Did American automakers make a mistake when they chose to walk away from compact sedans? Nissan certainly thinks so, and the Japanese automaker sees a great opportunity to gain market share in what's still a very important segment. That's one of the reasons why Nissan put so much effort into overhauling its subcompact Versa, transforming it from the butt of a joke to a legitimately compelling little four-door. Now, the company hopes to pull off a similar makeover with its best-selling sedan, the Sentra.
At first blush, it seems to have worked. The 2020 Sentra is lower, longer and wider than its predecessor, and the whole car has a more sculpted, chiseled appearance. All dolled up in Monarch Orange, this SR model is quite attractive. I like the stance this car has on its 18-inch wheels, plus the contrasting black roof and LED lighting elements look great. Lower-grade S and SV models aren't quite as sharp, with 16- and 17-inch wheel options, and dulled-down styling, but they're hardly dumpy. Park the Sentra next to rivals like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, and Nissan's little guy can hold its own in terms of curb appeal.
The Sentra's interior is also a lot nicer than before. The overall design is straightforward and inoffensive, with neatly arranged climate controls and a multimedia screen perched atop the dashboard. You'll definitely find evidence of the Sentra's quest for a low MSRP inside the cabin, with some hard, clunky plastics on the bottom of the doors and the center console. But at least Nissan's tried to augment this by putting the best materials on the places you'll touch most. The steering wheel feels great and the quilted leather seats you get on the SV Premium Package are lovely -- especially combined with Nissan's "Zero Gravity" seat cushions, which come on all Sentras.
A 7-inch color touchscreen display is standard, and doesn't really offer much in the way of features. Move up to the Sentra SV or SR and you get an 8-inch touchscreen with satellite radio,and . The graphics are kind of meh, and the screen isn't super-responsive to inputs. Nissan doesn't offer an embedded navigation option, either, which I'm actually OK with. The Apple- and Google-based systems include map apps, and run more intuitive software than Nissan's proprietary stuff. You're better off letting your phone handle the heavy lifting as far as infotainment tech is concerned.
Four adults will fit just fine inside the Sentra, with plenty of head- and shoulder-room up front. Rear passengers shouldn't have too much trouble getting comfortable, with a decent amount of legroom and space for your feet under the front seats. The added width means there's more room for a third passenger in back, too -- a godsend for when the Sentra is inevitably pressed into cram-everyone-in-on-the-way-home-from-the-bar rideshare duty. The sedan's 14.3 cubic feet of trunk space is big enough to haul two people's worth of luggage or a full load of groceries, though it's not as capacious as a Honda Civic or Kia Forte, not to mention hatchback models like the Hyundai Elantra GT or .
My biggest complaint about the interior is that it's noisy. Whether driving down California's Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu or slumming it on the 101 freeway, there's a ton of wind and tire noise. Engine noise is pretty apparent, too, which I might not mind so much if the four-cylinder powertrain under the hood didn't sound so lousy.
All Sentras are powered by a 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated I4 engine, making 149 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque -- a welcome bump over the 124 hp and 125 lb-ft from the old model's 1.8-liter engine. Nissan's continuously variable transmission is one of the smoother, better-tuned examples you can buy today, but the Sentra's engine drones as you accelerate up to speed. At least its relatively efficient, with the EPA estimating fuel economy ratings of 29 miles per gallon city and 39 mpg highway for S and SV models (or 28 and 37, respectively, for the SR). That said, it's worth noting that the Honda Civic sedan comes with a 1.5-liter turbo engine that's more powerful (174 hp, 162 lb-ft), more efficient (32 mpg city, 42 mpg highway) and much more refined.
Power aside, the Sentra isn't half bad to drive. The independent front and multilink rear suspensions give the sedan a compliant ride quality, well tuned for city and highway driving alike. The Sentra won't round a corner with the same verve or engagement as a Honda Civic or Mazda3, but the steering and chassis are still fine enough for the kind of driving Sentra owners will do most: commuting, errand running, picking up fares from the airport. Sight lines are great in all directions, the steering is light but quick to respond and the suspension isn't crashy over rough stretches of road. Don't let that SR styling fool you -- nobody's buying the Sentra because they think it's a sports car. And if you're wondering if the Sentra's hotter SR Turbo and Nismo models will stick around for this generation, mum's the word for now.
To that end, Nissan's fitted the Sentra with a smart roster of driver-assistance technology to take a lot of the guess-work out of daily driving. Automatic emergency braking, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning are all standard. Step up to the SV or SR, and you get adaptive cruise control, and the latter trim gives you the option for a 360-degree camera, as well.
More than any one attribute, the most appealing thing about the Sentra is its price: $20,015, including a $925 destination charge. In fact, a fully loaded SR model with the Premium Package (LED lights, moonroof, power driver's seat, Bose audio, heated seats and steering wheel, 360-degree camera and more) tops out at $24,525. If you want a Honda Civic with the same level of equipment, you're looking at $28,500. Then again, you're also getting a more sophisticated powertrain, better interior materials, more space and more tech. As a value proposition, at least, the 2020 Sentra makes a strong case for itself.
Of course, there's always the 2020 Versa. Nissan put a ton of work into making its smallest sedan a solid car, and fully loaded, it costs less than $20,000. Yes, the Sentra brings a lot to the table -- far more than ever before, in fact. But if value for money is a top priority, the slightly smaller Versa can do nearly everything the Sentra can, for several thousand dollars less.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.