While Mazda, Hyundai, Kia, Honda, and Toyota have all made massive leaps with their respective compact vehicles, Nissan seems to be standing still. The automaker’s now under hot water because of its former CEO, Carlos Ghosn, but the Japanese brand was in trouble before that. For years, Nissan has missed the mark with its cars, choosing to focus on its popular line of SUVs instead of the historic nameplates that made it so admired in the first place. One perfect example of this is the Nissan Sentra.
My first car was a Sentra. It was a 2003 Sentra SE-R Spec-V with a proper six-speed manual transmission and a limited-slip front differential. It was a fantastic first car. It’s also one of the few cars that I regret selling. I sincerely wish I still had the Sentra, because it would’ve been a perfect autocross/track vehicle. Despite my wish to track down my ’03 Sentra SE-R Spec-V, I have no desire to own a new Sentra. The compact sedan has become one of the most boring, lackluster vehicles on the market. At least, it was, until Nissan introduced an all-new model for 2020.
For 2020, the only thing Nissan kept the same was the name. Seriously, everything is new. The changes do wonders for the Sentra, but the sedan still has some way to go before encroaching upon the luxurious Mazda3, well-rounded Civic, and surprisingly sporty Corolla Hatchback. But for drivers that want a stylish, affordable car to commute in, the Sentra makes a strong case for itself.
Nissan dropped off a SR Premium trim with a few packages for us to test for a week. Pricing for our test vehicle rang in at $25,325 including destination.
This has to be the area where the new Sentra has changed radically over its predecessor. Borrowing cues from the larger Altima and Maxima, the Sentra finally looks like it fits into the family. Before, it was the ugly duckling that had to mow the lawn, clean the house, and eat outside. Now, it’s got a formal spot at the dinner table. Welcome inside, Sentra.
Roughly two inches lower and two inches wider than before, the Sentra looks like a miniature Maxima, especially when fitted with a two-tone roof. Slim headlights with handsome LED daytime running lights, Nissan’s V-Motion grille, and a sculpted hood bring the Sentra into modern times. The front end is fantastic – we’re particularly fans of where the black A-pillar meets the hood on brighter exterior paint schemes.
The roofline adopts the coupe-like lines that so many other options have embraced and it works. The SR trim sports a modest rear spoiler, which seemingly connects with a line that starts from the C-pillar. It’s a nice touch that will probably go overlooked, but it caught my eye. The rest of the rear end is much more old-school Sentra, with nothing predominantly grabbing any attention.
Overall, the Sentra is no longer the safe, boring choice that it used to be, at least when it comes to design. In all imaginable ways, that’s a good thing.
Sure, the exterior may draw you in and actually get you interested in the car, but the thing that will make you stay is in the interior. While the old model had a rental-car feel to it at best, the new one looks and feels close to being luxurious. The styling is the thing that really gets me, because the Sentra has a design that looks extraordinary for the compact segment. Beyond the handsome design, the materials feel great, too.
From the circular vents, orange stitching throughout the cabin, flat-bottomed steering wheel, and layout of the buttons on the center console, the Sentra certainly doesn’t look like a budget-friendly sedan. In fact, it looks and feels darn good. Our test car came with the Premium Package that cost $2,170 that brought leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and six-way power controls for the driver’s seat. Despite being Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats, which are usually nice, the ones in the Sentra felt a little stiff. Maybe they just need to be broken in.
Space is plentiful in the Sentra, too. It’s not like you’ll be pressed for room in this sedan unless you used to play basketball in college. Cargo space has also been improved on, as the trunk can now hold up to 15.1 cubic feet of cargo, up from 14 cubic feet.
It may sound odd and I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around it, but I’m a huge fan of the Sentra’s cabin. There are, however, a few things that I don’t really enjoy. The faux carbon-fiber trim pieces are awful and look like they’ve been done by a high schooler with material that’s been bought on Etsy. The buttons also feel cheap and some of them, like the ones for the heated seats, actually provide an audible click that’s louder than smashing the keys on a mechanical keyboard. I’ve never heard a heated seat button click this loud before and it seems kind of odd that this passed through quality control.
If there’s one large issue with the Sentra, it’s the horrible infotainment system. It’s almost offensively dumbed down with only a few things you can actually control. Beyond that, the graphics, while playful, are first-gen Motorola Razor quality, as is the rearview camera. You’ll want to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, but to get that, you’ll have to upgrade one of the two higher trim levels. I cannot emphasize how badly this car needs smartphone integration. So, whatever you do, make sure you get a Sentra with the feature.
The last sporty Sentra Nissan sold was the one that I happened to own. After that, the poor Sentra has been going downhill in the performance department. A few Sentras have worn Nismo badges, but even those weren’t exactly in line with other sport compacts like the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Honda Civic Si. So, when you go into driving the Sentra, you have to lower your expectations. This, by no means, is a sporty car. Let’s set that straight right away.
There’s a new engine for the 2020 Sentra. It’s a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 149 horsepower, 25 hp more than last year. A CVT is the only transmission available for the little compact. While it’s easy to look at that horsepower figure and get excited, don’t be. This engine is severely down on power and the noise it makes is awful. The unresponsive and dimwitted CVT is an even bigger pain. Acceleration from a standstill is a joke, as is attempting to overtake someone on the highway.
Here’s the thing – most people won’t care about this. The majority of consumers won’t care that the four-cylinder sounds like a bird that’s choking on a worm. They won’t care that when they pin the throttle, nothing happens for five seconds as the CVT has an aneurysm, heals itself from said injury, and then finally accelerates in such a lethargic manner, a bicyclist will overtake you without breaking a sweat. Instead, what they’ll care about is that it’s supposed to get 33 mpg combined – we got 25 mpg. They’ll care that it gets around town just fine and manages to handle highway speeds adequately.
Adequate. That’s the best way to describe the Sentra’s powertrain.
While the power and the way the engine performs in a straight line is adequate, the Sentra has an ace up its sleeve – it’s actually not terrible around corners. The compact sedan comes with a new platform and new independent rear suspension. The result is a chassis that’s so stiff and a suspension setup that’s so taught, driving over anything that’s not silky smooth is uncomfortable. But on a windy road, the Sentra manages to be a capable momentum car.
Getting whatever speed out of the engine that you can and trying to keep that number as high as possible around turns is a fun game. Boy, if Nissan were to add a decent turbocharged engine and a proper six-speed manual transmission into the mix, they could have the sportiest Sentra ever.
If the Sentra had a better powertrain, it would be a real rival to the Civic, Mazda3, Corolla, Elantra, and Golf. That’s all it’s really missing, which makes driving the thing so infuriating. Nissan has fixed all of the major gaffs with the old compact, giving it a handsome design, a relatively upscale cabin, a decent amount of safety features, and a surprisingly fun chassis. All of this comes at a good price. There are other issues, like the bland infotainment system, questionable quality of a few interior pieces, and useless Sport mode that can easily be overlooked. Other options in the compact segment make similar compromises.
So, at the end of the day, if you need a commuter car, something that you use for ride-sharing purposes, or a vehicle for a teenager, the Sentra is a pretty darn good option. I’m probably just as surprised as you are after rereading that statement, but it’s true. Now, it’s nowhere near as good as the Sentra SE-R Spec-V that I used to own, but I highly doubt the engineers at Nissan are benchmarking that vehicle for the new models these days. Still, an enthusiast can dream.