2020 Nissan Sentra SR First Drive: It’s No SE-R, But That’s A-OK
Getting back on track with a Hyundai-style value proposition
HELL, Michigan—First the bad news. The all-new 2020 Nissan Sentra SR is no SE-R, not even at the level of the milquetoast examples sold in the '00s, more than a decade after an earlier version of the SE-R car earned its reputation as the poor-enthusiast's BMW 3 Series.
The good news is that Nissan has been making a comeback of sorts, beginning with its humble commodity sedans, and it continues that effort with this car. Even as Nissan/Infiniti sales fell 9.9 percent last year compared with calendar 2018, the midsize Altima's sales increased, though by just 37 units in the United States. Now the Sentra—the back-of-the-Enterprise lot car you had booked in hopes of a free upgrade to something better-is set to reverse its fortunes for 2020 as compact SUVs in the U.S. have come to replace the midsize sedan as the most popular bodystyle that's not a pickup truck.
The 2020 Nissan Sentra enters the market on an all-new platform not shared with anything else in the lineup, which indicates that in the next couple of years, we should see an all-new Rogue compact SUV sharing the architecture, as well as the next Altima and Maxima on upsized underpinnings.
That would be a good thing. The '20 Nissan Sentra SR (the only variant offered up for the first drive here in the Great Lakes) is exceptionally well-mannered on winter-beaten, patched roads and abruptly hilly two-lanes outside Ann Arbor. There's a new multi-link rear suspension, active ride control, intelligent trace control (which assists "driving at the average driver limit area") and vehicle dynamic control. Damping and jounce control are excellent, and while the suspension is tuned for comfort, there's no wallow nor overwhelming understeer in the gentle sweepers on the wintry-mix wetted blacktop.
Sentra's dual-pinion steering gives exceptional feel and feedback for a car in this category, and even if there was no opportunity to test the intelligent trace control or vehicle dynamic control here, the flat-bottomed (or, "d-shaped" as Nissan calls it) wheel transmitted back a pleasant driving experience.
Base S, upscale SV and sporty-ish SR variants all come with the same continuously variable transmission and 149-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, so there's no comparison to be made to the Honda Civic Type R, or even to the Civic Si. Initial impression is, though, that the new Sentra finally is in the hunt again with mainstream and premium competitors.
The Sentra 2.0-liter's output numbers amount to a 20-percent horsepower and 17-percent torque increase over the previous model. Fuel economy is 29/39 mpg EPA city/highway for the Sentra S and SV, and 28/37 mpg for the SR. Nissan chalks up the difference to more weight from the SR's equipment, which includes the 18-inch wheels, a rear spoiler, exhaust finisher, black heated sideview mirrors, LED headlamps and foglamps, and a leather shift knob.
You can tell from the horsepower and torque specs below that the 2.0-liter I-4 is no musclecar engine, though it's perfectly adequate in terms of acceleration, and very well-mannered in terms of its sound and smoothness. If it whines at all, it's in the upper rpm ranges achieved only by booting the throttle to the floor. The CVT is innocuous in a good way under normal loads, and uses software-induced fake upshifts under full throttle.
The only serious protuberance into the Sentra SR's serene environment comes from road noise through the tires. The SR comes with 18-inch wheels and tires, while the others offer a choice of two 16-inch wheel designs and a 17-inch option, so whether you choose the SR or SV might depend on whether you must have the big-wheel look of the potentially noisier 18s. After all, the new Sentra in any iteration is no sport sedan.
Our SR tester also featured the $2,170 Premium Package, adding moonroof, Prima-Tex (vinyl) seats with orange stitching, Bose eight-speaker audio, a very comfortable eight-way power driver's seat with lumbar support, heated front seats and steering wheel, intelligent around-view mirror and (a feature this critic thought all cars had by now) illuminated vanity mirrors.
Or you can save $870 and buy the Sentra SV with Premium Package, which upgrades the 16-inch wheels to 17s, and also adds the moonroof and eight-way power driver's seat, leather shift knob and heated front seats, plus quilted leather seat covers in place of the Prima-Tex. All the test cars offered were identical-spec SRs painted Monarch Orange metallic with a black top highlighting the "floating" roof design.
All new Sentras come with the exhaustively long list of safety features, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning, and a tablet-style floating touch screen with the requisite Apple Car Play and Android for Auto. The interior might not quite be Honda Civic Touring, though the materials and design have the sort of semi-premium look that's permeating many affordable commodity cars these days. The padded vinyl door panels, especially the upper sill area where you might rest your left elbow, are particularly nice. The rear seat is adequately capacious, though the sloping roofline cuts into headroom a bit more than in most competitors.
It has been a long time since the Nissan Sentra has been this competitive against other compacts that weren't designed to be stripped-out budget models. Now, after a few years of corporate leadership angst and reliance on fleet sales, Nissan is trying to rebuild itself, as Hyundai did over a decade ago, with good designs and a lot of equipment for the money. If you need a good, comfortable mainstream sedan, you should consider taking advantage of the new Sentra's value offering.
|2020 Nissan Sentra SR|
|ON SALE||Early February|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 149 hp @6,400 rpm, 146 ft-lb @4,400 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/37 mpg (EPA est. )|
|LxWxH||182.7 x 71.5 x 57.0 in.|