Today's Nissan Sentra was new in the 2013 model year, and was updated heavily in the 2016 model year. It looks a bit more like the handsome Altima and Maxima from the front now—but its tall, narrow shape doesn't have the visual verve of the Civic or Focus or Mazda 3, or even an Altima.
We give it a 4 out of 10 for styling. Its proportions are out of vogue—and while that doesn't often matter to economy-car buyers, it's a reality when comparing the Sentra to its newly spiffy competition. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The Sentra's cabin is less stylish than its sheet metal, and follows tradition in offering a rather upright layout with straightforward controls. The dash curves gently and flows across in a two-tier arrangement, tapering at the sides in a way that maximizes space. The mix of matte and metallic materials seem like they're trying to look more upscale than they are, a fact that's more acceptable at the lower end of the Sentra's price range.
From the outside, the Sentra has a plain economy-car countenance. Up front, it sports a deep V-shaped grille and boomerang-shaped headlights. The compact sedan's hood, fenders, and fascia were reshaped last year with more pronounced sculpting. The rear fascia and taillights received a similar makeover. In profile, just as in the Altima, there's an interesting crease that starts just over the front wheels and flows organically into the rear deck.
Sentra SR models get a suitably sportier look that’s easy to spot from the outside—especially in their exclusive shade of blue. Improvements include new front and rear fascias, lower-body sill extensions, a rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tip, fog lamps, and V-rated tires on 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.
The Sentra has some stylish interior shapes, but the tall, narrow body pales compared to rivals.
The 2017 Sentra doesn't offer much joy to the driver in its stock form. As the Sentra SR Turbo, there's enough to raise a pulse a few beats per minute, though it's far from the performance banshee Nissan once had in the SE-R.
We give it a 5 for performance. The new SR Turbo edition and its manual transmission counterbalance the weak performance of its stock inline-4 and CVT. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Until this year, the Sentra had offered only one engine, a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Not particularly quiet or powerful, the engine is one of the few in its niche to offer a 6-speed manual transmission—a notchy, loose, and imprecise box, and sure to be rare out there on dealer showroom floors.
Almost every other Sentra changes gear ratios via a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The latest rendition of the CVT gets programmed gear "ratios" that simulate the feel of a conventional automatic. Unlike the Altima's slicker unit, no one will mistake the Sentra's CVT for an auto 'box. "Shifts" are nearly imperceptible, but the Sentra gets quite noisy at high revs under strong acceleration, and the car shows obvious strain when accelerating up a hill.
Regardless of the model or trim level, all Sentra models include Normal, Eco, and Sport modes, though they are selected from small buttons that are located in the lower dash, out of the driver’s line of sight (the assumption is that you’ll pick a mode and stick with it). They affect throttle response and transmission tuning, while Eco mode also reduces air-conditioning draw. On fast-moving back roads we actually preferred Eco mode, as it had the transmission running the engine in a less-raucous rev range, while we were able to move almost as quickly.
Handling has never been a particular Sentra strength, but improved for 2016—and again this year. It's competent without encouraging spirited maneuvers. The suspension has a bit better control over ride motions, thanks to slightly stiffer springs versus the 2015 model. Nissan also factors in brake-controlled steering assist, which applies light braking to the inside wheel during cornering. It proved impressive when taking tight curves at imprudent speeds, but it feels more like you're being saved than like driving a sport sedan.
The nicely weighted, confident steering is a bright spot; it's speed sensitive and much like what's used in the Altima.
Rear disc brakes are available only on the SL or the SR, and they may provide stronger braking in higher-demand conditions like on mountain roads, but the rear drum system on the rest of the lineup stops well enough, albeit with lots of nosedive and body motion.
The Sentra's ride quality is smooth enough, and isn't significantly different whether you go for the base wheels or the low-profile 17-inch tires that somewhat improve responsiveness.
Sentra SR Turbo
For a bit more engagement on the road, there's the new 2017 Sentra SR Turbo. It takes the SR trim level to a higher performance level, with the addition of the Nissan Juke hatchback's 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-4, rated at 188 hp at 5,600 rpm, and 177 lb-ft of torque. Safe to say, it's the most interesting and rewarding part of both the Juke and Sentra now; it delivers a peaky power thrill that's been erased from most other turbocharged inline-4s, though like the other Sentra engine, it's also pretty loud when worked hard.
On the transmission front, the Sentra SR Turbo sticks with the 6-speed manual. The CVT is offered also, with those simulated gears.
On the ride and handling front, the Sentra SR Turbo's strut-and-torsion-beam suspension gets stiffer front springs (by 10 percent) and its own shocks, with 23 and 50 percent more damping force. The Turbo also gets its own 17-inch wheel-and-tire combo. Electronic power steering has been remapped for better response, Nissan says, and the Turbo also has slightly larger front brake discs, up to 11.7 inches, for more stopping power.
