The car that was once unappealing in so many ways has moved upmarket

The Sentra might be Nissan’s best-selling model of all time, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s been labeled as “cheap,” “uninspired,” or “sluggish.” Those claims to fame come courtesy of the last-generation model that has, thankfully, been replaced. For the 2020 model year, the Nissan Sentra ditches its old digs for a new Maxima-inspired design that sits atop a new platform. That old, sluggish 1.8-liter engine has been replaced with something a little more responsible and powerful, the 2.0-liter from the Nissan Rogue.

With the Nissan Sentra set to hit dealers in late February, Nissan invited us to give its updated compact sedan a test drive to see just how much better it really is. This is our experience.

Driving Impressions

  • Firm but comfortable ride
  • improved performance
  • Comfortable interior
2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883568

Looking at the exterior and interior of the 2020 Nissan Sentra is one thing, but how does it actually drive? The truth is that the 2020 Nissan Sentra is quite nice to drive. Right away, you can feel the effects of the new chassis, new rear suspension, and new steering system. The difference between the old and new model is night and day. Our SV tester felt more competent than most of the other cars we’ve driven recently. The overall ride was firm, yet there was no discomfort on less-than-stellar rods, and we experienced very little body roll when cornering at speed.

The good vibes carry over to that new 2.0-liter engine under the hood too. Borrowed from the Nissan Rogue, it delivers a cool 149 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but it completely dispatches the slow, sluggish, and overall lazy feeling of the last-gen model. Acceleration wasn’t anything to write home about, but it wasn’t mind-numbing, either.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Our biggest complaint is the Xtronic CVT transmission that is, well, a CVT. Like most people, we’ve never been too fond of them to begin with. Sure, they serve a purpose in the sense that they help improve fuel efficiency, but they always feel a little...ahem… fake. The CVT in the Sentra does a fairly decent job at masquerading as an automatic, but under hard acceleration, there is what feels like an infinite number of shifts before the tach finally levels out and holds steady. It doesn’t make for a necessarily bad experience, but we’d rather have real cogs over simulated ones.

Interior comfort was better than we expected. Our Sentra SV tester was paired with the premium package, so we got the quilted leather seats with contrast stitching and various orange accents throughout the cabin. The seats were pretty comfortable and fairly supportive for a car that isn’t all that fast. Even the rear seats seemed more comfortable than most, and rear legroom seemed adequate for a compact sedan. Material quality and fit and finish seem largely improved over the last-gen model, and the plethora of soft-touch surfaces help push the Sentra closer to the premium segment than it’s ever really been.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Overall, we were quite pleased with the Sentra. It wasn’t perfect, and there are still some areas that could be improved, but the 2020 model is a huge step forward compared to what we experienced in the last-gen model.

2020 Nissan Sentra Exterior Design

  • Maxima-inspired design
  • Now lower and sportier than ever
  • LED exterior lighting
2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883651

The last-generation Nissan Sentra was plagued by black plastic exterior bits and a frumpy design that had most of the world convinced that designers penned the thing in the dark with little more than an old wooden ruler. With the new decade comes a new model that sheds that frumpy skin and brings a load of Maxima DNA. In short, the Maxima has a busier appearance with a sportier nose and sloping roofline that helps the Sentra look like it sits closer to the premium segment.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Our tester was the Sentra SV, the middle trim, so it came with fairly stylish 16-inch wheels, chrome accents on the beltline, and body-colored plastic trim in places that were usually filled lazily with plastic as it came off the production line.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883641

The headlights feel very modern with a full complement of LED running lights while the fog lights are integrated into the corners of the fascia – something that makes those recessed areas worthwhile – no fake vents to speak of here.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883581

The taillights, on the other hand, do represent a fresh look, however, they still come off as somewhat cheap. This is mainly due to the fact that you can see the taillight bulbs through the red matrix, ultimately making one part of the matrix look brighter than the other.

Outside of the revised and highly improved exterior design, the new Sentra rides on an all-new platform that is both two-inches lower and wider than that of the outgoing model. When paired with the new multi-link suspension (a huge upgrade from the twist-beam rear on the last-gen model,) then Sentra doesn’t only look better, but it drives better too.

How Big is the 2020 Nissan Sentra?

The 2020 Nissan Sentra is 182.7-inches long, 71.5-inches wide, and 56.9-inches tall. This puts it on the larger side of the compact sedan segment, but that’s a good thing. IT rides on a 106.8-inch wheelbase and has 62-inch front and rear tracks. It is effectively larger than both the Hyundai Elantra and the Honda Civic, two of the primary models it competes with. In terms of garage storage, you could fit the Nissan Sentra in your typical one-car garage, but a 1.5-car garage would be better for the claustrophobic, and a two-car garage would be even better.

