The New 2020 Nissan Sentra Appears to Have Far More Appeal Than the Old Sentra
It is almost breathtaking how much Nissan improved its compact sedan.
Cast your mind back to 1986 or thereabouts, when Nissan introduced the second-generation Sentra, which it had transformed from a nebbish econobox into a sexy Maxima lookalike. The ruse of dressing up the little Sentra as the big-boy, sporty Maxima worked—and buyers flocked to showrooms for the compact sedan. Things got even better in Sentraland a few years later, with the 1991-94 B13 and its attendant SE-R model arguably representing the high point in Nissan Sentra history. From there on out, the Sentra lost its mojo, experiencing a multi-decade decline to a characterless, cheap value play.
Nissan appears to be trying to recapture some of that mid-'80s magic with the all-new, eighth-generation Sentra. While we've yet to drive the thing, which would give us the fullest possible picture of whether or not it qualifies as a Boring Car (remember, we're not about those boring cars!), the 2020 Sentra sure looks like a huge improvement over its predecessor. It is lower and wider, and the resemblance to the Maxima is unmistakable, up to and including Nissan's signature plunging V-Motion grille and "floating" roof design. Sentras painted in gray, white, or metallic orange can even be had with a black-painted roof. Two-tone paint! On a Sentra!
There are generational improvements you expect when a car undergoes a full redesign, and then there is what Nissan pulled off here, with the new Sentra's interior. The car's innards put the old one's to shame, and the Sentra actually one-ups the two-sizes-bigger Maxima with a stand-up infotainment display, round turbine-style air vents that appear to have gone missing from a Mercedes or Audi, and an ambitious flat-bottom steering wheel. (In fact, we've been seeing those racy steering wheels crop up in other recently updated Nissans.) Top-end Sentra models also have a lovely soft-padded dashboard panel with contrast-color stitching.
The Sentra's four-cylinder engine is bigger than before, with displacement rising from 1.8 to 2.0 liters. That's enough to increase output to 149 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque; despite the power bump, Nissan projects that the Sentra's EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings will rise. Nissan's ever-improving XTronic continuously-variable automatic will be the sole transmission choice. Nissan even seems serious about improving the Sentra's other dynamic wiles. The car's track is two inches wider than before, and the rear suspension is now independently sprung (the old Sentra used a simpler, cheaper twist-beam axle). Engineers moved the electric power steering system's motor from the steering column to the rack itself, a placement commonly associated with improved road feel and greater precision.
Nissan has equipped the Sentra with a comprehensive safety suite, including collision detection with automatic braking (forward and reverse), blind-spot and lane-departure warning, a drowsy-driver warning, and automatic high beams. And if all else fails, hey, at least the Sentra has ten airbags. There are far fewer trim levels on offer, however; Nissan stripped the Sentra lineup down to three trims—S, SV, and SR—and so far there is no word on a replacement for the for-now missing SR Turbo and NISMO models. (These were the Sentra lineup's sporty-intending models; we'll stop short of claiming they were actually sporty or fun to drive.) With the new model's improvements, such sport models might no longer be oxymoronic. There is no word on 2020 Sentra pricing, either, but we expect to get that closer to January, when the Sentra goes on sale.
And speaking of going on sale, will the Sentra's transformation work? It's an interesting question.The Maxima's cachet is nothing like it was in the late 80s, and already the Sentra sells in surprisingly high volumes, mostly owing to its affordability and Nissan's aggressive sales tactics. If Nissan can hang on to that baked-in momentum but peddle a car that's actually, you know, appealing, that sure would be something. Earlier this year, we were pleasantly surprised at what a nice car the Versa has become. That car, too, was once a punching bag—something the new Sentra clearly is not. So, we'll end this report with something we haven't been able to say in decades: We're eager to drive the new Sentra, because today's compact-car segment is full of strong contenders, from the Honda Civic to the Mazda 3 to the Volkswagen Golf.