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2021 Nissan Sentra SR Manual Review: Shifting in the Right Direction

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Auto123 reviews the new manual-transmission SR version of the 2021 Nissan Sentra.

There are at least two seriously endangered species right now in the automotive universe: cars and manual transmissions. For some, this is a cause of great sadness; it leaves others completely indifferent.

Given the current conditions and trends, is it possible to save both? One of the two? The question is real, but for the moment there’s no clear answer to it. The manual gearbox may be doomed in the long term with the advent of electric powertrains, but that remains kind of uncertain. As for the car format, it is becoming increasingly rare, overwhelmed by the stampede towards SUVs and pickup trucks.

For now, though, the car hangs on. Some manufacturers - Nissan, for instance - are still betting on it. As proof, the Versa debuting here this year means that the Japanese brand has four of them to offer to Canadians. As I‘ve written before, the automaker is making a calculated bet that it can grab hold of a larger part of this diminished segment as other brands abandon it.

Which brings us to the Sentra, and more specifically to this second manual-transmission variant. Before sticking it under the microscope, first a little background explaining its arrival.

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, three-quarters rear

December 2019 launch
In December 2019, we visited sunny California to attend the launch of the new-generation Sentra. We were introduced there to a fairly transformed and improved model, but two things disappointed us and our colleagues. One, the basic version didn't offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto applications or heated seats. Two, at the top of the trim range, the sportier variant (SR) was not available with a manual gearbox; the stick shift option was only available with the relatively poorly equipped base model.

And so, those who wanted a manual gearbox had to give up some of the amenities they might want. Plus, we had to wonder what good was a sporty variant without a mechanical gearbox. Anyway, this all came up in frank discussion with the good folks at Nissan, including product planning manager Scott Pak. Though we honestly felt listened to, we left the event without much hope things would change.

Surprise. Nissan announced just before the end of 2020 that it had really been listening last year, and announced it was making adjustments to the model and its product offering. And so, for 2021, the Nissan Sentra base model comes with some of the equipment it previously lacked, plus the SR variant gets what it should have offered from the outset: a manual gearbox.

Credit here is due to the automaker. I’ve doubted that manufacturers listen, but they don’t always act. Nissan listened, then acted. And when we were asked to test drive the manual-transmission Sentra SR in December, there was no arm twisting involved.

Now, how does the model measure up against its "new" rivals?

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, front
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, front

The SR version
To find the SR version, move to the top of the Sentra range. There are actually three variants: the SR we tested, with mechanical gearbox, the SR with CVT transmission, and a Prime variant offering a little more equipment.

Our three-pedal Sentra SR is advertised on the Nissan Canada website at $24,683, a price that includes shipping and preparation costs ($1,650). What's interesting to note here is that it's $1,300 less than the CVT version. On other words, more fun, for less money! More of these types of offers please.

The SR variant comes with everything you could want in terms of equipment. This includes heated front seats and steering wheel, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear selector, a host of safety features including rear door warning, 8-inch screen navigation with NissanConnect multimedia system, voice recognition and satellite radio, among others.

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, interior
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, interior
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, gear shifter
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, gear shifter

Same power
The SR variant may be the Sporty Spice of the Sentra lineup, but it doesn’t have a more-convincing mechanical setup. Like the other Sentras, it's powered by a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine that serves up 149 hp and 149 lb-ft of torque.

It's anything but anemic, but it's also anything but sporty. In fact, there are two schools of thought here. There are those who will be more than satisfied with this amount of power and enjoy the pleasure provided by the manual-gearbox configuration, but others will argue that a car calling itself sporty and comes with a mechanical transmission should really offer more power.

Both arguments have merit, but we wanted to feel what it does on the road before picking sides.

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, headlight
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, headlight

Added value
The next-gen Sentra offers a much more solid experience than in the past. We saw this when the model was launched in 2019, and again last summer when we tested a variant for a longer period. When it comes to dynamics, chassis tuning and comfort, Nissan has done its homework with this cuvee. This Sentra is the best in the model's history.

Even the CVT, once an expert at diluting pleasure, has benefited from improvements that almost make you forget it. However, the addition of the manual transmission to the equation means that you get immediate added value on the enjoyment scale.

To what extent? It depends on your expectations and it brings us back to the two schools of thought mentioned above. If you just want to enjoy the added driving pleasure, this Sentra SR with manual transmission will satisfy you. You’ll enjoy shifting gears and playing with the pedals on a twisty road, and being able to manage the gear changes as you please. Yes I know, it's possible to do it electronically using steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters with the CVT transmission, but nothing replaces the feeling of shifting from 3rd to 4th by playing with your feet and hands.

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, in the snow
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, in the snow

If there's a caveat, it's that the manual transmission offered here is not as precise as hoped. Lever travel is a bit fuzzy and could be shorter. As for the clutch, it's a bit sensitive in that it sometimes makes the engine revs dance around unnecessarily. You get used to it, but it could stand improvement.

The problem isn't the gearbox per se, but the fact that we have other units in rival models that comparison tools that highlight this one’s mild shortcomings". The gearbox of the Honda Civic Si, for example, outperforms it.

And this is where we return to our second school of thought. To be considered a true sports car, the Sentra SR with a manual transmission should offer a more-powerful engine, coupled with a transmission tuned to provide pleasure AND feeling.

In the new Sentra SR, the focus is on fun, which is a step in the right direction, it should be noted and emphasized. It remains to be seen whether Nissan will go further with this model, as it's a question of really being able to measure up to the competition. It has the car and the underlying principles to do so.

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, taillight
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, taillight

Conclusion
I’ll say it again: Nissan is taking a step - a big step - in the right direction with the addition of a manual transmission to its SR variant. It could have done it with two or even three variants, but fact is we're better served today than yesterday. Above all, the automaker was sage enough to listen to both critics and customers; we can’t ask for more (almost) from any manufacturer.

We like

Increased driving pleasure
Nissan's Zero Gravity Seats: comfort guaranteed
Solid frame

We like less

For a real sports car: more power and a sharper gearbox
Clutch sensitivity

The competition

Honda Civic
Toyota Corolla
Hyundai Elantra
Kia Forte
Mazda3
Subaru Impreza
Volkswagen Jetta

2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, rear
Photo: D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR manual, rear

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Photos:D.Rufiange
2021 Nissan Sentra SR pictures