It looks better, but the 2020 Sentra is much of the same.

Even with Nissan's recent financial struggles, the company still sells more cars in the U.S. than most automakers. The Rogue, Altima, and Sentra all cracked the top 20 in total car sales here this year. Even as the most outdated of the three, the Sentra still managed to move more than 173,000 units in just 10 months. Now there’s a new Sentra for 2020, but it may not be the answer to Nissan's current woes.

On the surface, the 2020 Nissan Sentra appears to be a far cry from its predecessor. It's more stylish, both inside and out, and gets some much-needed updates in the tech department. It also benefits from a brand-new engine. But even with these major updates, the Sentra still feels a step behind its competitors, even with all that shiny new sheet metal.

2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

Borrowed Looks

Look familiar? The 2020 Sentra borrows visual cues from the Maxima, Altima, and Versa. Up front, Nissan's signature V-Motion grille and boomerang headlights carry over from those models. In the rear, you'll find the same floating roofline from elsewhere in the Nissan lineup. The taillights, though unique, almost look ripped from a Mercedes-Benz A-Class, while the Sentra's overall proportions seemingly mimic that of a shrunken Honda Accord.

Like the smaller Versa, the Sentra sits two inches lower and wider than its predecessor. Improved dimensions and aesthetic upgrades to the beltline, greenhouse, and roof (now available in an optional, contrasting black paint) all contribute to the Sentra's improved look. And the 2020 Sentra is a good-looking vehicle, particularly in the sporty SR grade with optional 18-inch wheels. The base S trim level gets 16-inch alloys, while the mid-level SV model gets larger 17-inch wheels.

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Although the exterior is likable, the cabin suffers from two notable shortcomings. For one, it could benefit from more variation. The faux black leather, fake carbon fiber trim, and synthetic plastic pieces on the sporty SR model look okay, but all are virtually identical to what's available in the cheaper Versa (the Sentra SV trim with the Premium Package gets leather as an option). Only the satin chrome aluminum accents on the center stack and the generously titled “GT-R-inspired air vents” truly feel new to the Sentra. The Zero Gravity seats and optional 8.0-inch touchscreen in our tester, meanwhile, are a direct carryover from other Nissan models. At least the compact sedan offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Secondly, the Sentra is loud on road. An unusual amount of tire and wind noise penetrates the cabin, making it hard for two people to communicate comfortably. Unlike the smaller Versa, at least the Sentra offers ample passenger space to help alleviate some of that outside noise. Both front seats are extremely roomy, and the backseat is big enough to coddle your six-foot-tall author. Headroom (38.9 front, 36.7 rear) and legroom (44.0 front, 37.4 rear) rival anything in the class. The cabin, through its faults, is at least a comfortable place to sit.

2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

Two-Liter Trouble

The 2020 Sentra ditches the outgoing model's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine for a more-robust 2.0-liter, good for 149 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. That's a 20-percent increase in horses and a 16-percent boost in torque. Paired to the latest version of Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission, the powertrain setup is competent but far from exciting.

Quick the Sentra is not. Power comes on sluggishly and the CVT gives off an annoying, metallic whine when mashing the gas pedal from a standstill. Compared to turbocharged alternatives in the class, the Sentra's 2.0-liter engine feels outdated, underwhelming, and downright underpowered. And while Nissan knows how to do a proper CVT (see: Maxima), the updates to the Sentra's Xtronic CVT somehow feel worse than ever. Not only is it loud, but it's also extremely lazy, not responding to inputs in a timely manner. Once up to speed, though, the Sentra has enough power for overtaking. And it's relatively efficient, too.

Compared to turbocharged alternatives in the class, the Sentra's 2.0-liter engine feels outdated, underwhelming, and downright underpowered.

The Sentra S and SV models get 29 miles per gallon in the city, 39 on the highway, and 33 combined. The sportier SR model, with its larger wheels and additional aero work, is less efficient, but still manages 28 mpg city, 37 highway, and 32 combined. Neither of those figures, though, are at the front of the class with competitors like the Honda Civic (32/42/36) or Hyundai Elantra (32/40/35).

Using a totally new platform shared with the Chinese-market Sylphy, the Sentra gets an independent rear suspension and a quicker power-steering setup. Nissan engineers tout “more sportiness” over its cushier Sylphy sibling, and dynamically, that's probably true. The Sentra shows off decent agility and stays mostly flat while cornering. But there's a noticeable disconnect in the electronic steering. Though the rack is well-weighted, it's numb, preventing any real feedback from reaching the driver’s hands.

2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive
2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

Safety First

Like the smaller Versa, the Sentra gets a standard rear automatic emergency braking system. But where the Versa only offers the Nissan Safety Shield 360 suite as an option, the Sentra offers it as standard equipment. The suite includes a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, automatic high beams, and even a rear-door alert. Noticeably absent, though, is Nissan's advanced ProPilot driver assist feature, which includes lane centering and adaptive cruise control. You'll have to pay for the larger Altima if you want that.

With all that standard safety in mind, the base Sentra S starts at just $19,090. The SV model asks $20,270, and adding the Premium package (jewel-style LED headlights, a moonroof, eight-way power driver's seat, larger wheels, and quilted leather) brings the price to $22,730. The Sentra SR is the priciest of the bunch, asking $21,430 (or $23,600 with the Premium package).

The Sentra makes a statement with its sleek styling and comfortable cabin. This is inarguably better than any iteration of the sedan to date. But the Sentra falls short in other key areas. It's loud, unrefined, and neither the most-efficient nor most-affordable option in its class, despite its all-new features. In a segment ripe with good alternatives, the Sentra fails to stand out. And specifically in these tough times, it should.

Gallery: 2020 Nissan Sentra: First Drive

2020 Nissan Sentra SR

Engine 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder
Output 149 Horsepower / 146 Pound-Feet
Transmission Continuously Variable Transmission
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 28 City / 37 Highway / 22 Combined
Weight 3,084 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 14.3 Cubic Feet
Base Price $19,090
As-Tested Price $25,150