Performance gets the nod for Nissan’s compact sedan in the 2017 model year. A new SR Turbo edition borrows its powertrain from the Juke crossover SUV. A new Midnight Edition package has been added, too, with black wheels and spoiler. Window glass is now thicker, in the interest of quiet running, and the center console gains storage capacity.
Introduced 35 years ago, the Sentra is in its seventh generation, last redesigned for 2013 and freshened for 2016 with a V-shaped grille in a new front end. All told, Nissan’s compact sedan blends into the crowd, but its appeal is enhanced by abundant passenger space.
Four basic trim levels are offered: S, SV, SR, and SL, plus the new SR Turbo. Regular Sentras hold a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 124 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque (130 hp and 128 pound-feet with manual shift). The 6-speed manual gearbox is standard in S trim, but a continuously variable transmission (CVT) goes into other Sentras and is optional for the S edition.
Offered with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or a specially tuned version of Nissan’s CVT, the new 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the SR Turbo generates 188 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. The Turbo’s suspension is a little stiffer than usual.
With or without turbo power, SR is the sporty premium Sentra model. An available Premium Package adds a moonroof, Bose eight-speaker audio, leather upholstery, upgraded infotainment, and several active-safety features. A Style Package for SV includes the moonroof, a rear spoiler, and 16-inch alloy wheels. Base S models don’t even include a rearview camera. At least, outward visibility is good, helped by a lower beltline and relatively high seating position.
Fuel economy is a plus, but safety ratings are less impressive and contemporary safety technology is offered only on top trim levels. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave Sentra Good crash-test scores and declared it a Top Safety Pick. In crash-testing for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Sentra got only four stars overall and for frontal impact, but five stars for side-impact collision.
Forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking is part of a Technology Package, along with adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert also are offered.
Nissan Sentra S ($16,990) comes with a 6-speed manual gearbox, four-speaker audio, and 16-inch wheels. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.) Sentra S CVT ($17,990) substitutes the continuously variable transmission, adding cruise control, automatic headlights, and Bluetooth phone connectivity.
Sentra SV ($18,790) adds a rearview camera, smartphone connectivity, Siri Eyes Free voice recognition, and keyless ignition. Option packages include features such as a moonroof, heated mirrors and front seats, and navigation.
Sentra SR ($19,990) features appearance add-ons including lower bodyside sill extensions, a rear spoiler, and 17-inch alloy wheels, plus all-disc brakes.
Sentra SR Turbo manual ($21,990) comes with the turbocharged engine, 6-speed manual gearbox, upgraded suspension and steering, sport seats, sunroof, and Bluetooth audio streaming. Sentra SR Turbo CVT ($21,990) substitutes the continuously variable transmission.
Sentra SL ($21,500) features leather trim, a power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, NissanConnect with navigation, and an auto-dimming mirror.
Sentra NISMO ($24,990) offers factory-tuned performance, including turbo engine and either 6-speed manual shift or a CVT.
Taller and narrower than typical of compact bodies, Sentras lack the visual spirit of a Honda Civic or Mazda 3. Overall, the Sentra conveys the relatively plain image of an econocar.
Up front, the deep V-shaped grille is flanked by boomerang-shaped headlights. SR models express a modestly sportier theme, making them stand out a bit from the compact crowd.
Roomy and welcoming, the tall-roofed Sentra would have been considered midsize not so long ago. Though seat comfort ranks around average, four passengers can expect ample space for heads and legs. Even with a sunroof, head clearance for six-foot riders isn’t a likely concern.
Up front, the driver and passenger sit somewhat higher than usual. Back-seat passengers get plenty of legroom, with sufficient space for two average-size adults or a trio of pre-teen youngsters. Getting into the back seat is easy, too, through doors that open wide onto broad openings. At highway speeds, the cabin is agreeably quiet.
With cargo volume of 15.1 cubic feet, the Sentra provides one of the largest trunks in the compact class. Split rear seats fold down to increase storage capabilities and include a folding center armrest.
Although the cabin won’t be called fashionable, it’s traditional in nature, led by an upright dashboard with logical controls. Curving gently, the two-tier dashboard tapers at the sides, boosting available space. Standard cloth upholstery is a better choice than optional leather, which has a plastic-like feel.
Until 2016, all Sentras held what’s now the base engine. Not especially quiet, lacking somewhat in power, the 1.8-liter four doesn’t provide a stimulating experience. Basically, it does its job without fuss.
Nissan’s latest CVT performs decently, as expected, but acceleration tends to be sluggish. A base-engine Sentra seems overmatched when traversing hilly terrain or carrying several passengers. Programmed virtual gear ratios in the CVT can simulate a conventional automatic transmission, but the engine grows quite loud when accelerating hard or tackling an upgrade.
Compared to a Mazda 3 or Ford Focus, even the Sentra SR Turbo trails in driving enjoyment. Performance clearly reaches past that of the base engine, but the Turbo won’t remind anyone of Nissan’s old SE-R models. The 6-speed gearbox for the SR Turbo is loose and notchy, lacking in precision.
All Sentra drivers can select from three modes: Normal, Eco, or Sport. Unfortunately, the selection buttons aren’t easily seen, but they affect throttle response as well as transmission operation.
Handling has never been Sentra’s strong point. While the sedan is competent enough and corners capably, thanks to its brake-controlled steering assistance, it doesn’t inspire spirited driving. Steering, on the other hand, is well-weighted and confidence-inspiring.
Ride comfort is sufficiently smooth and relatively soft. The suspension absorbs bumps and pavement roughness effectively. During highway cruising, the cabin is serenely quiet.
Only SR and SL models can have all-disc brakes, but the rear-drum system halts sufficiently well. Expect some nosedive and excess body motion when halting hard in a Sentra.
Fuel economy ranks as respectable, EPA-rated at 29/37 mpg City/Highway, or 32 mpg Combined. The SR Turbo is EPA-rated at 27/33 mpg City/Highway, or 29 mpg Combined, with CVT; but 26/32/28 mpg with manual shift.
Shoppers are more likely to turn to Sentra because they need a capable compact, rather than because they crave this particular one. After all, family-minded buyers aren’t ordinarily seeking stimulating performance and high-end handling traits. Lower-level Sentras are better values.
Driving impressions by Marty Padgett, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.