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2020 Nissan Sentra Review: The Dark Horse That Isn’t

Auto123 reviews the 2020 Nissan Sentra.

In the sports car world, it’s often a case of less is more. You want less weight. A lower ride height. A lower roofline. Less rubber between your rim and wheel-well. Some will pay a lot more to get, well, less: for a Porsche Boxster Spyder, for instance, buyers are paying more for less in the wildest way, a pair of nylon straps instead of traditional door pulls, and, in Europe, no infotainment system. The cost? More than your standard Boxster.

You could say that principle applies to the all-new 2020 Nissan Sentra, even though it’s locked steadfastly in the compact sedan segment and is most definitely not a sport car of any kind.

Here’s the thing, though: it kind of acts like one.

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2020 Nissan Sentra, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, three-quarters rear

It sits lower than the last-generation Sentra and has a lower roofline, so already it’s starting to espouse some “less is more-ness”. There’s only one engine to choose from – a 2.0L four-banger good for 149 hp (they just couldn’t crack 150, I guess) and 145 lb-ft of torque – which some would argue is a good thing as it makes the buying process a little easier. Never mind the fact that the Honda Civic gets two engine choices and the Toyota Corolla three, one of them a hybrid.

The latest Sentra looks lower, wider (which it is) and more serious than the model it replaces. The effect is brought home by the trademark V-Motion grille that is the most aggressive we’ve ever seen on the Sentra. It really does look like a junior Altima and that’s a good thing, because the Altima is a proper-looking mid-size sedan.

My tester being the SR Prestige trim, meanwhile, ups the ante in the athleticism department with sparkly 18-inch wheels (with lower-profile rubber), special rocker panels and rear spoiler. It’s all wrapped up in Electric Blue paint, which recalls the Bayside Blue ‘do made popular by the various generations of the GT-R sports car. Which is probably no coincidence, when you consider the slightly more aggressive intentions of the SR model.

2020 Nissan Sentra, hood
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, hood

Speaking of the GT-R, true aficionados of that model may recognize in the Sentra SR the vent roundels on the second stack. Those are meant to recall similar items found in the GT-R, though they don’t occupy the same spot in that car, taking up residence at either corner of the dash as opposed to within the centre stack.

Other neat stuff includes a flat-bottom steering wheel (though the extra thigh space it provides when centered is lessened as you start to turn the wheel), contrast-colour stitching and faux-carbon inserts sprinkled around the front cupholders, the gauge cluster hood and various other spots in the cabin.

There’s more room up front than you get in the Corolla, Civic or Hyundai Elantra, but less in back. The Sentra, meanwhile, sits mid-class when it comes to trunk space, which measures 404 litres. The car features fold-flat seats that drop with a single tug of the shoulder-mounted lever. The headrests can’t adjust or be removed, but the rear seat still folds even when the front seats sit nearly at the back of their rails.

2020 Nissan Sentra, interior
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, interior

The new Sentra walks the walk in terms of driving positions as well. The steering wheel falls nicely into your hands, the view forward is a good one and while the top almost looks chopped – plus I had a sunroof, which constricts space a little more - I hand no problem wearing a hat as I sat inside.

Nissan’s designers have done well with the room they do have – the centre storage bin is deep, the sunglass holder is quite large and there’s a handy tacky surface just ahead of the shift lever for your mobile device, so you don’t have to waste a cupholder to store it. Unfortunately, while that pad looks like a perfect spot for a wireless charging spot, the Sentra doesn’t offer one, so you have to plug in to charge and to access Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Both come as options on the Sentra, though not in the base version, which is inexcusable.

2020 Nissan Sentra, multimedia screen
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, multimedia screen
2020 Nissan Sentra, central console
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, central console

While the lack of wireless charging or a 4G LTE hotspot are somewhat minor nuisances at the compact level, I’ve a harder time forgiving the lack of a manual transmission option on the SR, which is kind of the performance version of the Sentra. A continuously-variable automatic (CVT) is your only choice and while Nissan has been developing their CVT tech for quite some time, the fact that they’ve decided to forego building in some “virtual” shift points so you can at least pretend you’re driving a manual is a shame.

It’s not like Nissan hasn’t done so before, either – the “fake shifting” in the Maxima is actually quite good. Of course, when you have a base asking price of below 19 grand, as the Sentra does, money had to be saved somewhere and chances are the lack of a manual mode and no wireless charging are a direct result of that.

Instead, Nissan has preferred to offer a comprehensive array of electronic safety aids. Adaptive cruise, rear cross-traffic alert, 360-degree backup cam (though only available on the SR Premium trim seen here), blind spot warning, forward collision warning and lane departure warning are all present and accounted for. This is the kind of kit Nissan decided to spend their Sentra development dough on, and it was probably the right choice.

2020 Nissan Sentra, profile
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, profile

The steering and handling, meanwhile, was definitely well thought-out and developed. Turn-in once you wind some lock through that flat-bottom wheel is sharp and quick, while there’s enough weight to the steering and just enough off-centre dead zone so as not to force the driver to make constant adjustments on long straight stretches of tarmac. Nissan has achieved a good balance between responsiveness and comfort when it comes to the steering.

The suspension setting reflects the immediacy of the steering rack, but I fear that they may be a little much for some. The dampers are set quite firm – the ride is firmer than that of the Corolla and Civic – so you’ll want to make sure that if you’re going to be test-driving the 2020 Sentra, try and find a road with some imperfections on it.

While I didn’t get quite that same immediacy from the powertrain as I did the chassis, there’s still enough get-up-and-go to keep you entertained, once you get past that lazy drawl of the CVT. You’ll never get the launch you do with CVT-equipped Corollas, which have the clever advantage of a traditional first gear, but this Sentra is not bad, nonetheless. I really would love to try one with a manual, though, which you can’t do with the SR, even though the base model gets one.

2020 Nissan Sentra, trunk
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, trunk

That’s a bit of a shame, because if Nissan had chosen to add a manual and maybe squeeze a few more ponies out of the motor, we wouldn’t be talking about the Sentra in the context of the Civic or Volkswagen Jetta, but rather the Civic Si or Jetta GLI – and that really says something about what Nissan has managed with this latest Sentra.

This redesigned 4-door is a great-looking, great-handling and funky take on the model, at home in the segment. With a few tweaks, it could very well sit atop it. Only time will tell.

We like

Pocket-rocket looks
Well-equipped
Well-priced
    
We like less

Sometimes choppy ride
No manual option
Back seat space lags behind competition

The competition

Honda Civic    
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Subaru Impreza
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

2020 Nissan Sentra, rear
Photo: D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra, rear

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Photos:D.Heyman
2020 Nissan Sentra pictures