Redesigned Sentra looks like a small Altima, but it deserves more than the powertrain from the Rogue Sport.
It’s an almost winter day in Southern California, and the tourists in their campers have all returned home, so we’re sailing along Pacific Coast Highway in the 2020 Nissan Sentra. Immediately apparent is that the brand-new cockpit in Nissan’s redesigned compact sedan bears no resemblance to any Sentra we’ve driven before, and that’s a very good thing.
There’s real style here, even if the flat-bottomed steering wheel is now a bit of a design cliché. Most of the materials are pliant to the touch and attractive in a way that you can imagine a designer and not an accountant was involved in their selection. And this time around, Nissan nailed the driving position. Previous versions had the pedals too close and the steering wheel too far. We can see down PCH, the ocean, the palm trees with ease, and the standard Zero Gravity front seats are supportive and comfortable for hours at a time.
These simple upgrades add up to breathing life into a nameplate that has soldiered on with a rental-car persona for too many years. Built on the latest version of Nissan’s global C-segment sedan architecture, the new Sentra is about the same size as before—overall passenger volume hasn’t changed–but it’s two inches wider overall with a similarly wider track, and there’s a commensurate increase in passenger hip room.
The designers did lower the roofline, and it’s shorter by nearly two inches, making the Sentra look more like a car and less like an awkward crossover-sedan monstrosity. That’s also the inspiration behind the contrasting black roof option you can get on Sentra SR models that are gray, orange, or white. There’s no significant decline in the published headroom dimension, but cars equipped with a sunroof are pretty tight for six-footers.
If you didn’t opt for the NISMO or SR Turbo versions of the last-generation Sentra, you might have noticed the uncompetitive acceleration. And before you get your hopes up, the NISMO and SR Turbo versions have been discontinued, at least for now. For 2020, all Sentra sedans receive a version of the Rogue Sport’s powertrain: a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder that gives 149 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque. There’s no manual gearbox this time around, so you get a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) driving the front wheels. Nissan currently isn’t in a financial position to spend money fine-tuning a gearbox that no one will buy.
Squirting through traffic in Santa Monica in the CVT-equipped 2020 Sentra was pleasantly uneventful. The engine has enough torque in these situations, and the transmission is sufficiently responsive and smooth.
The good times end when you floor the throttle. Working the engine harder reveals that it’s weak and noisy. The updated CVT simulates shift points to try to give the sensation of stepping through gears to avoid the characteristic CVT high-rpm drone. But the “shifts” can’t mask the fact that finding speed is a chore. Our pre-production Sentra test car went from zero to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds and hit the quarter-mile in 17.0 seconds at 83 mph. That’s quicker than a base-engine 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan, and a couple tenths quicker than the previous Sentra, but far slower than most other competitors. Fuel economy, at least, is on par with the rest of the class. The 2020 Nissan Sentra is EPA-rated at 32 or 33 mpg combined, depending on the trim level.
No doubt you’ve heard that the Sentra has switched to independent multilink rear suspension for 2020. We’re hard-pressed to call this a significant advantage, however, since the superior suspension kinematics are unlikely to be appreciated by Sentra buyers. But, there is the rental-car driver and the old adage about how nothing handles better than a rental car, especially a rental car with a multilink rear suspension. Mind you, the Nissan Sentras we drove offered secure balance through the high-speed curves on Mulholland Highway. Yet even though the steering has ample heft, there’s not enough feedback to encourage anything beyond a comfortably brisk pace.
Ride quality is firm but acceptable most of the time. Medium-size bumps were especially noticeable, possibly because we drove to the event in a 2020 Mazda 3, which rides better. Nissan is offering 16-, 17-, and 18-inch wheels and tires on the 2020 Sentra. For sanity’s sake, we would pass on the Sentra SR, because its 215/45R-18 Hankook Kinergy GT all-season tires are noisy and deliver too much of a pounding over expansion joints. The 205/50R-17 Michelin Primacy tires included on SV models with the Premium package have more compliance for commuting.
Braking is a high point on the 2020 Sentra. There’s good pedal feel, and the SR Premium model we tested stopped from 70 mph in 170 feet—a solid number for this class.
Pricing on the 2020 Nissan Sentra is right in line with other compact sedans. The base S starts at $20,015 and comes with 16-inch steel wheels, cloth upholstery, and a basic 7.0-inch touchscreen audio interface without smartphone integration. All available safety features are standard, including a forward-collision warning system with automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear automated braking, and lane-departure warnings.
Priced at $21,195, the SV is the value play. It features an upgraded 8.0-inch touchscreen, standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, two data-capable USB ports (one of which is a newer USB-C port), one charge-only USB port in the back seat, adaptive cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless access, and alloy wheels. The SR ($22,355) adds LED projector-type headlights, the aforementioned 18-inch wheels and sportier styling.