handling win here. Quicker steering and flatter cornering give the Honda a sense of nimbleness that's missing in the Nissan, whose reflexes seem a touch foggier. We called the redesigned 2012 Civic a bit soft — particularly on the Si front — and Honda responded with a reworked suspension across all models for 2013. Even on our Civic LX, it appears the changes helped.

JW: Another case of a car winning the battle because Kelsey feels strongly in one direction. I think they're both good, in different ways. The Sentra's steering isn't quite as precise as the Civic's, but I preferred its weight and how well it snaps back to center. Body roll wasn't too objectionable, and the Sentra has much better roadholding. The Civic's tires are a weak link.

Acceleration: Civic
KM: Proof again that outdated on paper can still shine on the road: The Civic's five-speed automatic — one gear shy of most competitors — is a trusty ally. It upshifts smoothly and downshifts without delay, making the most of the Civic's small four-cylinder. The Sentra's next-gen CVT, by contrast, shoots for efficiency most of the time. It calls up engine revs soon enough, but small engines demand responsive transmissions, and Honda beats Nissan to the punch here.

JW: Agreed. This CVT improves noticeably over that of the previous generation, making it more acceptable to even more buyers, but the Civic still delivers the goods reliably.

Braking: Civic
KM: Minus the rear disc brakes — an option on the Sentra that our test car lacked — the Nissan stops with squirrely body motions and spongy pedal feedback. The Civic also lacks rear discs below the EX, but pedal feedback is a little better. The Civic wins, but mediocrity reigns.

JW: I'm going to put more support behind the Civic. The Sentra's brakes felt wrong most of the time. Even with its rear drums, the Civic performs well in normal driving, and that's what you appreciate most.

SentraCivicmileage

Gas Mileage: Sentra
Given that neither car had high-efficiency provisions (Civic HF, Sentra FE+), gas mileage impressed. Without soft-toeing, we still beat the EPA's combined city/highway ratings, with 35.1 mpg in the Civic and 36.6 mpg in the Sentra. True to its higher EPA combined rating, the Sentra beat the Civic by 1.5 mpg our mileage route. But the difference equates to just $70.06 in annual fuel cost at 15,000 annual miles and $4 a gallon.

Note: Both cars have alternate driving modes (the Civic has Econ; the Sentra has Eco and Sport), but we predominantly drove both in normal Drive. We began our 54-mile loop by filling up both cars with gas. Temperatures were in the mid-80s and winds were less than 10 mph.

SentraCivicbackseats

Seats and Roominess: Sentra
KM: The Sentra's front seats could adjust a bit farther rearward for tall drivers, but the backseat and trunk are where the Nissan wins. Backseat space is better, with uniform materials to boot. (The Civic's cabin quality degrades when you get to the rear doors.) Trunk space? No contest. The Sentra's 15.1 cubic feet includes a 60/40-split folding rear seat. The Civic LX has a modest 12.5 cubic feet and a single-piece folding backseat (the EX and EX-L get a 60/40-split backseat).

JW: Unlike most compacts, the Sentra's front seats rival the Civic's for bottom-cushion length and thigh support, and they don't have the excessive lumbar support that irks me in the Civic. The Sentra's center armrest is so far back that it's practically pointless, but that's not enough to hurt its competitiveness much (and Nissan says a sliding armrest will be standard in the 2014 Sentra SL and optional in the SV and SR). The Civic is no slouch, but the Sentra definitely has this one in the bag.

Multimedia: Civic
KM: The Sentra's optional navigation system has user-friendly smartphone cues: You can scroll the map by swiping your finger, for example, instead of pointing at an area to prompt movement. But the Civic's giant dummy dial — hit it once to adjust volume, again to tune the radio — succeeds in aesthetics and usability. Key information, from vehicle speed to radio stations, sits closer to eye level in the Honda, too. The Sentra may have more bells and whistles, but Honda's bells are easier to ring.

JW: Yep. Simplicity and clarity win out, and as I said earlier, I've become something of a gauge snob, and the Civic's give a high-quality impression.

