2020 Nissan Sentra SR: Challenging the best
Don't look now, but the Nissan Sentra is suddenly in the running for best affordable compact car. The all-new 2020 version is a huge leap forward in design and engineering, while maintaining its value and good fuel economy.
For years the automotive press has debated whether the Honda Civic or the Toyota Corolla is the best compact car. That's understandable, since they have historically been the top sellers. But the limited focus has minimized the many other good compacts on the market, such as the Subaru Impreza with standard all-wheel-drive and the gorgeous Mazda3, which is getting a more powerful turbocharged engine this year.
The Sentra, however, has never made anyone's top 5 list. Although it was always reliable and offered a lot of features for the money, nothing about it stood out — until now. The all-new model is truly transformative, with sleek exterior styling, a contemporary interior featuring qualifty materials, a more powerful 2.0-liter engine, and Nissan's Safety Shield 360 as standard equipment.
And all starting at under $20,000 for a well-equipped base S model. Our SR version — which included lower side moldings, a rear spoiler, 18-inch alloy wheels, a leather interior, a Bose stereo, a sunroof and more — was priced at just over $25,000. The SV model strikes a balance between the two and may be the best value.
Yes, some other compacts offer more variations, including choices of sedans and hatchback models, and even performance versions. But dollar-for-dollar, the all-new Sentra is a remarkable deal.
The transformation is part of a company wide trend that is continuing despite Nissan's well-publicized management problems. The subcompact Versa, mid-size Altima and larger Maxima have all been upgraded in recent years, with the Altima even getting optional all-wheel-drive to compete against the Impreza in wet climates like the Pacific Northwest. The all-electric Leaf and crossover line have also been revised to be better looking and driving, while still holding prices down.
In a week of test driving, we found our 2020 Nissan Sentra SR to be an attractive, comfortable and capable daily driver, with just enough sportiness to be entertaining. And while some reviews have said the 18-inch wheels on SR models compromise the ride, we found it to be very stable without ever feeling too harsh.
Special mention needs to be made about the engine/transmission combination. A number of manufactures now offer small turbocharged engines mated to automatic or Continuously Variable Transmissions to provide both power and good mileage. Results varies, with some of the turbos feeling overworked and a few of the CVTs being less than responsive. Sometimes simpler is better, as Nissan has proven with a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter engine that replaces the previous 1.8-liter version. It doesn't work too hard to produced 146 horsepower and is coupled to a CVT that Nissan has consistently refined, now making it one of the best at any price. And we also got more than 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving.
When Nissan was known as Datsun, it offered one of the most celebrated affordable small cars of all time. The 510 was nicknamed the Poor Man's BMW because of its obvious design similarities to the 2002, including an independent rear suspension. The company's small cars have not always generated as much attention since then, but the all-new 2020 Sentra should change that. It is truly one of the best affordable compact cars on the market right now.
2020 Nissan Sentra SR
Base price: $21,430
Price as tested: $25,480
Type: Compact Sedan
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder (149 hp, 146 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
EPA estimated mileage: 28/37
Overall length: 182.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,084 pounds
Final assembly: Aguas, Mexico
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