Nissan Sentra First Drive Review: Taking on the Joneses

by Ron Van Harten

Simplified Sentra aims to out-luxe Honda and Toyota

Keeping up with the Joneses is tough, but it’s especially tough if the “Joneses” are the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The former offers up big-car levels of room and sporty driving dynamics, while the latter is value-friendly and offers up a hybrid option. What room does that leave for the 2020 Nissan Sentra? According to Nissan, the answer is style, substance, and a premium-car experience that you can’t get elsewhere in the segment.

It’d be fair to say that the last-generation Sentra wasn’t a hit with critics. In our last Big Test featuring the entire compact sedan segment, the Sentra finished dead last, due to being underpowered, inefficient, cheaply built, and just all-around awful to drive. With the big three American automakers backing out of compact sedans to focus on more profitable trucks and SUVs, it’d be fair to ask why Nissan didn’t just cut its losses and do the same.

Nissan has three compelling reasons for hanging in there. For starters, pride is on the line—the Sentra is Nissan’s best-selling nameplate ever. Then there’s a matter of sales. Despite the Detroit automakers reading the tea leaves and deciding to bail on compact sedans, Americans bought over 4 million of the things last year, making it the third-largest segment behind full-size pickups and midsize SUVs. Perhaps an even more compelling reason for Nissan is the fact that the last Sentra, despite its warts, is still the third-best-selling car in the segment as of November 2019.

With a renewed focus on why people still bought sedans—style, value, efficiency, and technology, the company says—Nissan’s designers, engineers, and product planners came back with the 2020 Sentra. Sporting mini-Maxima sheetmetal, the new Sentra rides on a new platform that’s both 2 inches lower and wider than the previous car, and features a multi-link rear suspension (an upgrade from the twist-beam rear on the old car) and a new electric power steering rack engineered to both improve ride quality and handling performance. Inside, designers took inspiration from the Maxima and GT-R, with higher-spec Sentras getting features like contrast stitching and quilted leather.

Striking the balance between value, efficiency, and technology is tough, so Nissan vastly simplified the Sentra lineup for 2020. While rivals like the Civic, Corolla, or Hyundai Elantra might offer up multiple engine options, Nissan sticks with just one for the new Sentra—a 2.0-liter I-4 with 149 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque, paired with a CVT, netting an EPA-estimated 28-29/37-39/32-33 mpg city/highway/combined, depending on trim.

Speaking of, Nissan also opted to simplify the Sentra lineup, too, having just three trim levels: S, SV, and SR, with the latter two cars available with premium packages. Satisfying the tech aspect, Nissan hopes, are new Apple CarPlay/Android Auto-friendly infotainment systems on SV and SR models, and its “Safety Shield 360” active driver safety technology—necessary for the ever-important IIHS Top Safety Pick + Score. Prices creep up a hair, with the Sentra S starting at $20,015, the Sentra SV starting at $21,195, and the Sentra SR starting at $22,355. Fully loaded Sentras should top out around $25,000.

Out on the road behind the wheel of a loaded Sentra SR tester, equipped with the premium package, the difference between old Sentra and new is night and day. Whereas the old Sentra wheezed, groaned, and floated down the road, the 2020 model feels solid, competent, and quite nice to drive. The biggest improvement is in ride quality and body control. Whether you refuse to slow for your neighborhood speed bumps, or you’re blasting down a good road, the Sentra’s ride is compliant yet firm, with minimal body roll. Nissan’s Active Ride Control—a feature that uses the car’s brakes to subtly minimize fore-and-aft pitch—deserves just as much credit as the new multilink rear suspension here. Steering feel is improved, too. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Sentra sporty, it tracks straight and has decent feel from its slightly over-boosted helm.

The Sentra’s powertrain is similarly inoffensive. Nissan’s four-pot is nowhere near segment-leading from a power perspective, but for most buyers it’ll get the job done just fine. It’s relatively smooth off the line—only getting a touch surgey in heavy stop-and-go traffic—and it makes power consistently throughout its rev band. The Sentra’s CVT does its best to convince you it’s a real automatic when you stomp on the gas, faking an infinite number of shifts before eventually giving in and holding the tach needle steady. Sport mode, toggled on via an unmarked button on the shifter, increases throttle response, makes the CVT opt for max rpm and power sooner, and, most interestingly, gives you rev-matched “downshifts” if you’re hard on the brakes going into a corner.

“Inoffensive” may seem like damning with faint praise, but truth be told, Nissan’s approach is pretty smart. Beating a Honda or Volkswagen in driving dynamics is tough—beating them on interior design and quality is far easier. On that front, the Sentra really excels. The Nissan’s cabin is a nice place to be, especially if you’ve opted for a premium package-equipped SV or SR (that package costs $2,460 or $2,170, respectively.) The former gets gorgeous-looking quilted leather seats with contrasting stitching, while the latter gets sporty-looking orange accents throughout the interior. Material quality is also significantly improved—even the cloth-equipped Sentra SV has soft-touch materials on its door cards and on its dash topper, lending an air of quality lacking in the previous-generation car. (Unfortunately, no base Sentra S models were available to test.)

The cabin is also relatively spacious. The front buckets are comfortable and both occupants will have an easy time finding outlets and cubbies for phones, drinks, and keys. Although passengers in back won’t have as much space as those in a Civic, the Sentra’s rear seats are adult-friendly (especially if you skip the sunroof, which impedes on headroom some), and feature a USB outlet to keep your device juiced up on the go.

When the 2020 Nissan Sentra hits dealers at the end of February, it’ll not only represent a huge step up when compared to the brand’s previous efforts, but it’ll also signal to the Hondas and Toyotas of the world that the Sentra isn’t going anywhere without a fight. The Sentra certainly undercuts its main rivals in price and content, and we can’t wait to see how the car compares with the Joneses in a head-to-head matchup.

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