FIRST DRIVE: Nissan adds fun to the 2020 Sentra, but only a dollop

Built to a budget, new Sentra isn’t really exciting, but it certainly isn’t boring

Published: December 15, 2019, 10:00 PM
Updated: November 23, 2021, 4:05 PM

2020 Nissan Sentra

MALIBU, Calif.—Nissan wants its new, eighth-generation Sentra compact sedan to appeal to younger buyers – no news there – and it believes the key is to make it sportier than its hum-drum predecessors. After all, young people want action and excitement, so the Sentra is built on an all-new platform with a new, more powerful engine.

However, most young people don’t have a lot of spare money, so the new Sentra is also built to a tight budget. Canadian prices haven’t yet been announced, but they’ve been revealed for the U.S. and there’s a slight increase there. In Canada, we should expect the Sentra to sell in February for about $17,000 at its most basic trim up to about $28,000 at its most loaded. Those are anticipated MSRPs – there’ll be taxes and freight and PDI charges on top of them, too.

Shared features across the line

All trims share the same 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder engine with the Rogue Sport and Qashqai, making 149 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. This is a boost of 20% and 16%, respectively, over the previous engine, and it’s a good unit. In several hours of pushing through Los Angeles traffic and twisting around tight canyon roads, the engine pulled well when needed and was never embarrassed at the lights. It wasn’t really exciting, but it certainly wasn’t boring.

The most basic of the five available trims is the “S” version, which is fitted with a 6-speed manual transmission. This is a cost-saving feature, not a performance feature, and it’s not even an option in the US. If you really want a stick-shift, this is the only Sentra version that includes it – all others come with a Continuously Variable Transmission, or Xtronic, in Nissan-speak.

This least-expensive version does not include heated seats, but it’s otherwise fairly well equipped with Nissan’s “Safety Shield 360”: intelligent emergency braking with pedestrian detection, high beam assist (which dips the lights automatically when another car approaches), lane departure warning, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, and rear intelligent emergency braking (which applies the brakes if the car thinks you’re backing into something).

The S edition also has push-button start, but you have to go up through the grades to get the CVT, heated seats and heated steering wheel. Navigation for the central 7-inch or 8-inch LCD touchscreen is not an option at any price, but these days, most people prefer to use their phones. The mid-grade SV trim, which Nissan expects to be most popular, includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, as well as the larger central screen, alloy wheels and intelligent cruise control.

Sporty aspiration

I drove only the most expensive SR Premium edition, which has (among other things) larger 18-inch wheels, a sportier look with a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust and side sill extensions, a better Bose sound system, LED headlights, and a flashier interior.

It may look a little sportier, but it doesn’t behave or handle any differently from lower-priced versions. All CVT-equipped models come with a Sport button on the shifter that alters the ratios of the belts and pulleys, but that’s all. In practice, it’s the equivalent of holding lower gears through the corners and it does work well, but the car doesn’t stick to the road any better. For most drivers, the “sportier feel” will be all in their heads, anyway.

The larger wheels on the SR trims do hurt fuel consumption with their greater rolling resistance, but not much. The regular CVT trims have an official rating of 8.0 L/100 km in the city, with 6.0 on the highway and 7.1 combined., while the SRs return 8.2 in the city, 6.2 on the highway, and 7.3 combined. The 6-speed manual rates at a thirstier 9.4 city, 6.4 highway, and 8.0 combined.

Refined interior

The Sentra does look good, though. It’s very well fitted and finished, and the interior is nicely refined without being remarkable. The seats are now Nissan’s more comfortable “zero-gravity” units, similar to those in the larger Altima and Maxima sedans.

There’s contrast stitching and a leather feel for the “Prima-Tex appointed seat trim” in the SR Premium, as well as the leather-wrapped steering wheel of the SV and up, and the leather shifter knob that’s found in the SR and up. Like most “affordable” cars, you have to pay extra for these little touches that make all the difference.

Inside, there’s a surprising amount of space. Even with the front seats set back for their occupants’ comfort, there’s enough legroom to keep my size-13s from cramping, and enough headroom to avoid a crick in my 6-foot frame. There’s even enough width to allow three full-sized passengers to sit in the back without fighting – at least, not for the first 10 minutes or so.

The rear seat folds down in a 60/40 split to allow extra room for luggage in the trunk if needed, but it’s reasonably spacious in there. Most sedan owners will never fold those seats down anyway; to do so is an admission they should have bought an SUV, like their parents.

Competitive improvements

The new platform now includes independent multi-link suspension in the rear and a dual-pinion rack electric power steering system. They work well, but not really any better than other systems in competitive vehicles. I’d have liked the steering to tighten up a little when the Sport button is pushed, as it does in Hyundais, to give just a little more of that jolted-up drive feel on a winding road, but what’s there already is fine.

And that’s the new Sentra. It’s fine. It’s just fine. It’s not remarkable in any one way, but I must admit my standards for such affordable vehicles are considerably higher now than they were one or two generations ago (and night-and-day above three generations previous).

Most of the competition, such as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra, also succeeds at the challenges the Sentra has taken on, and each in its own way. But Nissan’s compact sedan comes through with pretty much everything you could want for the money. In the end, in this market, that’s what it comes down to: Make sure it’s a good car in everything that’s asked of it, and then make sure it’s not overpriced. If Nissan does that with the Sentra, it’ll sell a billion of them.