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Results
In a narrow five-to-four contest, the 2013 Nissan Sentra beat out our long-term Civic in a battle where quiet comfort and fuel economy bested performance and simplicity.

Related
2013 Nissan Sentra Review 
2013 Honda Civic Review 
More Automotive News 

Comments 

Tony

And this is why Honda will not be parked on my driveway - drums, single piece backseat. And I don't want a sunroof, etc. Honda packaging for dummies

Patrick

Not sure what you mean by the Civic has had a "bumpy ride". You compared a fully loaded Kia Forte with a larger more powerful engine made no sense whatsoever! The 2013 Civic is quite a remarkable vehicle even in LX guise. I recently test drove a '13 Sentra and came away very unimpressed with everything about it. From the droning engine/cvt combo to the ride and handling it just felt one BIG step behind the Civic.

Brandon

The Sentra is cheaper, at least in my area, than Civic. That's an important factor for some, if not most, people.

Tony

Looks like not "most people". Because "most" buying Civic. Also, Mexican made Sentra most likely to have more problems than Civic in the long run.

Parrots

@Tony

Hold on a second there. My family owns a Mexican-built 2006 Sentra, and it has had less problems than our '03 Odyssey.

Your racism is uncalled for. Or is that a joke? I can't tell. :|

Mike

Really? The Sentra's interior looks like it's from the 80's or 90's. The soft ride of the Sentra is for old people, the handling and drive of the Civic is meant for real drivers! It Should be 6 to 3 for the Civic!!!!

ZDR

So pointing out that the Sentra is made in Mexico is racist!? Parrots is another Rachel Jeantel.

Parrots

@ZDR

He pointed out the Sentra was made in Mexico, and that it would have more problems because of that. Does that seem derogatory at all?

Also, I admitted I could not tell whether he typed that in a joking manner or not.

Thanks for your baseless accusation.

Tony

Parrots,
I am absolutely serious. I look at VIN and once I spot that "3" I run away. Unfortunately, Mexican worker is not as dedicated and disciplined like Japanese one. Even American assembly is suspicious. Look at European cars. Looks like they know how to strike but can't put them together well.
One time I had Sentra temporary for 3 months. And I saw how it was coming apart literally because some nuts in the body were not tightened.
I have great experience with all my Japan assembled cars. And I will continue to shop for one made in Japan. It gets harder every ear to find one but hey, may be one with most Japanese content will be the best of the worst

Wow.

I used to feel as you do about Japanese assembly, Tony. Until I bought my 2010 Prius.

Terrible interior assembly. Rattly, RATTLY interior. I no longer assume Japanese assembly equals quality...

Al

My daughter has a 2012 Civic and my son a 2013 Sentra. The Sentra appears to be more refined, a "big car that's little", and is well equipped. It rides more quietly and smoothly than the Civic, and is far more economical on gas, thanks to the CVT - if you can get used to it.
The Sentra seemed to be an impressive hands-down winner, but after only a few months the Sentra has developed a number of rattles which raises doubts about it's build quality. The Civic is as tight as a drum, and I prefer the 5 speed auto.
Conclusion: I'd take the Civic for it's build quality. I HATE rattles.

Johan McCloude

Sentra is not made in Mexico. It's made in Smyrna Tennessee. Has been for years. There's a plant being built in Mexico, but the cars sold in the states, will be made in the states.

Tony

Johan McCloude,
stop confusing people here.

From dealer inventory: Sentra VIN: 3N1AB7AP7DL734780
3... - Mexico. It manufactured in Aguas Calientes, Mexico and it is been that way for years.

Tony

BTW, Parrots,
There are many cars that have less problems than 99-2004 Odyssey.

Wow,
I don't know what to say. I drove Prius... That all I can say. My 2009 Highlander (last year they made it in Japan) wasn't perfect. Water pump leaked @ 1 year. But other than that is solid.

critic

My 7 year old Prius doesn't rattle and has not had a single problem yet. Dont compare the prius to second tier brands.