2020 Nissan Sentra exterior dimensions
Length 182.7
Width 71.5
Height 56.9
Wheelbase 106.8
Front Track 62
Rear Track 62

2020 Nissan Sentra Interior Design

  • Largely improved interior
  • Comfortable, supportive seats
  • Impressive infotainment system
  • Attractive gauge cluster
  • Plenty of room for adults in the rear
  • Decent cargo room
  • Overall spacious and modern

If you thought the new exterior design of the 2020 Sentra was impressive, just wait until you look inside. Our SV tester was packed with leather on the seats, parts of the dash, and door trim panels. The flat-bottom steering wheel gives the interior a sportier feel, as do the new HVAC vents that are somewhat inspired by those of the Nissan GT-R.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
- image 883597

The front seats feel more supportive than necessary for a car that pumps out less than 150 horsepower, but at the same time, they are quite comfortable. The bolsters on the seatback, for example, give a hugging sensation while the mild bolsters on the seat cushion are soft and don’t hamper ingress or egress as they do in other models with mimicked sports seats.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
- image 883604

The rear seats aren’t quite as soft and as comfortable as the fronts, and they are far from being as supportive, but they are a huge improvement over those of the last-gen model. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time back here, but they do feel comfortable enough to be suitable for longer drives, and the pull-down armrest in the center is a nice addition when you’re not lugging around a fifth passenger back there. The door trim panels get the same leather treatment as in the front, however, the plastic frame of the front seats is there to remind you that the Sentra is as premium as it pretends to be.

Is the 2020 Nissan Sentra Spacious?

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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The 2020 Nissan Sentra is relatively spacious, however, it’s not the most spacious cabin on the market. Headroom, for example, comes in below that of the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra, even without the moonroof equipped. Other metrics are pretty much right on par, but rear passengers don’t have as much legroom as they would in the Honda or Hyundai, so that’s something to keep in mind if you plan to haul taller passengers.

2020 Nissan Sentra interior dimensions
Front Headroom 38.9/37.5
Front Shoulder Room 56.4
Front Hip Room 53.5
Front Leg Room 44
Rear Headroom 37.5/36.7
Rear Shoulder Room 54.5
Rear Hip Room 53.3
Rear Leg Room 34.7

2020 Nissan Sentra Technology

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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The centerpiece of the interior is, arguably, the new infotainment system. It takes the presence of a last-gen German car, perched all nice and pretty atop the center stack. Fortunately, Nissan has learned from the error of others and has included two physical knobs as well as a handful of physical buttons to access the menu, camera, phone functions, and track skip. This system includes Apple CarPlay and Andriod Auto, no subscription required, and comes paired with three USB ports with one Type-C connector and an auxiliary port if you’d rather play music the old-school way.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
- image 883611

The other major highlight here is the instrument cluster. Now, it will never be confused with the high-quality digital clusters from premium brands, but it does show that the thought of going premium was there in the design phase. The common things are shown via analog-type gauges, while all other information, including current gear, range, trip, and a host of other essential driver information is shown on the central display this is, suffice it to say, rather large for a car in this price bracket.

2020 Nissan Sentra Safety Equippment

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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Nissan has taken the route of safety first with the 2020 Sentra, and that’s why every available safety system comes standard, regardless of time. Outside of the standard fitment of 10 airbags, you’ll get the full Nissan Intelligent Mobility package that includes:

  • High Beam Assist
  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Pedestrian Detection
  • Blind Spot Warning
  • Rear Automatic Braking
  • Rear Cross-Traffic Alert
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Intelligent Forward Collision Warning
  • Driver Attention Alertness

2020 Nissan Sentra Cargo Room

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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With the rear seatbacks in place, the 2020 Nissan Sentra can haul around 14.3 cubic-feet of cargo. That’s more than enough to handle your weekly shopping routine or to lug around a pair of large suitcases if you travel a lot or work on the side as an Uber or Lyft driver. On that note, the Hyundai Elantra offers just a hair more, while the Honda Civic Sedan will get you nearly a cubic-foot of extra cargo space. The rear seatbacks do fold down to increase cargo capacity, however, Nissan has yet to disclose official numbers. We estimate that maximum cargo jumps up to the 40 cu-ft range, if we’re being conservative, but we can’t say with 100-percent certainty.

