The 2020 Sentra has the soul of a larger and more refined car

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2020 Nissan Sentra Nissan

Opportunity is a strange thing in the auto industry. It wasn’t that long ago that Nissan’s sedans were chugging right along as the firm’s U.S.-market profit drivers, with the midsize Altima leading the way.  The Rogue, which would eventually be the best-selling compact crossover in the United States, did not even exist. Times have certainly changed. Crossovers now crowd dealer lots as the default choice for most drivers.

Meanwhile, the changing demographics of sedan buyers mean that the smaller and cheaper Sentra is now very close to matching the Altima’s volume, with the sales trend suggesting that the two will soon be swapping places on the leaderboard. Couple that fact with a domestic-brand retreat from compact sedans that is leaving customers with nowhere to call home, and it’s no wonder that Nissan has decided to put some real effort into a new Sentra.

With over 6 million Sentras being sold over the past 37 years, more than a few people have had experience with the brand. At times—most notably, with the BMW-baiting, Infiniti-powered SE-R of 1991—the Sentra was considered a desirable choice. More recently, however, the Sentra has mostly sold on price and value.

2020 Nissan Sentra
Nissan

For 2020, Nissan wanted to re-invigorate the nameplate with a brand new global chassis and features typically reserved for the higher end of the brand. Independent, multi-link rear suspension finally returns for the first time since that 90s SE-R. Horsepower increases 20 percent, to 149 and torque 17 percent, to 146 lb-ft, via a move to the 2.0-liter engine and D-step CVT powertrain seen previously in the Rogue Sport. Brake size increases as well, with vented hubs in the front and rear discs on all packages except the base S (which gets nine-inch rear drums). Overall, it’s a very good effort to convince more sophisticated car owners to take a second look over much more expensive crossovers.

The real news, though, is about electronic-enabled function. Nissan added an active ride system that doesn’t use hyperactive—and hyper-expensive—active dampers. Using small brake pulses, suspension movement is controlled by maintaining stability in the chassis. I’m typically skeptical of these systems. But engineers assured me the system reacts quickly and with a very light touch to simply produce the ride of a larger car.

Similarly, Nissan is also using brake pulses to control the car’s handling during more spirited driving. This feature, Intelligent Trace, can tap the calipers on the inside front or rear wheel during a corner, which rotates the vehicle a bit and helps you hold the cornering line that you want. Push the car too hard and the now-traditional Vehicle Dynamic Control will step in to keep you out of the ditch. At least, that’s the plan.

2020 Nissan Sentra
Nissan

All new Sentras also come equipped with the full suite of Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 which includes Automatic Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Assist and Rear Automatic Braking. You can get this stuff in the competition, but Nissan is making them standard throughout the line.

Thankfully, the new and larger interior is also significantly upgraded in both materials and function to match that refined ride and appearance. Nissan’s “Zero Gravity” seats make their first appearance in a Sentra; they’re as good here as they are elsewhere. Door panels are wrapped with contrasting stitching. The turbine vents are modeled after those in the GT-R (not kidding), while the panel treatment and design is meant to mimic the Maxima right down to the D shaped “sport” wheel. The standard issue touch screen radio has a seven-inch display, though our top of the line tester had an 8-inch unit with Android Auto and Apple Car Play. Middle of the road SV and top of the line SRs get a 7-inch drive information screen on the instrument panel between easy to read gauges. It’s very similar to the unit in the big brother Altima. Other than showing speed data, safety information is also displayed such as adaptive cruise settings and a rear seat monitor to ensure you don’t leave anything (or anyone) in that back seat on a hot day.

Our first drive of the Sentra  through canyon, farm, and beach roads around Los Angeles revealed the soul of a larger car in the body of a smaller one. Suspension is soft but not floaty. The Active Ride System worked extremely well on our short test loop. However, it worked so well that it made the car feel heavy and slow. That makes for a wonderful highway ride without fatigue, but an SE-R this is certainly not. Regarding the steering, the new dual pinion setup was solid with good weighting and a quick turn in. What it lacked was tire feel. I suppose that’s the compromise you get when you’re trying to make a comfortable car over a lively one. Speaking of compromises, all models presented to us had eco tires. They gripped just fine, but were far louder than expected. Amplifying this fact was a very clear lack of wind noise. Fuel economy is up over the previous model to 33 combined, but drivers with any sort of enthusiast bent might want to lose a bit of that via a switch to more aggressive rubber.

2020 Nissan Sentra
Nissan

With this premium performance comes a more premium price: just over 20 grand for an S. The value-play SV is $21,195 and includes active cruise control. The well-equipped SR starts slightly above $22,000, and can head to $25,000 with a power driver’s seat and LED headlamps.

Does the 2020 Sentra take advantage of the opportunity in the remaining sedan market? In many ways it does despite the lack of body choices and powertrain diversity. Will it work to grow Nissan via an unconventional strategy? We’ll have to wait till late January to find out when cars hit dealerships. The good news: buyers will find that this Sentra is no longer selling on value alone. That being said, it should still be a bit easier to drive a hard bargain on it than it would be for an equivalent Civic or Corolla. Which is, in and of itself, a bit of an opportunity.

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