Forget (most of) what you knew about Nissan’s compact sedan

The last two generations of Nissan Sentra have followed a simple formula: a spacious interior, a smooth ride, great gas mileage, and low prices. For plenty of compact-sedan buyers, that’s a winning formula. But it came at the expense of driving pleasure — to the extreme. Last year’s Nissan Sentra wasn’t merely dull, but downright awful if you try to get some grins. Its wheezy 124-horsepower engine struggled under all but the gentlest acceleration, and its handling betrayed an alarming lack of composure for a modern small car. And while its upright styling could be considered elegant from some angles, it just looked tall and narrow from others.

For the 2020 model year, Nissan has worked to reinvent the Sentra. A striking new body sits atop a more sophisticated suspension and wraps around a more potent engine and a fancier interior. All the while, Nissan has kept prices in check and even improved the Sentra’s gas mileage.

Do the changes turn the Sentra into a class leader? Not exactly. Even after this year’s improvements, you can still find quicker, sharper-handling, more luxuriously-finished small sedans. And if you loved the old Sentra because you could get a huge backseat and trunk at a fire-sale price, the new model will feel like a step backward.

By becoming more similar to competitors like the latest Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, and Kia Forte, the 2020 Sentra loses the old model’s standout spaciousness and value — but it brings fresh advantages to the table all while keeping costs in check.

2020 NISSAN SENTRA - EXTERIOR

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Some cars’ redesigns hide major mechanical improvements under familiar sheetmetal. Others wrap old bones in new bodies. But that’s not the case with the new Sentra. It’s brand-new, and it looks it.

The new Sentra is about 2 inches wider and 2 inches lower than its predecessor. The changes are instantly evident. Wider, lower vehicles look inherently sportier than taller, narrower ones, and Nissan took full advantage of these proportions.
Nissan Sentra Exterior Dimensions
Overall Length 183.1 inches
Overall Width 71.4 inches
Overall Height 57 inches
Wheelbase 106.7 inches
2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Gone are the big high headlights in favor of low, slimmer ones. They stretch out toward the center of the car, where a black-and-chrome grille — similar to what you’ll find in the larger Nissan Altima and Maxima — reaches down almost to the ground. This grille is smaller than the Altima’s, though, and it integrates more smoothly with the headlights. Slightly more rounded headlights and taillights than the Altima take the edge off, dialing back an aggressive look into more genteel confidence.

We’d compare the result favorably to the Mercedes-Benz A 220 from the rear, while it’s unmistakably (yet attractively) a Nissan from the front. Style is an important reason to choose a sedan over a more popular crossover these days, and by doubling down on car-like proportions, the new Sentra is better-positioned to capture remaining sedan buyers.
2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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We do have a couple of minor complaints. First, our tested SR model — the priciest and most sport-themed Sentra — is the only trim level that comes with fog lights. Even the most luxurious model (the SV with the Premium Package) has prominent chunks of black plastic in the front bumper.

It’s an unfortunate misstep; Nissan made such an effort to design a truly handsome sedan, then marred its face on most of the lineup. We also didn’t love the way the black plastic side-mirror housing spilled onto the front fender, especially on our two-tone test car (white with a black roof).

2020 NISSAN SENTRA - INTERIOR

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The outside of the 2020 Nissan Sentra is a class act. The inside isn’t bad, but it’s more of a mixed bag.

The dashboard is more contemporary than last year’s Sentra, following the convention of perching an infotainment screen atop the dash rather than raising up the whole dashboard to envelop it. Right below it are three round HVAC vents, which — combined with the dashboard’s orange backlighting — push the boundaries of tasteful restraint in a car that’s not actually a track-day winner. It’s by no means awful, but the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla are two compact cars that we’d argue achieve better results with minimalism than Nissan does with extra flourishes.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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The Sentra’s interior plastics also don’t measure up to the luxury-grade Mazda’s, and details like the rock-hard sun visors and foot-operated manual parking brake detract further. Everything is user-friendly, at least, which is more than we can say for the Mazda3. The base Sentra S uses a 7-inch touchscreen, while the SV and SR models upgrade to an 8-inch unit that supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration.

Moving beyond the dashboard, the Sentra’s lower, wider proportions also result in lower, wider front seats. That’s bad news for buyers who liked perching up high in last year’s Sentra, but Nissan can expect such critics to migrate toward one of its many crossovers. You can get the Sentra with dazzling quilted leather upholstery, at least when you buy the SV with the Premium Package. Oddly, our tested SR with the Premium Package brought plain black imitation leather — at a higher price.

