Nissan’s formerly detestable Sentra matures into a stylish and adequate compact sedan.
The new 2020 Nissan Sentra replaces a car that suffered a slow decline from “just barely adequate” to “inadvisable” over its seven-year lifespan. In the transition between old and new, Nissan cured many of its compact sedan’s most egregious missteps, and we were eager to get some extended time behind the wheel to see how this rival to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Mazda3 drove in normal (and some abnormal) use.
Our tester is a top-spec SR model that, with options and the $925 destination charge, costs a reasonable $25,825. There’s lots of equipment for the money, but a few concerns stick out. For starters, we’ll just say this – the ever-dynamic Captain Marvel does not belong in a Sentra, no matter what Nissan’s marketing people want you to believe.
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The 2020 Nissan Sentra’s most obvious and convincing improvement over last year’s car is its styling. The company’s large V-Motion grille actually works nicely on the compact car, aping the attractive Altima and Maxima sedans quite well. Like its bigger siblings, the Sentra also gets an upswept beltline and headlights with a check-shaped LED light signature. The high and low beams also get LED technology thanks to the $2,170 Premium package.
Our tester’s Aspen White Tricoat/Super Black paint scheme was another effective design choice, and we think all Sentra shoppers should go for contrast colors (Monarch Orange and Super Black is another winning combo). Painting the roof a different color masks the silly “floating roof” styling touch from which single-tone cars suffer, and passersby commented favorably on our Sentra’s color scheme. Although long front and rear overhangs result in some slightly awkward proportions, the Sentra is one of the more distinctively styled cars in its class.
The interior is as attractive as the bodywork. The premium package brings “sport leatherette” along for the ride, accented with orange stitching on the seats, steering wheel, shift selector, and most soft-touch surfaces. The flat-bottomed, leather-wrapped steering wheel is a nice piece to hang onto, and the wing-shaped dashboard pad – combined with three round HVAC outlets in the center – looks modern and fresh without being tacky.
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On the plus side, Nissan replaced the outgoing Sentra’s couchlike front and rear seats with bits that are more supportive and attractive. Long-distance comfort, measured over a 60-mile stretch of two-lane road and an 80-mile freeway slog, is passable, although thigh support for both front and rear passengers is lacking. Interior quality is average for the class; we appreciated soft inboard and outboard armrests for all passengers, but the door panels, dash lower, and center console were hard plastic.
Space for front and rear passengers is likewise class-competitive. Yout 6-foot-tall, long-legged driver was able to “sit behind himself,” thanks to the second row’s acceptable legroom. The attractive styling cuts into rear headroom slightly, but there’s still enough space for two adults to ride in the back seat without too many complaints. Compared to 2019, the Sentra’s trunk is a bit smaller at 14.3 cubic feet. The Civic, meanwhile, has 15.1 cubes of space under the decklid, while the Mazda3 has 13.2. Points go to the Sentra for its wide trunk opening, although its exposed dogleg hinges will crush cargo if not packed carefully.
The ride is good enough, although as with most compact cars, large potholes and gritty pavement make their presence known through both the seat of the pants and the eardrums. The Sentra could do with more sound deadening, with an ever-present – though easily ignorable – dull roar coming from the rear tires.
Nissan is working hard to distinguish its vehicles with on-board technology, and the Sentra delivers. It’s missing some premium features like wireless smartphone charging, but most folks will be satisfied with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth audio and phone, and both USB-A and USB-C phone connections. There’s also a single USB charger for rear-seat passengers.
The NissanConnect 8.0-inch infotainment display responds to inputs well and is easy to use, bolstered by a 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster that’s reasonably reconfigurable. It’s a vast improvement over the company’s previous-generation infotainment system. Eight-speaker Bose audio comes bundled in the Premium Package (compared to four speakers for the base S and six speakers for the SV and SR). The system sounds wonderful on this sound stage, improving the Sentra’s credentials as a car for audiophiles.
Even for its class, the Sentra is dynamically challenged. Its 2.0-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder delivers 149 horsepower and 146 pound-feet, numbers that are disappointing and well below average for the class. The 174-hp Honda Civic EX and 186-hp Mazda3 offer lots more scoot, for example – even a port-injected 1996 Dodge Neon outstrips the Nissan! Mated to the four-banger is a continuously variable transmission that carries out some of its duties unobtrusively, but while merging or passing, the CVT betrays the engine’s thrashiness as it gasps for breath.
The suspension tuning is likewise intransigent when facing anything more aggressive than a Sunday dawdle around the block. The rear suspension in particular is prone to pogo-stick motions and an unsettling zig-zagging feeling when entering a corner. And it’s not just uncharacteristic canyon driving that reveals these flaws – you can feel them on a freeway cloverleaf or flyover if exceeding, say, six-tenths. Your puritanical spinster aunt will like driving it, but anyone who even occasionally heeds the devil on their shoulder is better served elsewhere.
The Sentra claws back some points with a comprehensive suite of standard and available active safety features. All trim levels get automated emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking sensors. The mid-level SV trim gets convenient adaptive cruise control, while the top-of-the-line SR with the premium package adds a surround-view monitor to the mix. Nissan isn’t alone in offering lots of standard safety tech in its less expensive vehicles, but it deserves credit for including such a comprehensive package in every Sentra.
The 2020 Nissan Sentra SR achieves 28 miles per gallon city, 37 highway, and 32 combined in EPA testing, beating out the Mazda3 Select rather handily (30 combined) but losing to the Hyundai Elantra Limited (34 combined) and Honda Civic EX (36 combined). The Kia Forte and Toyota Corolla also edge out the Sentra when equipped similarly.
A Sentra S costs $19,090 before destination, undercutting the base Civic ($20,650), Mazda3 ($21,500), and Elantra ($19,150) – though the Volkswagen Jetta ($18,895), Kia Forte ($17,890), and Subaru Impreza ($18,695) are cheaper still. The sweet spot for bargain hunters might be the Sentra SV ($20,270), which still features adaptive cruise at a lower price than our $25,825 Sentra SR tester.
The fully loaded Sentra we drove has a sticker price that’s tough to swallow, however. Similarly equipped, a Honda Civic EX-L costs $25,955, while a Mazda3 Preferred asks $25,740, both of which strike us as a better deal given those vehicles’ added power and better driving dynamics.
Gallery: 2020 Nissan Sentra SR: Review
2020 Nissan Sentra SR