2020 Nissan Sentra Drivetrain and Chassis

  • New platform makes it wider, longer, lower
  • 2.0-liter engine from the Nissan Rogue
  • Improved fuel economy
  • Impressive driving dynamics
  • Upgraded steering
  • Revised rear suspension
  • Fun to drive
2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Drivetrain
- image 883629

First off, let us joint point out that Nissan did absolutely nothing to pretty up the engine compartment of the 2002 Sentra. When you pop the hood, it looks like a massive clustered mess of wires, vacuum hoses, and metal tubing. Rest assured, though, that underneath all that disorganized mess is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that puts the outgoing 1.8-liter to shame. This engine pumps out 149 horsepower and 6,400 rpm and 146 pound-feet of torque as low as 4,400 rpm. Not world-shattering numbers by any means, but the Sentra is finally on par with the competition. The Civic still bests it by nine horsepower, but outside of that, the new Sentra sits on top.

Nissan Sentra drivetrain specifications
Engine 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder
Horsepower 149 @ 6,400 RPM
Torque 146 LB-FT @ 4,400 RPM
Transmission Xtronic CVT
Driveline FWD
Fuel Gasoline, Regular
Steering Electric, Dual-Pinion
Suspension Independent Front \ Multi-Link Rear
Tires P205/60R 16
Curb Weight 3,045 LBS
Fuel Economy 29/39/33

Power is shunted through a CVT transmission that is, well, a CVT, so don’t expect anything special. Along with the new engine comes a revised suspension system. There are the traditional independent strut assemblies up front, but the rear end has been upgraded from beam-style suspension to a multi-link setup. Upgraded steering brings an electric, dual-pinion rack that represents a huge improvement over the outgoing model.

It’s not all about the engine and suspension that has changed, however, as that Rogue-sourced 2.0-liter needed to sit atop a different platform. This platform makes the Sentra wider, longer, and lower than ever, something that promises better driving dynamics, better fuel economy, and an overall better ride. Unfortunately, the larger engine and new platform come at a cost: Weight. The 2020 Nissan Sentra tips the scales at 3,045 pounds, 201 pounds more than the Hyundai Elantra, and 274 pounds heavier than the Civic sedan.

2020 Nissan Sentra Fuel Economy

With the new engine, new platform, and new exterior design, comes improved fuel economy. You’re still not going to beat out a Prius, but you’ll manage 29 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg combined on S and SV trims– according to the EPA, of course. The Sentra SR, on the other hand, pulls a little less at 28 in the city, 37 on the highway, and 32 combined. Overall, not too bad for a sedan that can haul five people fairly comfortably.

How Fast is the 2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883568

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nissan hasn’t published performance figures for the 2020 Sentra. Motor Trend managed to run some tests on the Sentra SR, which is the same in terms of engine and power output, and it managed to nail a 60-mph sprint in 8 seconds flat with the quarter-mile taking 16.2 seconds at just 87.8 mph. Of course, the Sentra isn’t designed to be a race car by any means, but it’s best you don’t expect to do much in terms of spirited driving. For what it’s worth, we don’t expect top speed to move beyond the 130-mph mark and is probably somewhere closer to 120 mph.

2020 Nissan Sentra Pricing

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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As part of the generational shift, Nissan also simplified the Sentra’s lineup, so it now includes just three trim levels. The entry-level model is the Sentra S, and it starts out at $19,090. The middle-level trim is the SV, and that’s the model we had the pleasure of test driving. It carries a price tag of $20,270, while the range-topping Sentra SR, which comes with the same power output as the lower trims, commands $21,430.

In comparison, the Sentra is considerably cheaper than the Honda Civic on all levels (priced between $20,650 and $27,700), but the Hyundai Elantra does start out cheaper at $17,900 for a basic, entry-level model. In our opinion, the Nissan Sentra, in SV trim, is a good value for the price, and if you were turned off by the last generation, you should probably give the new Sentra a try – there is marked improvement.

2020 Nissan Sentra Competition

Hyundai Elantra

left right

The Hyundai Elantra entered its current generation back in 2017 and, while it’s still relatively modern, it just feels a little dated compared to the new Sentra. The Elantra, in upper trim levels, does have some leather appointments, however, you’ll still find a lot of hard-touch surfaces. The infotainment screen also sits inside the center stack while the instrument cluster is old-school with a small digital display in the middle. This is all superficial to some extent, however, as the Elantra is rather comfortable to sit in, even on longer drives, and it does offer average interior space for the segment. We actually took the 2019 Elantra Sport for a test drive, and found it to be rather pleasing, despite some of its shortcomings.

left right

Where the Hyundai Elantra really excels is in the powertrain department. It’s not quite as powerful as the Nissan Sentra, with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, but it tips the scales at just 2,844 pounds. Pack this with a somewhat aerodynamic design, and the Elantra is able to muster up 31 mpg in the city, 41 mpg on the highway, and 35 mpg combined. Those are better figures than the Sentra and the Honda Civic, so if you’re into getting the best economy, we wouldn’t fault you for seeing the Elantra as a little more appealing. Pricing for the Elantra starts out at $17,900, so it’s one of the cheapest compact sedans on the market, but pricing climbs to as high as $22,500. Your best bet is a mid-level or range-topping trim if you want decent interior appointments, technology, and safety equipment.

