by Frank A. Aukofer

Every so often, an automobile rolls onto the national stage and surprises the critics. The 2020 Nissan Sentra has done that — certainly in this reckoning.

It’s a compact sedan from the Japanese manufacturer that has been around for 32 years, usually undistinguished and an also-ran competing with the compact class leaders — the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-10-sourceBut the all-new version bears no resemblance to its predecessors. The step up is a good thing because Sentra sales have been dropping, mainly because of the surge in popularity of small crossover sport utility vehicles like Nissan’s own Rogue, Kicks and Rogue Sport. Between 2018 and 2019, the Sentra’s U.S. sales dropped by 28,428 to 184,618.

The 2020 model not only will have to overcome that but also will be hobbled by Nissan’s intention, reported in Automotive News, the industry Bible, that the company initially will not offer the Sentra for sales to rental car companies and other fleets.

It will have to stand on its own merits with the general buying public. Well, guess what? If you have any doubts, take a test drive, as we did.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-12-sourceIt’s short of astounding but it is an eye opener. This new Sentra stands out as a desirable, roomy, well-performing compact sedan that  bunches of people can afford to buy and operate. Moreover, it has the bones to attract customers who could easily buy something more expensive.

Take the Sentra SR Premium tested here. The starting price, including the destination charge, is $22,355. Loaded with every option, the bottom-line sticker price came to $25,325. That’s somewhere around $12,000 less than what the average new car sells for these days.

The Sentra’s starting price for the base S version is $20,015. There’s also a midlevel SV version. Previous SR Turbo and performance Nismo models are not available — at least for now.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O_s-sourceLike all the 2020 Sentra models, the base S and SV come with full safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert with automatic rear braking, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning and tire pressure monitoring. In addition, all Sentra examples have rear-door alert to prevent a driver from forgetting a child or pet in the back seat.

The tested SR Premium also came with pushbutton starting and remote locking, leatherette seats (heated in front), a motorized glass sunroof, automatic climate control, six-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustments, rear camera with around-view monitor, LED headlights and fog lights, heated steering wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels, rear trunk-mounted spoiler, premium Bose audio system, SXM satellite radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability.

Besides the pleasantries on the pricing and equipment lists, the tested 2020 SR Premium presented itself well on the highway stage. With all-new styling, it had the signature Nissan V-Motion grille, which to the eyes of this viewer has a sort of sad-sack look.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-3-sourceNever mind. The tester was done up in two-tone Monarch Orange and Super Black exterior colors, with the now familiar Nissan floating roof design. The color scheme would do justice to a BMW, Lexus or Audi.

According to the U.S. government, the Sentra straddles official size classes. With the sunroof, as on the tested SR, it is classified as a compact. But without that amenity, it creeps just barely into the midsize category.

Either way, there’s plenty of room and comfort for four, with good bolstering on the front seatbacks for spirited driving on curving roads. Rear seat head and knee room are adequate, though getting in and out of the back seat requires a bit of agility. Even the center-rear seat can carry a fifth passenger because the cushion is not too hard and the floor hump not too tall.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-5-sourcePower gets delivered to the front wheels from an all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 149 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like much to hot rodders, but in everyday driving it’s plenty. With the responsive Xtronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), the Sentra is rapidly responsive to throttle inputs.

Some critics deride CVTs but Nissan has vast experience with the transmissions, which are buttery smooth without shift points except when you punch the pedal to pass. Then the Sentra’s kicks down like a standard passing gear.

Handling on twisting roads is flat with little body lean. The suspension system soaks up most road irregularities for a decent ride under most circumstances and the interior is reasonably quiet except for  tire noise that varies with road surfaces.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-14-sourceSpecifications

  • Model: 2020 Nissan Sentra SR Premium four-door sedan.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 149 hp, 146 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Xtronic continuously variable automatic and front-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 15 feet 3 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/trunk volume: 94/14 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,084 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 28/37/32 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $22,355.
  • Price as tested: $25,325.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2020 Nissan Sentra_O-13-sourcePhotos (c) Nissan