Wow.

Well, good for you, critic!

My 2010 Prius has been a terrible car. From tons of cold-weather sensor issues, cheap, rattly interior, and doors that rattle when the windows are down, it's been my first and LAST new Toyota purchase.

Don't get me wrong, I've owned and driven many used Toyotas, mostly from the 80s and 90s and loved them but I won't buy a new Toyota today. They've been resting on their laurels and it shows...

critic

Sorry to hear about your prius. I'm not a fan of the third generation prius and will run my second generation model into the ground. I agree that some recent Toyotas have been a step backward. Nobody hits a home run every time at the plate.

AJ

The Civic beats out the Sentra? Really? I don't know what type of drugs you are on but the Civic wins almost all of these categories you are comparing. Nissan CVT's suck, they are unreliable and loud. The car is boxy and quite ugly. It's slow and the interior looks cheaper. The interior of the civic is MUCH nicer. Gas mileage is about the same. The Sentra is a lot less reliable as Nissan is as a whole. What sane person roaming this earth would recommend the Sentra over the Civic??

Mike

Wow it seems all the Honda fan boys are out in force on this one. After my GF had her TC totaled it was off to the dealerships. After driving the civic, mazda 3 and sentra twice each we both agreed that the sentra was the best car for us. The 3 was the drivers car and had the most sophisticated interior by far. Small trunk entrance, tight "cockpity" feel,too firm ride and highest priced scratched the 3, very nice car though. The civic had a competent ride, the powertrain was smooth as silk. The interior was meh, the dash is nothing to brag about couldn't close the center vents, head restraints too far forward, single zoned A/C on even top of the line, small trunk passthough lowest mileage of the three (splitting hairs here i know), and didn't care for the touch screen interface. The sentra seemed the roomiest with very nice padding on the armrests, huge glovebox, huge trunk and passthrough, a clean and uncluttered instrument cluster, well laid-out controls and intuitive touch screen and the best mileage to boot. The leds in front and rear are nice too. Yes the CVT lets you know the engine is working when stepping on it, but all and all a car that fit just right for a daily driver. Have had it for a few months and it sill is a treat to drive and ride in. If my car ever goes out I will seriously consider a sentra as well.

I would say I would vote for the 2013 Honda Civic and not the Nissan because of the smart features of the former. I simply love it and would not compromise it for any other car that easily.

Bellyhungry

After researching what car to buy for a couple of months, I decided on the 2013 Civic because of: reliability history and look. BTW, if I am to get a Nissan, I would get a 2013 Altima.

Deny

After test driving both 2013 Sentra and 2013 Civic twice each, I can definitely tell Civic had a smoother and less-bumpy ride. I still don't understand how they concluded Sentra had the smoother ride and less noise. Maybe on perfectly smooth asphalt highway? My guess is that Civic's 4-wheel independent suspension pays off in cities with less-than-perfect roads. I agree with everything else mentioned above. Both are great cars. In short, if you are deciding between two cars, test drive them in your local road - the same road for 2 different cars if you are lucky to have a combined BrandA/BrandB dealer in your town.

sentra owner

We've owned 3 Sentras. A 1990, 2000, and now a 2009. Did not have much trouble with the first two. We like this last one but had strut problems while still on warranty and am noticing a new sound--a swooshing sound coming from right front. Really like this car otherwise. Looked at a new one recently, but I like this 2009 better. By the way don't know why it would be racist to say a car was Mexican built, if it's now racist to say American built or Japanese built. There is nothing wrong with the word Mexican just because there are some prejudiced people who use it wrong.

johndoe26

Nissan has come a long way with the Sentra. The car looks a lot better than it use too, but for me, I'll put my money on the civic. Very reliable, great resale value, great ride and handling along with a whole bunch of other goodies. Honda just knows how to play the game a lot better than the rest(;

johndoe26

Also the new Sentra is no longer recommended by Consumer Reports

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