- Surprising style
- Standard safety tech
- Features per dollar
- Average fuel economy
- Poor retained value
- Lumpy CVT tuning
Nissan has done it. After years of wallowing in econobox mediocrity, the compact Sentra sedan matters again. Even without the head-turning two-tone paint of our test car, this Nissan can compete head-on with the Toyota Corolla and almost every other car in the segment.
True, this isn’t a comparison test, but judges found it impossible not to consider the new-for-2020 Nissan Sentra against an aging but still excellent class leader, the Civic.
“The Honda Civic looms large,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman said, “and in terms of engineering excellence, I don’t think the Sentra has that bogey beat.”
Still, what an improvement. Like the Civic (which is nearing the end of its current lifespan and is on the cusp of a redesign), the Sentra feels spacious and well-designed. Associate road test editor Erick Ayapana said our $26,055 test car “looks more expensive than it is inside and out,” and editor-in-chief Mark Rechtin admitted to looking in his rearview mirror at the Sentra and mistaking it for a new Audi design language.
Outstanding features-per-dollar value makes the Sentra especially compelling. A full package of safety and convenience gear is standard on every Sentra, including automated emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert with braking (if you risk reversing from a parking spot into a moving car), and blind-spot monitoring. In the mid-level SV trim, the Sentra offers a ton of features for just over $21,000, including hands-free keyless access, 16-inch alloy wheels, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen at the top of the dash with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Against the popular Corolla, the Sentra has another advantage: one standard engine across the lineup. A couple judges found the Nissan’s 149-hp 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine a little coarse, but the powerplant delivers satisfactory acceleration that’s far quicker than the 1.8-liter standard engine on the Corolla. We’re focusing more on the Corolla than the Civic because, well, the Sentra can’t compete with the Civic’s more engaging driving dynamics. Even so, the Sentra has solid performance for drivers simply looking for a stylish appliance.
“It just seems like an honest car, no pretension,” testing director Kim Reynolds said. “Its bones are good, and it moves in a pleasant way, rarely wrong-footed.”
With decent tech, abundant features, and solid design, the Sentra’s biggest issue is its continuously variable transmission. Don’t tell anyone, but a couple MotorTrend editors actually like CVTs for the everyday commuting smoothness they provide, and we’ve lauded Honda’s more recent CVTs. In the Nissan’s case, however, it’s a weakness.
“The CVT continues to wander under hard acceleration, surging and forcing pretend ‘shift’ points,” Rechtin said. “It just sounds like you’re losing power.”
A few Sentra drivers might also notice the way the transmission tends to simulate unwanted shifts when coming to a stop. But hey, at least they’ll experience that from comfortable seats—now a trait we expect from Nissans. Loaded Sentra SRs get a 360-degree camera system with a convenient camera button just below the screen, making it easy to quickly switch it on when you’re trying to execute that parking job just right. An SV-specific Premium package adds diamond-quilted leather seats. Yes, on a compact sedan.
The Sentra’s attempted pivot from “I need a car” to “I want that car” is only partially successful. Minor interior complaints: The cupholders have trouble keeping taller bottles in place, and the available power seats offer only six ways of adjustment (off the class standard of eight). Budget-conscious shoppers should be aware of IntelliChoice data showing that over the course of five years, the Sentra will retain far less of its value than a Civic or Corolla will. Plus, the Sentra offers merely average fuel economy and driving range.
Despite these minuses, this Sentra joins the Rogue and Kicks in forming a strong foundation of compelling affordable vehicles that the automaker can build on.
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2020 Nissan Sentra SR|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1,997 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||149 hp @ 6,400 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||146 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||21.0 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||11.0-in vented disc; 10.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||215/45R18 89V Hankook Kinergy GT (M S)|
|TRACK, F/R||62.4/62.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.7 x 71.5 x 57.0 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,122 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.5/36.7 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||44.0/37.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.4/54.5 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||14.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.5|
|QUARTER MILE||16.8 sec @ 84.1 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.5 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2,250 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$26,055|
|AIRBAGS||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL/BATTERY CAPACITY||12.4 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||28/37/32 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||120/91 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.62 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular|
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