The all-new 2013 Nissan Sentra could give competitors in the compact sedan segment a run for the money. Starting at $15,990, the 2013 Sentra is Nissan's seventh generation of the popular, value-priced model.

Changes start with a sleeker profile, lighter footprint and a more upscale interior, but this four-door compact sedan also answers the continued demand for fuel efficiency in an era of continually rising gas prices, with up to 40 mpg on the highway.

Nissan invited a group of automotive testers to Napa Valley to drive the 2013 Sentra on a route that began in San Francisco. Over a course of 150 miles, we reviewed Sentra's new premium features, updated technologies, and sporty handling characteristics. Nissan designed its latest model to "look and feel a class above" its rivals in this market segment, which include the Focus, Civic, Elantra and Cruze.

The 2013 Nissan Sentra lineup includes S, FE+ S, SV, FE+ SV, SR and SL trim levels. Compared to the previous model, the 2013 Sentra has a longer wheelbase, shorter front overhang and longer rear overhang, giving it a more modern sports sedan look. It is 5 percent lighter and its drag coefficient is 0.29, down from 0.34 in the previous model.

From the front is the gleaming chrome-framed grille, capped by arrow-point headlamps accented with LED bulbs lined up dot-to-dot under the larger lights. A lowered beltline and more aerodynamically shaped roofline cut a sophisticated profile; the back end is a bit chunky and low-slung, with wraparound taillamps and a liftgate with an integrated spoiler (on some trims). Chrome also accents the door handles and windows.

Slipping inside, we experienced a more roomy and comfortable cabin defined by soft-touch panels and easy-to-read gauges. The center stack flows seamlessly into the console area, where the shift lever and handbrake are easy to reach. Front seats include 6-way driver and 4-way passenger seat adjustments. The rear seats -- where there is much improved legroom over the previous generation version -- split 60/40 for trunk access. Overall, interior room has grown, including 2.0 cubic feet of additional trunk space.

Motivating the Sentra is a new 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. Base models are mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, while all other models in the lineup get an updated Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission; both come with Normal. Sport and Eco modes. Fuel economy is up to 13 percent improved rated at 30 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway with the CVT, but Nissan says the special-edition Sentra FE+ version can get 40 mpg.

We particularly liked Sentra's handling on the road, especially along the winding two-lanes that make up the Calistoga Trail. Also enjoyable is the sport-feel to the suspension and we found the steering carves well, especially when we had an accident-avoidance maneuver. Minor complaints were the intrusion of noise from under the hood under hard throttle, as well as some road noise that was a result of the vehicle's low-rolling resistance tires.

And, despite its commuter-runabout size, it feels a bit larger, with plenty of elbow room for two front-seaters, has good visibility, and a large glove box and a few cubbies for stowage. Two rear riders can come along easily with room for small packages and gear, as there is good legroom, but three back-seaters would be tight and best for only short distances, as this 5-passenger car is a tad narrow in width.

SPECIFICATIONS

2013 NISSAN SENTRA

VEHICLE TYPE__________________5-passenger compact FWD sedan

BASE PRICE____________________ $15,990 (as tested: $16,780)

MOTOR TYPE___________________ 16-valve DOHC 4-cyl. w/SMPFI

DISPLACEMENT_________________1.8-liter

HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 130 at 6000 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)________________ 128 at 3600 rpm

TRANSMISSION_________________ 6-speed manual

OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 182.1 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb): __ 34.8 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________ 1,678 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY_________________ 13.2 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 27 mpg city, 36 mpg highway