The Car Connection Nissan Sentra Overview
The Nissan Sentra is a compact four-door sedan that competes in a value-heavy category along with some of the most popular cars on the planet.
With the Sentra, Nissan competes with offerings such as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta, Hyundai Elantra, and Mazda Mazda 3, among others. The Sentra trades on its affordability and interior space.
After nearly four decades on sale, the Sentra has grown in size while amassing a larger collection of safety gear and optional equipment. Sentras have been sourced from several places around the world, with current models sold in the U.S. now coming from Mexico.
MORE: Read our 2020 Nissan Sentra review
The little Nissan has also come in several different body styles over the years, and at one time it was one of Nissan's greatest performance bargains. Though it is more a commuter special, the eighth-generation Sentra embraces sportier elements.
The new Nissan Sentra
Fully redesigned for 2020, the Nissan Sentra riding on its own platform and is two inches lower, two inches wider, a bit longer, and comes with a new independent rear suspension and more powerful engine. The interior has grown to nearly mid-size classification and with the available two-tine roof options, the 2020 Sentra looks like a mini Maxima.
The simplified trim levels of S, SV, and SR all come with a flat-bottomed steering wheel and circular air vents inspired by the GT-R supercar. It comes loaded with active standard safety features, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, rear seats that are roomy enough for two 6-footers, and costs a tick over $20,000 with destination ($20,015 to be exact) in base S trim. The $21,195 SV trim is the recommended buy, which, for $1,180 more, includes adaptive cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, a larger touchscreen, larger wheels, and nicer seats.
There’s only one package option, Premium (at least $2,170), available on SR and SV, which enhances the sportier look with thinner and longer LED headlights, and up to 18-inch alloy wheels. The package also bundles heated seats and steering wheel, which would be better as standalone options. A 10% upcharge erodes the value proposition.
The 2020 Sentra is powered by a 149-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 with a much improved continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The front-drive sedan rides lower to the ground and has an independent rear suspension that can soak up road imperfections while cruising, yet provide more responsive low-speed handling. The electric power steering unit provides more feedback the more you turn, giving it a decidedly sportier feel when you want it. While improved, fuel economy still lags the compact competition, which averages about 35 mpg combined. The 2020 Nissan Sentra gains 1 mpg combined over the outgoing model to get 29 mpg city, 39 highway, 33 combined in S and SV trims.
Nissan Sentra history
With more than 6 million models sold since launch, the Sentra nameplate has become the best-selling model for the Japanese brand. The very first Sentra to be sold in the U.S.—from 1982 to 1986—replaced the old Datsun 210 and was actually the first car to carry the new Nissan nameplate. It also was the first Nissan to be built in the United States, in a vast assembly complex in Tennessee. Four-speed manual and 3-speed automatic transmissions were offered, with top versions rated at 35 mpg highway. The second generation arrived in the U.S. as a 1986 model and continued through 1990.
In 1991, a new third-generation Sentra adopted an upright shape that provided good interior space; that version ran through the 1995 model year. Its light weight and independent suspension gave it a more sporty feel than the competing Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, and it won many enthusiast fans when it added a special SE-R edition. A regular on Top Ten lists in car magazines, the 140-hp SE-R came in a two-door body style and was specially tuned for sporty driving, adding four-wheel disc brakes and a limited-slip differential to the standard-features list. Basic equipment lists included an AM/FM radio and roll-up windows, and automatic seat belts were used through most of these model years to meet federal safety-belt requirements.
For the fourth generation, though, Nissan reversed course and tried to cut costs in the Sentra. A torsion-beam rear suspension replaced the independent suspension from the previous car, and while the SE-R returned, it was a watered-down car, both larger and less nimble than before. The SE-R was later renamed the "200SX."
The fifth-generation Sentra, sold from 2000 to 2006, grew larger again, bumping the one-size-up Altima firmly into the mid-size segment. This bigger new model, which saw production move to Mexico, also felt more substantial and was roomier inside. An SE-R model model returned to the lineup, powered by a 2.5-liter inline-4; a high-output Spec V variant made 175 hp and came with a 6-speed manual transmission. This generation saw a facelift for 2004, which featured a wider grille bisected by a round Nissan badge; the same styling motif moved to the new Maxima shortly after.
The next Nissan Sentra debuted at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, entering the market as a 2007 model. That basic car ran through the 2012 model year before it was replaced with today's car. A smaller subcompact sibling, the hatchback Nissan Versa, joined the compact Sentra, now offered only as a four-door sedan. This Sentra came standard with a 140-hp, 2.5-liter inline-4 and a choice of manual gearboxes or a CVT. The SE-R returned as a sedan, with a high-output version of the same engine rated at 177 hp; the SE-R Spec V produced 200 hp and was teamed with a 6-speed manual transmission.
The 2010 model year brought a cosmetic refresh for the Sentra's somewhat stubby look and its angular interior. As a driver's machine, this Sentra lacked in comparison to the great Sentras of the early 1990s, but it proved to be a reasonably roomy package with excellent outward visibility. The CVT-equipped versions suffered from the noise and drone that accompanies most cars fitted with CVTs; by design the transmission keeps the engine revving at high rpm, where noise and vibration reside. The CVT was the only gearbox on the SE-R, which made the Spec V the sole choice for hardcore enthusiasts. Ride quality on all versions was a high point, and assembly quality was good.
The Sentra was slow to adopt certain features that are often taken for granted in other models. Electronic stability control was an option on less-expensive until 2010, while the base 2.0-liter model lacked standard ABS. For 2011, all of those items were made standard across the board. And in 2012, Nissan added an affordable touchscreen navigation option to the 2.0S, which included USB and iPod connectivity.
Redesigned for 2013, the seventh generation Sentra was powered by a smaller, 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels through the latest Nissan continuously variable transmission (CVT)—although a manual remains available on the base model. With the Sentra having grown in every dimension except height, the interior grew to nearly mid-size classification and rear seat leg room was increased.
For 2015, most models saw an increase in standard equipment. The sedan was also redesigned to better perform on crash tests, including the IIHS' small overlap front crash.
A mid-cycle refresh for the 2016 model year gave the Sentra the bolder look of the Maxima and Murano. Highlighted by a wide V-shaped grille, the hood and fenders were refreshed along with the boomerang-shaped headlights and taillights. LED headlights became available on SR and SL models. The interior was revised with new designs for the steering wheel, audio display, center stack, and center console. A new TFT instrument panel included a 5.0-inch enhanced display, and the Sentra added Apple's Siri Eyes Free voice commands and NissanConnect, which includes remote access, services provided by SiriusXM, and access to smartphone apps.
The 1.8-liter engine continued unchanged, but the available CVT got the next generation of Nissan's "D-Step" shift program to provide more linear acceleration, according to the automaker.
The 2016 Nissan Sentra also added new active-safety features, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Turbocharged power arrived for the 2017 model year in the form of the SR Turbo and Nismo models. In 2018, Nissan added standard automatic emergency braking to most Sentra trims. Nissan left the Sentra mostly alone for the 2019 model year.