Expert Reviews

2020 Nissan Sentra First Drive Review

SANTA MONICA, CA. While SUVs and crossovers continue to be the hot sellers in the automotive realm, small cars remain an important segment, particularly for Canadian car buyers.

So far this year, the new Civic, Corolla, Elantra, and Mazda3 have shown up in more than 160,000 Canadian driveways, yet Nissan’s Sentra adds fewer than 7,500 to that tally, putting it out of the top 10 for the segment.

But that was the old Sentra, and now there’s a new, eighth generation of Nissan’s compact sedan, and after driving a pre-production model, it’s safe to say this new car is a significant step forward for the brand’s historic nameplate.

It’s got the looks

Now 2 inches lower and 2 inches wider than the old car, this new Sentra looks sportier and more grown-up. It’s also more muscular with fenders bulging and creased with dramatic shoulder lines stamped into the sheet metal. The squinty-eyed LED headlights look serious, the 18-inch wheels fill out the wheel wells, and the Monarch Orange Metallic paint seen here was absolutely radiant under the California sun.

The new Sentra’s appearance is familiar, subscribing to Nissan’s current design ethos centred on the V-motion grille and a roofline that appears to be floating; two elements clearly derivative of its larger Altima and Maxima sedan siblings. Within the compact sedan segment, the Sentra is bold without being garish and, to my eye, is one of the best-looking cars in the segment.

Looks good inside, too

Nissan’s research showed that buyers looking for expressive style and craftsmanship are good candidates for small sedans, and the segment overall has seen a quantum shift in interior design and quality over the past couple of years.

The cabin of the new Sentra appears to have drawn inspiration from recent Mercedes-Benz offerings thanks to the stylish trio of round vents centred on the dashboard – not a bad role model. The dashboard itself is covered in soft, faux-leather upholstery, and most of the plastics and trims throughout look and feel top quality. If the build quality of our pre-production test cars is anything to go by, the Mexican-built, full-production versions should have everything properly aligned and fitted with precision.

Nissan has added their excellent “Zero Gravity” seats to the Sentra for the first time, too. They’re heated, and in top SR trim, they’re finished in leatherette with high-contrast stitching.

High-tech safety

These days, buyers in every automotive segment seem to be motivated by technology, and Nissan has acknowledged that with the 2020 Sentra. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard equipment on all but the base, S-trim cars. In SV and SR models, there’s an 8-inch multi-touch display at the top of the centre dash. It’s a bright, high-resolution screen; however, I’ve found the touch sensitivity to be lacking, often requiring a few pokes to trigger the desired function. This is an annoyance recently noticed in the Altima as well, so it’s not just an anomaly here. A pair of USB-A ports and one USB-C port are provided to help keep devices juiced up on the road.

The system is simple enough to operate, but mostly because there’s not much to it. Believing most users eschew in-car navigation these days for smartphone-based navigation, Nissan doesn’t offer a nav system on the new Sentra. During our test drive, I received a notice from my cellular carrier that I had nearly reached my maximum data usage for the month, reminding me that the Apple CarPlay / Android Auto solution does have its drawbacks.

Nissan deserves a big pat on the back for including their Safety Shield 360 package on every new Sentra as standard fare. 10-airbags, high-beam assist, lane-departure warning, blind spot warning, cross-traffic alert, plus emergency front and rear braking are included in every new Sentra – even the most basic model.

More grown-up on the road

The 2020 Sentra is based on an all-new platform with a multi-link rear suspension, and the result is a more polished on-road composure. Our Sentra drive route included the sensational, curvy canyon roads near Malibu where the little Nissan was legitimately fun to drive.

The suspension tuning leans more to comfort than outright sportiness, but the Sentra nevertheless exhibited good control when being hustled around corners, and the 18-inch Hankook tires offer good grip. The dual-pinion rack steering is electrically boosted, but provides reasonable feedback for a non-sporting car, and a decently quick ratio.

While SoCal’s roads are generally pretty smooth, the Sentra soaked up the few sizeable bumps encountered without much fuss, showing a suspension tuning that feels more sophisticated than is often found in this segment, as is the relative quietness of the cabin.

The Sentra’s brakes also provided solid stopping power and a good, firm, and linear pedal feel.

Only one engine

Befitting its all-new underpinnings, the Sentra also gets a new engine, too. The 2.0-litre, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder isn’t actually new, having been used in the Qashqai SUV as well, and here it produces 149 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque. With 20 percent more power (and 17 percent more torque than last year’s 1.8-litre engine), the new Sentra moves along with sufficient oomph. Acceleration isn’t scintillating, but it’s surely enough to satisfy most buyers.

Still, each of Nissan’s core competitors offer their small cars with a choice of engines, several of which are turbocharged, or of large enough displacement to provide notably more power than the Sentra. Nissan itself offered a turbocharged version of the Sentra as recently as last year in the US, but the company has set its sights squarely on the bulk of the market with this new engine. That doesn’t mean we can’t hope for a future reincarnation of the beloved Sentra SE-R from decades ago, especially now that Nissan has dialled in their suspension tuning so well.

Two transmissions

While most manufacturers have completely abandoned the manual transmission, Nissan Canada is bringing in a base-model Sentra with a six-speed stick-shift to appease a group of enthusiastic drivers who still appreciate them in this sort of car.

The vast majority of Sentra buyers will opt for the Xtronic transmission – Nissan’s name for a CVT – that comes standard on everything but the cheapest model. While earlier iterations of the Xtronic provided little driving joy, this latest version is much more satisfying with steps programmed in to mimic gear shifts.

CVTs have shown up in an increasing number of vehicles for their ability to maximize fuel efficiency. The Sentra fares decently in this respect, averaging 8.0 L/100km in the city, 6.0 on the highway and 7.1 combined. SR models with larger 18-inch wheels suffer a 0.2 L/100 km penalty across the board, and no matter which trim, the Sentra still consumes more fuel than the Corolla and Civic, both of which have more powerful engines.

Promise of value

Nissan Canada won’t announce pricing of the new Sentra until closer to its arrival in dealerships during the early months of 2020. Nissan claims to be aiming pricing at the heart of the segment; looking at US pricing on top-trim models, it appears that American Sentras will only be going up a few hundred dollars and we expect the Canadian models to follow suit. Given how much more equipment, style and refinement is included in the new Sentra, it should represent a solid value within a very competitive segment.

Nissan has clearly done its homework with the new Sentra, producing a well-equipped car that has moved significantly upscale in terms of style and substance.