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First drive: 2020 Nissan Sentra balances sport with value

December 16, 2019

The redesigned 2020 Nissan Sentra is lower, wider, sportier, and loaded with more standard features, without much of an upcharge over the 2019 model. Starting at $20,015 (including $925 destination), the compact sedan appeals to a still-significant slice of shoppers who don’t need a bulky crossover but still appreciate modern conveniences at a reasonable price. 

Even as the 2020 Sentra aspires to be more in terms of handling, size, and features, its definitive attribute is one that has been with it for nearly 40 years: value. 

For 2020, the Sentra compact sedan is nearly two inches lower and two inches wider, which gives it an athletic appearance that makes it look more like a small Maxima (Eds note: A Minima?), especially in two-tone Monarch Orange Metallic with a Super Black roof. It’s also about a half-inch longer, mostly in the wheelbase. The sporty aspirations under the sheet metal are also reflected in the sheet metal. 

The redesigned Sentra wears a more flowing European style than the angular Asian one of its predecessor. The hood dips further down, and the face stretches horizontally, with deeply recessed available fog lights in the lower grille and long narrow headlights that wrap over the front wheel arches. The two-tone black roof option has a slimming effect, which is why we love black on our bods as much as our cars. The lines running over the hood and down the sides give it a smoother wedgelike look. 

It comes in three simplified trim levels. The top SR trim comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, black side mirrors and other black and chrome elements. Mid-grade SV models get 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, while base S models get 16-inch steel wheels.

2020 Nissan Sentra SR, left, and SV, right, trim

2020 Nissan Sentra SR, left, and SV, right, trim

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

 

There is no SE-R model. Not yet, anyway. With a new platform and new engine, anything could happen. 

In form and in function, the Sentra aspires to have more European handling characteristics than its more budget-minded past. 

Through the twisty mountain roads of Southern California to the more groomed Pacific Coast Highway, and even escaping the traffic to get to those locales, the 2020 Nissan Sentra proved to be a comfy cruiser that outperformed its price. 

I drove the mid-grade Sentra SV, which starts at $21,195 (including $925 destination). It came in Rosewood Metallic and Scarlet Ember TriCoat ($395), which I would advise against simply because someone might ask you what color it is and then you’d feel the shame of hearing those words come out of your mouth. 

“Burgundy” works.

It came with the Premium package ($2,460), which is the only available package on SV and SR trims. On the SV, it upgrades the wheels to 17-inch alloys, and added LED headlights and DRLs, sunroof, quilted leather seats, six-way power driver’s seat. Both front seats are heated. 

Underneath all of that, the Sentra has a more spirited ride, a punchier powertrain, and an independent rear suspension. 

The 149-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) produces 146 pound-feet of torque, which represent respective improvements of 20% and 17% over the outgoing model. Fuel economy improves from 32 mpg combined to 33 mpg combined in S and SV trims. It’s neither quick nor fast, though the lag from a stop could be mistaken for a turbo engine. It’s not. 

Slam the throttle and the CVT looks over its shoulder for a second, as if asking if you’re sure. It’ll run to nearly 6,000 rpm when hammered, before the CVT finds a proper mid-range rpm. Above 3,000 rpm, the Sentra is punchy enough to execute any reasonable passing move. 

Nissan has been using CVTs for a while, and if you’ve driven one, you probably have an opinion of the CVT. Leave that behind. On anything other than full throttle, the CVT in the 2020 Sentra approximates shift points pretty much where you’d expect it with an automatic. It doesn’t rev too high or drone too long. Halfway down on the throttle and the CVT will change “gears” between 4,000 and 5,000 rpm. A lighter touch makes it almost impossible to notice the CVT at all, which is lovely. 

More notable is the electric power steering. There is heft from the wheel on twisting roads, and not just from the Sentra’s chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel that’s typically found on sportier cars. The dual pinion rack-mounted electric power steering provides more resistance the more you turn, so cruising is soft and easy, while more spirited driving in canyon roads has greater feedback. Combine this with an independent rear suspension and the Sentra is no longer just something to get you someplace. It’s no track car, but the lower center of gravity, more adaptive suspension, and punchier powertrain lets you push the front-wheel-drive compact more than expected. It’s no dullard.  

The European flair carries over inside, where the simplified trim levels sort themselves out. Even base S trims get a flat-bottomed steering wheel, and the three circular air vents in the center stack pay dues to the Nissan GT-R. A 4.2-inch vehicle information display is standard, as is a 7.0-inch touchscreen and a USB port. 

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

2020 Nissan Sentra

LA Auto Show - 2020 Nissan Sentra

LA Auto Show - 2020 Nissan Sentra

LA Auto Show - 2020 Nissan Sentra

LA Auto Show - 2020 Nissan Sentra

The suite of six active safety features is standard, and includes automatic emergency braking front and rear, blind-spot and lane-departure warnings, rear cross-traffic alert, and high beam assist. 

For the nicer conveniences, you’ll have to step up to the $21,195 SV trim, but at $1,180 more than the base model, it isn’t much of a step. The Sentra SV comes with three USB ports, including one USB-C, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, adaptive cruise control, upgraded cloth seats, and a 7.0-inch digital vehicle info display. It’s clear and easy to use with steering wheel controls to toggle through trip meters or changing audio, so you don’t need to fuss with the touchscreen.   

The SR upgrades are mostly cosmetic, with 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, fog lights, and DRLs, rear spoiler, and sport cloth black interior with orange stitching. Aside from the lower-profile tires, there isn’t much performance difference, but at $22,355, it is only $1,160 more than the SV. 

Nissan wants you in the Premium package in the SR or SV, but for $2,000 more, it erodes the value proposition against competitors.  

The trunk is wide and deep, providing 14.3 cubic feet, which is larger than the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta sedans but smaller than the Honda Civic sedan. The rear seat was roomy enough for my 6-foot-3 passenger to sit behind me in comfort. There’s plenty of toe room under the front seats, too, which is a big improvement, and a USB port for rear passengers. 

Among compact cars, the 2020 Nissan Sentra stands out at doing what it was made to do by being a good value, yet it doesn’t skimp on style or features. And it can be fun to drive. 

Nissan provided travel and lodging to Internet Brands Automotive to bring you this firsthand report. 


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