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2020 Nissan Sentra First Drive Review: Long Live The Sedan

First Drive / Comments

Nissan is affirming its commitment to the sedan.

Born in 1982, the Nissan Sentra is the automaker's bestselling nameplate. As it enters its eighth generation, Nissan has been vocal about the importance and relevance of the sedan segment as we approach peak crossover. Last year saw the mid-size Nissan Altima return for another generation on a whole new platform, and this year the compact Sentra gets the same treatment.

Nissan's sedan strategy is to concentrate on the younger market, who care about cost, style, and functionality. With the all-new Sentra, the Japanese automaker appears to have put together a convincing package. We went to see how that translated to real-world driving on the coast of California.

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Exterior Design: Sharp Dressed Car

While style is nothing without substance, it is the first impression and an essential ingredient for a car aimed at the younger buyer. The Sentra gets additions like a new V-Motion grille along with a lower and wider stance and draws inspiration from the Maxima and GT-R. Sharp creases, a lower rear roofline, and wider shoulders complete the makeover. For those looking to enhance the Sentra's new approach to style, the thin LED headlamps and floating roof style on the test cars are also available.

It's still a Nissan Sentra, but more so. The SR trim adds more athleticism to the new look, with a rear spoiler, black-painted mirrors, lower side sill extensions, 18-inch diamond-cut wheels, and the V-motion grille finished in black chrome.

The Sentra also gets a fresh palette of colors that includes Electric Blue Metallic, Brilliant Silver Metallic, Gun Metallic, Super Black, and Aspen White. On top of that are two premium colors: Rosewood Metallic and Scarlet Ember Tricoat. Like the Nissan Kicks, the Sentra also now has two-tone exterior paint combinations available, including the Monarch Orange Metallic and Super Black on one of our test cars.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: Keeping It Old School

A new 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine from the Nissan family replaces the previous 1.8-liter lump. While other automakers are putting turbocharged smaller capacity engines in their cars, Nissan has taken the simpler, less expensive approach with naturally aspirated powerplants. Considering the price Nissan has come up with for the new Sentra, it makes sense to use an older engine especially with fuel economy numbers of 29/39/33 mpg city/highway/combined (in S and SV trim, this drops to 28/37/32 mpg).

Power for the new engine is improved as well. There's a 20 percent increase in horsepower to 149 hp and a 17 percent increase in torque to 146 lb-ft of twist. Power is controlled by the latest generation of Nissan's Xtronic CVT where the fake "step" shifts enhance the Sentra's acceleration "feel" by making it stable, natural, and crisp. Nissan hasn't announced the new Sentra's 0-60 mph times but what we can say is that while the acceleration is far from spectacular it's more than adequate for getting up to highway speed.

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Interior Design & Features: A Big Step Up

Nissan has paid real attention to detail to the 2020 Sentra's interior. Everything looks tight and solid, and all the touch-points feel good, including the D-shape steering wheel. Controls are well laid out and intuitive, while the cabin is also a lot quieter, adding that extra layer of refinement not usually found in the segment.

Nissan's Zero Gravity seats are standard through the trim levels, and never fail to impress for comfort whether in cloth, leatherette, or the optional quilted leather-trimmed seats in our test car. A 6-way manual driver's seat and 4-way manual front passenger's seat are standard, but the front passenger will be pulling levers and moving their seat manually. Taller people in the fixed-height passenger seat will find the top of their head touching the roof occasionally. We didn't have that problem at all in the driver's seat or in the rear, which offers decent legroom for passengers, as well as comfortable seating. There's 38.9 inches of front headroom and 36.7 inches in the back, while the front legroom is 44.0 inches with 37.4 inches in the rear.

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Trunk & Cargo Space

The Sentra's 14.3 cubic feet of space is adequate for a car that's 182.7 inches long and 71.5 inches wide. Storage space is well thought out and for a compact sedan, there's plenty of space to stash items. At one point on our drive, there were three of us with bags to stow and, at no point did the car feel constricted.

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Driving Impressions: A Fun And Relaxing Ride

If Nissan is to be a major contributor to the sedan reboot, it needs to get the cost right and overdeliver on the experience. To that end, the new Sentra is a solid move forward. Inside is quiet and comfortable, and, while it's no sports car, the driving dynamics mean you can have a little fun when the road opens up. Steering is direct and feels right, while the new independent rear suspension keeps the Sentra feeling stable and capable. Sliding through traffic was fun, and California's rough roads were easily soaked up by the suspension.

It's the transmission that lets things down, though. The drivetrain isn't as refined as the new interior, and a CVT, to us, should be invisible and allow for smooth driving. The fake "steps" don't help "feel" because there isn't a lot of power backing up the new sporty styling.

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What was a pleasant surprise is the steering, which is sharp and direct as a result of a new power steering system. The extra torque on the new engine also helped when we loaded the car up with people, and while the 2020 Sentra can't be accused of being powerful, it didn't get bogged down by extra weight.

Cruising around town, on the freeways, or through the canyons in an effortless breeze is where the new dynamics in the chassis pay off. At the same time, Nissan's standard suite of safety features is comprehensive and non-invasive right up until the point they need to give warning or intervene. Mixed with an intuitive infotainment system, it adds to up to what will be an excellent little daily driver.

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Price & Trims

For 2020, the Nissan Sentra line is now simplified into three trim lines: S, SV, and SR. The base model S starts at $19,090 before delivery, the SV starts at $20,270, and the sportier SR comes in at $21,430. The Nissan Sentra S is very basic and comes with a 7.0-inch color touchscreen without Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and rides on 16-inch steel wheels with covers. Remote keyless entry with push-button start is included.

SV trim adds 16-inch alloys, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 8-inch color display with multi-touch control, 6-speaker audio system, dual-zone auto climate control, Intelligent Cruise Control, and an upgraded cloth interior. The SV Premium Package can be added for $2,460 and adds thin-styled LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, 17-inch alloys, power sliding glass moonroof, quilted leather-trimmed seats, 6-way power driver's seat with 2-way power lumbar, heated front seats and leather shift knob.

The SV and SR trims can also be optioned with the premium Rosewood Metallic or Scarlet Ember Tricoat paint for $395.

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The SR trim level starts at $21,430 and adds 18-inch alloys, the dark chrome V-motion grille, LED headlights, DRLs, and fog lights, sport cloth interior with orange stitching, rear spoiler and lower body side sill extensions. As well as the premium paint options, the SR can be had with the two-tone paint option for $250 as well as a similar Premium Package to the one available for the SV for $2,170.

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Verdict: Restoring Our Faith In The Sedan

While Nissan isn't the only automaker championing the sedan, it's been the most vocal on the subject lately. The sub $20,000 entry point for the base model and incredibly close to $20,000 price point for the better-equipped SV puts a lot of value for money on the table in a good looking package. At $21,430 for the range-topper, increasing to a total of $24,995 with the premium package shows a value proposition through the range.

As a daily driver, it's going to be easy to recommend people cross-shop it with the competition. The Honda Civic ranges from $19,550 - $27,400 while the Toyota Corolla is priced from $18,700. The bottom line here is you can't go wrong with any of them, and the Sentra spices up the competition nicely.

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