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The old Sentra’s exceptional spaciousness is gone, though, a consequence of its more striking exterior. I recently rented a 2019 Sentra, which easily absorbed a rear-facing child safety seat and an adult into its backseat, and a gaggle of suitcases plus a stroller into its trunk. The redesigned 2020 model is still above-average for its class, but it’s no longer amazing. The rear cushion is lower, the front seatbacks are closer to your knees, and the smaller windows close in more around you. In other words, adults will fit without drama, but they also won’t likely love it. Similarly, trunk space drops from an outstanding 15.1 cubic feet to a still-decent 14.3 cubic feet.

Nissan seems to be betting that plus-size rear seats and trunks aren’t what sells compact sedans, and we’re not going to argue otherwise — especially since the new Sentra remains class-competitive in both ways. But keep this change in mind if you’re an Uber driver (or customer). Every Sentra is a four-door sedan, without the more versatile five-door hatchback configuration you’ll find on many competitors.

2020 NISSAN SENTRA - DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

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We’ll cut to the chase: the redesigned Sentra doesn’t drive as well as it looks. It’s a night-and-day improvement over the old model, but it has moved its acceleration and handling from terrible to rather good — not all the way to excellent.

Every 2020 Sentra uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine making 149 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, paired to a continuously variable automatic transmission. That’s a significant improvement from last year’s 124-hp 1.8-liter, which was outgunned by some subcompact cars, to say nothing of every competitor in the compact class.

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
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But it’s still on the low end of the segment, and Nissan no longer offers a higher-output engine like the Sentra once did and many competitors still do. The engine feels peppy and eager when you’re driving gently, but it doesn’t have a lot of power in reserve if you do try to dig in. You can choose among Eco, Sport, and Normal driving models, but unlike on the larger Altima, you can’t manually choose among preselected shift points. Like on other Nissan CVTs, the Sentra automatically simulates shift points to reduce the drone of steady RPMs.

The new Sentra’s handling composure is a revelation in comparison to last year’s model. You turn the steering wheel and the car goes where it’s pointed, without last year’s disconcerting pitching, bobbing, and understeering.

The 2019 Sentra was perhaps the worst-handling sedan you could buy that year, and we’d sooner try to drive fast in many crossover SUVs. Still, the new Sentra’s abilities only elevate it to midpack in a segment that was already accustomed to dynamic competence. There’s little eagerness to the steering, little zest. Nissan has created a small car that drives like a small car, but that’s not enough for a standing ovation. What’s more, our SR test car (admittedly wearing big 18-inch wheels) slammed hard over some bumps.

The Mazda3 and Honda Civic remain the driver’s choices in this segment, with superior power, handling, and even ride quality to the Sentra.
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At least gas mileage remains decently thrifty. The Sentra actually improves its fuel economy slightly compared to its less-powerful predecessor, likely because the bigger engine doesn’t have to work as hard in normal driving conditions. Our SR test vehicle scores an EPA-estimated 28 mpg in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, and 32 mpg overall, while other trim levels do about one mpg better. That’s the same as the base engines of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, though they both offer upgraded powertrains that are simultaneously more powerful and more fuel-efficient. We averaged 34 mpg in a week of mixed driving.

The 2020 Sentra lacks Nissan’s ProPilot Assist system, but it has some of the same components, including adaptive cruise control. However, the adaptive cruise control lacks full-speed stop-and-go capability, meaning that you have to take over below 25 mph. And while the Sentra has a lane-departure warning, it lacks ProPilot’s lane-keeping steering corrections.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Exterior
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Other safety features include forward automatic emergency braking with pedestrian-detection capability, rear automatic braking, blind-spot monitoring with a rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic high beams. All of these features are standard on all models except adaptive cruise control, which isn’t offered on the base Sentra S but is standard on the rest of the lineup.

2020 NISSAN SENTRA - PRICING

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The 2020 Nissan Sentra is priced from $19,090 for its base S version. It’s pretty decently equipped, with the aforementioned safety features as well as power windows and locks, keyfob with push-button starting, a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen, a USB port, and 16-inch wheels with plastic wheel covers.

The better deal is the $20,270 SV, which adds adaptive cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, an upgraded proximity key system that lets you unlock the doors with the keyfob in your pocket, upgraded cloth upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and an 8-inch touchscreen that adds Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, along with two more USB ports: one conventional outlet and one new USB-C. You’d have to be really pinching pennies to skip all this extra content, and even then, you’re likely hurting your resale value. You can also dress up the SV with a Premium Package ($2,460) that adds quilted leather upholstery, heated front seats, a six-way power driver’s seat, 17-inch wheels, LED headlights, and a sunroof.

2020 Nissan Sentra - Driven Interior
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Here’s where things get a little wonky. The top SR model starts at $21,430, adding 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and foglights, orange stitching on the seats and dashboard, and a tasteful body kit. All fine so far. But the SR’s $2,170 Premium Package doesn’t match the SV’s. It swaps out the beautiful quilted leather for imitation leatherette. And it adds features you can’t get on the otherwise more upscale SV: a surround-view parking camera, a Bose eight-speaker sound system, and a heated steering wheel. And as we mentioned, you can’t get the SV with foglights. So you can choose between the SV that looks better and feels richer on the inside, or the SR that looks better on the outside and has more features.