The result? A slightly more interesting drive. The SR Turbo is obviously quicker, but by a more moderate margin than expected. The steering has some friction as it builds up cornering force, and the ride is more damped than in a base car, but not yet at the locked-down point where you'd find a Focus ST or just about any Mazda 3.
Performance is a cut above in the Sentra SR Turbo; otherwise, it's middling at best.
The Sentra is no Focus, no Civic, no Mazda 3. In terms of interior space, that does it a lot of good. It's relatively uncramped the way those cars can seem, and with almost mid-size dimensions, it's perfectly able to carry four adults in its tall-roofed body.
With lots of room and a nicely furnished interior, it sets a midline for how we evaluate comfort and utility in sedans; it rates a 5 on our scale of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The driver and front passenger sit a bit high in the Sentra. The high roof leaves behind plenty of room; even with a sunroof, a 6-footer will have room left over. The back seat has plenty of leg room and will easily accommodate three pre-teens or a pair of full-grown men. Compared with cars like the Focus and 3, the rear seats are a snap to get in—the doors open wide and the openings are wide, too.
Trunk space in the Sentra is among the best in the class, and feels that way. It has a large, chest-like cargo area that could fit a couple large suitcases or a great quantity of groceries. All trims come not only with a folding rear center armrest, but also with a split-folding arrangement that lets you flip the seat backs forward (not flat) to an expanded area.
Interior room is ample for four adults; the Sentra sits about in the middle of the car-comfort universe.
Crash-test data hasn't been fully updated for the 2017 model year. The IIHS calls it a Top Safety Pick, but federal testers weren't as kind. The lack of a standard rearview camera isn't helping much either. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Standard safety equipment in the Sentra includes front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, as well as roof-mounted side-curtain bags, plus electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes. Parents will appreciate two full LATCH connectors in the back seat, and three child-seat upper tether anchors. An Easy Fill Tire Alert system sounds the horn when you’re inflating the tires to signal the recommended pressure.
NissanConnect (standard on SL, optional on SV and SR) relies on a satellite radio subscription for a variety of services such as remote access, customizable alerts, and convenience services like calling a live operator for directions that are downloaded to the navigation system.
The Sentra doesn't fare well in crash tests performed by the NHTSA. The agency gives it a four-star overall rating: five stars in side impacts, and four stars in frontal impacts and rollover crashes. The IIHS, though, calls it a Top Safety Pick, thanks to top "Good" marks across the board and an available package of safety technology including forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, and rear cross-traffic alerts.
Those features are only available on the most expensive models, though.
The Sentra is at least blessed with good outward vision. The lower beltline and high seating position give a good view of the road and surroundings.
What the IIHS gives in terms of crash-test scores, the NHTSA takes away.
Nissan offers four basic trim levels in the Sentra: S, SV, SR, and SL.
We give it a features score of 5 out of 10. There's nothing special about its standard or optional equipment, and piling on available equipment hamstrings the Sentra's best feature: its value. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The base S 6MT is equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, and is likely to be a rare sight at Nissan dealerships. The Sentra S outfitted with the CVT is the real base model; it comes with cruise control, automatic headlights, and Bluetooth phone connectivity.
The SV adds a standard rearview camera, smartphone connectivity with the stereo (including internet radio and app services), Siri Eyes Free voice recognition, and keyless ignition. Option packages include features such as a moonroof, heated mirrors and front seats, and navigation.
The sporty SR is distinguishable mostly for appearance add-ons like 17-inch wheels, chrome exhaust tips, and an exclusive body kit. When equipped with the turbo engine borrowed from the Juke, the SR Turbo comes with sport seats, a power sunroof, keyless ignition, power features, and an AM/FM/CD/XM head unit with Bluetooth music streaming. A Premium option package gains leather seats, Bose audio, and blind-spot monitors. Navigation is an option.
SR and SR Turbos are available with a Midnight Edition package that includes black alloy wheels.
The range-topping SL comes with standard leather trim, a power adjustable driver seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Options for the SL include an eight-speaker Bose audio system.
Base Sentras are a better value; add touches like leather and the Sentra loses its value strength.
The Nissan Sentra delivers respectable fuel economy numbers, though it's not among the best in its class.
We give it a green score of 6 out of 10, without docking it for its high-output SR Turbo trim. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Most Sentras use a CVT to achieve 29 mpg city, 37 highway, 32 combined. These numbers drop to 27/35/30 mpg with the 6-speed manual, which is sold in very small numbers.
The FE+ S edition offered last year has been dropped.
On the new SR Turbo, fuel economy falls to 27/33/29 mpg when equipped with the CVT, or 26/32/28 mpg with the 6-speed manual. Both versions require premium gasoline, which may turn some off from a budget performance car.
Fuel economy dips with the SR Turbo, but the Sentra's numbers are otherwise strong.