2020 Nissan Sentra vs. 2020 Hyundai Elantra
Nissan Sentra Hyundai Elantra
Engine 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder
Horsepower 149 @ 6,400 RPM 147 @ 6,200 RPM
Torque 146 LB-FT @ 4,400 RPM 132 LB-FT @ 4,500 RPM
Transmission Xtronic CVT CVT
Driveline FWD FWD
Fuel Gasoline, Regular Gasoline, Regular
Steering Electric, Dual-Pinion Electric
Suspension Independent Front \ Multi-Link Rear Front Independent
Tires P205/60R 16 P205/55R16
Curb Weight 3,045 LBS 2,844 LBS
Fuel Economy 29/39/33 31/41/35
Price $19,090 - $21,430 $17,900 - $22,500

Read our full review on the 2020 Hyundai Elantra

Honda Civic

left right

The 2020 Honda Civic is one of the more modern-looking compact sedans on the market. This generation has a mix of DNA from cars like the Acura NSX (See the headlights) and the Honda Accord but still manages to maintain its own identity. In hatchback form, it can even be sporty, especially in higher trim levels, but the sedan features a more family-friendly design. It’s not a car you’d confuse with the premium segment, but it does cast a shadow over some of the competition. The interior can be had with relatively nice materials, but there are more hard-touch surfaces than in the Sentra. The leather appointments are also very Honda-like in that they have a harder, slippery feeling to them. Technology is on point, as there is a digital instrument cluster, and the overall layout of the infotainment, center stack, and center console vibes very well with those who have driven it. Check out our impressions of the 2017 Honda Civic Hatchback to get a better idea of how it drives.

left right

The thing with the Civic Sedan, however, is that it is offered in no fewer than five trims. The Nissan Sentra SV that we tested competes against the Civic Sport more than anything else, and that one will set you back $21,550, so you’re already paying more than going with the range-topping Sentra SV. The Civic Sport is also the lowest model you can get with the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder. You’ll get 158 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque, enough for fairly quick acceleration, but nothing that’s mind-blowing. Fuel economy for this engine comes in at 30 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg combined, so it’s a little more efficient than the Sentra in the City but fails equal or short in other scenarios. If you’re interested in trims above the Sport model, you’ll see pricing increase drastically to as much as $27,700 for the range-topping Touring trim.

$20,650 - $27,700
Nissan Sentra Honda Civic
Engine 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder 2.0-Liter Four-Cylinder
Horsepower 149 @ 6,400 RPM 158 @ 6,000 RPM
Torque 146 LB-FT @ 4,400 RPM 138 LB-FT @ 4,200 RPM
Transmission Xtronic CVT CVT
Driveline FWD FWD
Fuel Gasoline, Regular Gasoline, Regular
Steering Electric, Dual-Pinion Electric
Suspension Independent Front \ Multi-Link Rear Four-Wheel Independent
Tires P205/60R 16 P215/55R16
Curb Weight 3,045 LBS 2,771 LBS
Fuel Economy 29/39/33 30/38/33
Price $19,090 - $21,430 $20,650 - $27,700

Read our full review on the 2020 Honda Civic

Final Thoughts

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
- image 883584

When we received the invite to check out the new Nissan Sentra, we have to admit that we weren’t super excited. After dealing with the last-gen model, we walked into this test drive with a lot of preconceptions that were, well, wrong. The 2020 Sentra is a huge departure from the outgoing model, and it’s much better too. The exterior design is much more appealing even if it is a little busy, and the interior feels more premium than entry-level despite the shortcomings here and there. The new platform and Rouge-sourced engine drastically improve handling and performance in a way that was unexpected. Overall, we are pretty pleased after driving the Nissan Sentra and, while there are some things that we don’t like – like that CVT transmission, for example – it sure does seem to offer a decent value for the cost and might even sit a rung above the competition in most aspects. Kudos to Nissan for stepping it up this time around.

  • Leave it
    • Could be more powerful
    • The CVT needs to go
    • Can see bulbs through the tailight matrix
Philippe Daix
Obsessive and Compulsive Automotive Expert - phil@topspeed.com
Always on the lookout for the latest automotive news, Philippe Daix is our most senior editor and founder of TopSpeed.com. He likes to see himself as a consumer advocate with a mission to educate motorheads of all ages.  Read More
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