If you can find a combination of features that works for you, the Sentra is a pretty good deal in its segment. We ran the prices on equivalently equipped competitors and found that the Honda Civic costs several thousand dollars more than a comparable Sentra, and it also edges out the Toyota Corolla depending on the features you want.
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It even has competitive sticker prices to the maximum-value Korean competition, especially if you want both leather and a sunroof (which maddeningly requires you to check every option on the 2020 Hyundai Elantra). The big wild card is the discount you’ll be able to negotiate, which is all over the map as we write amid the coronavirus shutdowns. If price is paramount, you might want price quotes from your entire short list. However, our best estimate is that you should be able to knock about $2,000 off the Sentra’s sticker prices, including any manufacturer rebates (which stand at $750 as we write in late June). That’s a bigger discount than you can expect from a Civic and in line with what you’d get at the Toyota dealer for a Corolla, but it’s nothing like the “take our car, please” money you’d have found on the hood of last year’s Sentra.

2020 Nissan Sentra prices
BASE VEHICLE Description Suggested List Price
Sentra S 2.0 Liter I4 Xtronic $19,090
Sentra SV 2.0 Liter I4 Xtronic $20,270
Sentra SR 2.0 Liter I4 Xtronic $21,430

2020 NISSAN SENTRA KEY COMPETITORS

2020 Toyota Corolla

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Last year’s Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra offered roomy interiors, lots of safety technology, low prices, and not much else. This year, they’ve both been dramatically redesigned — and they’re once again in almost precisely the same niche. They ride, handle, and accelerate more competently than before, yet they’re not class leaders. They’re less roomy and more expensive than before, yet still competitive on both fronts. They’re both more stylish inside and out. Where they differ is that the Corolla has optional powertrains that the Sentra can’t match — a larger four-cylinder gasoline engine and a gas-electric hybrid. The Toyota also has additional safety features the Sentra doesn’t offer. On the flip side, the Sentra is slightly roomier and slightly less expensive, and it arguably looks more upscale. And until the 2021 model year, you can’t get the Corolla with Android Auto.

Read our full review on the 2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Mazda3

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The Mazda3 is another great-looking compact car. But unlike the Sentra, it drives as well as it looks. Its exceptional refinement and composure rival luxury sedans, and its big 2.5-liter engine is among the most powerful in its class. But you give up some of the basics to get this full-fledged luxury experience — the Mazda3 is more expensive, less fuel-efficient, and less spacious than the Sentra. Nissan provides a more economy-car experience, both in terms of pros and cons.

Read our full review on the 2020 Mazda3

2020 Honda Civic

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The Honda Civic combines spaciousness, fuel efficiency, and sprightly driving manners — agile handling and peppy acceleration. That’s a combination neither the Sentra nor the Mazda3 can challenge. But the Civic doesn’t nail the details. It has cumbersome dashboard controls, and its small infotainment screen suffers from laggy responses and dated graphics. Plus, you’ll typically spend several thousand dollars less for a Sentra than a comparably equipped Civic.

Read our full review on the 2020 Honda Civic

2020 Hyundai Elantra

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The Hyundai Elantra is a leading budget-priced compact sedan, providing safety, efficiency, comfort, and user-friendly design at sometimes ridiculously low prices. Hyundai also throws in a long warranty and three years or 36,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance. Discerning drivers will find the Sentra’s handling slightly sharper, and the Nissan also looks more upscale — at least until the Elantra’s dramatic redesign for 2021 — and has a little more rear seat space. And as we mentioned, the Elantra’s package/trim structure may make it hard for you to find all the options you want at a reasonable price.

Read our full review on the 2020 Hyundai Elantra

2020 Kia Forte

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The Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra share many of their mechanical pieces, as well as their focus on mild-mannered competence and value. The Forte is the more modern-looking of the two sedans, but it’s missing some of the Elantra’s available luxury features and its free scheduled maintenance. When price is paramount, the Forte, Elantra, and Sentra might all be your winner depending on the deal you’re offered locally — all three offer thorough competence without glaring flaws.

Read our full review on the 2020 Kia Forte

2020 NISSAN SENTRA IN A NUTSHELL

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The redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra has moved from a mix of awful and outstanding qualities into a more consistently competitive compact sedan. It stands out less from the competition, but no longer does it embarrass itself in any major way.

With its newfound style and all-around competence, the Sentra is potentially appealing to a much wider swath of compact-sedan customers. It would still need a little more polish and horsepower to become a dominant force in its segment — but especially if you like its new looks, it’s now one of several solid, well-rounded compact sedans.

Brady Holt
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