While I drove the reigning North American car of The Year recently, I wanted to drive one of the other finalists.
So I did. And…
The 2021 Nissan Sentra snapped necks when it came out over a year ago. It was because no one expected it to look like this. Even offering a driving experience that would win customers over.
That is the beauty of a car like this. No one expected it to be good. Not when Nissan had its share of bad publicity in recent years. While we sift through the news, Nissan has been making strides on their latest offerings.
Let me confirm this with you.
First off, its styling got me big time! This is one sharp looking compact sedan. The front end shows off Nissan’s latest design tenets, with the "V" grille, narrow LED headlamps, low profile and silhouette, the floating roof C-pillar effect, the fastback styling, and the equally sharp rear end design.
All of this amounts to a car that is stunning to look at. The Sentra offers nothing but good vibes, a sporty design, and loads of ambition – the kind of car I want to drive.
My tester was the SR model, which is the top of the line trim on the Sentra. The 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, and lip spoiler on the trunk lid add to this overall look.
There is one thing that came up during my time with this Sentra. Some people may have confused this with an Altima. I could say that, yes, there is a design formula Nissan employed on its sedan lineup – including the Versa and the Maxima. Say what you will about “cookie cutter design,” but I actually like the Sentra’s look. In a word, it’s a cool car.
That coolness continues inside, where I was treated to an easy-to-read instrumentation binnacle. That also includes the seven-inch wide information screen that has the right information when you need it. The analog dials are also clean and easy to read on the fly. Ventilation came from a set of circular vents that work well, while controlled by an easy to use automatic climate control.
The center console is dominated by a short shifter and large cupholders. Just wished they had something to hold smaller bottles better. OK, that’s a nitpick…moving on…
Compared to other compact sedans, the steering wheel controls stick out and work extremely logically. Can we not ignore that it is a flat-bottomed wheel? I just love this wheel for some reason.
On top of the center stack is an eight-inch tablet-like touchscreen driven by NissanConnect. Can we say how much Nissan’s infotainment system has improved over the years? You have a clean interface, smartphone integration – even through a USB-C port – and on-board Wi-Fi. In my tester, sound is pumped out of eight Bose speakers for my listening pleasure.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive. The Prima-Tex leatherette was nice to the touch. The orange contrast stitching makes this black motif pop a lot more. Rear seat room is OK, thanks to a low roofline that may make things interesting for taller passengers. I’d say the interior would be fine for four-to-five average-sized adults.
The specifications state that the trunk can hold 14.3 cubic feet. It looks it can do the job. There is a step-down off the bumper. You can fold down the rear seatbacks for longer items.
Underneath the Sentra’s hood is a 149-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It delivers solid power without a lot of drama. It is connected to Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission, driving the front wheels. What will surprise you is how this CVT “shifts” smoothly, even on passing maneuvers.
As for fuel economy, I averaged 32.1 MPG. It’s pretty good, if you ask me. I know I can do better with this car.
Where the Sentra won me over is in its driving experience. While the ride quality was firm, it is exactly what I wanted from this car. A firm ride does encourage you to take control of the road – and that is what the Sentra does well. Cornering was fantastic with minimal lean and roll, and the Sentra maneuvers extremely well. There is a poise to this car that only a few compact cars can exhibit.
The Sentra has a tight turning radius, helped by a good steering rack and solid response on to the road. On-center feel is strong, which means it can hold the lane extremely well with a balanced weight for greater control. The brakes are equally impressive. The pedal feel is solid and stopping power is good in normal and panic situations.
There is one complaint that I have to point out. I wished they did not replace the clutch pedal with a parking brake one. It seemed that Nissan had to force that pedal into that location for our market. Maybe an electronic switch e-brake instead, Nissan? Oh, and spread the pedals towards the fender, while you’re at it.
The one big thing that caught my eye was the price. My 2021 Nissan Sentra SR tester with the Premium Package came with a sticker price of only $25,235. This is a top-of-the-line Sentra, fully equipped for that price! Talk about value! The Sentra lineup starts from $19,460 for a nicely-equipped S model.
Before I make my conclusion, here’s what has been swirling around in my head. I would have hoped that the Sentra would have won the NACOTY. It would be that redemption arc Nissan needed at that time. Nothing against the reigning award-winning Hyundai Elantra, but there are several items that put the Sentra ahead. It all comes down to the details and how one responds to them.
With that said, I responded very well to the Nissan Sentra. In some respects, I would prefer this to the other compact sedans I have driven in the past few years. Just a few more details to work on to become a class leader.
Still, I am enthralled with its sleek design. I’m always a sucker for a good looking car. It drives the way I want it to drive, which is a bonus. Not to mention it’s superb value for the money.
Is the Nissan Sentra worth your consideration when shopping for a compact sedan? Put that on your list when you are in the market for one. It may just get your award in owning one.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Walser Nissan Wayzata, Wayzata, MN
All photos by Randy Stern