Getting a cheap car right is, admittedly, difficult. In the face of dwindling yet solid competition from Kia, Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, and others, it may seem unsurprising that the new Nissan Sentra falls a little short. It falls more than a little short, though. As far as I've been able to tell, there are two (2) significantly good things about this car.
The first is that the sound system is surprisingly high quality. The second is that it's very easy to park.
That doesn't mean that everything else about the car is bad. It means that not a lot stands out as good, not even for the money. The starting price of a top-trim Nissan Sentra SR is $22,675, which is probably worth it. Heck, even a base model that starts at $19,410 is likely still a pretty good deal. However, the price of my loaded test car was $25,910, which is definitely not.
Despite being all-new as of two years ago, the Sentra still feels much older, and I recommend you get a Honda Civic or something instead. But let me give you some more details, first.
The 2021 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SR, By the Numbers
- Base Price (As Tested): $22,675 ($25,910)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter naturally aspirated inline-four | continuously-variable transmission | front-wheel-drive
- Horsepower: 149 horsepower @ 6,400 RPM
- Torque: 146 pound-feet @ 4,400 RPM
- EPA Fuel Economy: 28 mpg city | 37 highway | 32 combined
- Curb Weight: 3,084 pounds
- 0-60 mph: 10 seconds (est.)
- Quick Take: Buy a base model if you buy a new Sentra.
The Sentra's been around long enough now that it shouldn't need any introduction. But just in case, it's Nissan's compact sedan, something that competes against the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, and a few others in an ever-dwindling segment that pretty much only the Asian automakers still desire to compete in. The Sentra is small but spacious, it gets good fuel economy, and it's affordable.
This Sentra, in particular, is important because it's the successor to what was a truly bad car. Well, it wasn't a bad car, maybe—there are very few truly bad cars left on the market these days. But some cars are always better than others, and the last Sentra, stuck with a less powerful 1.8-liter engine, less equipment, and a sad continuously variable transmission still unfortunately in this car, wasn't the best use of your money. By the end, even a facelift couldn't hide the economy car looks and the dated interior.
The new Sentra, on account of its sharp exterior styling and interesting-at-a-glance interior, should've been a big upgrade as compared to the old car, but it's really not. Key parts of the interior outside of the flashy press photos just aren't where they should be, most other parts of the car refuse to raise any eyebrows, and the transmission, well...
The CVT Deserves Death
The first, biggest reason is the CVT. For those unfamiliar with these, there are no gears, just an ever-adjusting metal belt between two spool-shaped things that change ratios as they're adjusted by a computer. Sometimes they work fine, but this one really doesn't. I wanted the transmission—let me add the word "desperate"—I desperately wanted the transmission to just stop trying.
CVTs have become more common in recent years in the name of fuel economy. Nissan went bigger on this than just about any automaker, but Subaru and Toyota use them too. They aren't especially known for enabling sporty driving, but to be clear, it's not like all CVTs act like this one. Toyota's CVTs, for instance, are much more responsive and smooth. I have been in a few Toyotas for long trips before I even realized they were CVT-equipped. That's unfortunately not the case here.
Any performance this car's 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine truly has—and it doesn't feel like a lot—is seriously hampered by the Jatco CVT installed in this Sentra. Not only do you have to live in constant fear of it actually destroying itself, but the way it responds to throttle application is just... it's truly pathetic.
It's slow, and it artificially fakes shifts by holding certain RPMs and then dropping from them rapidly, just like an automatic box with physical gears would. This is, of course, to make you believe it doesn't actually have a CVT. I mean, that's pretty pathetic in its own right, but when it actually goes about trying to fake shifts, it's like... please just give up. It's almost sad. I kept thinking, please, just stop doing this. And then it does another fake upshift and, oh god, I'm sure you're hurting yourself. Please, just end it.
"Oh no, don't..."
I began to wonder if there was a mode where I could turn off the fake gear changes, but there wasn't. Remember the scene from The Office where they try to get Kevin to eat vegetables? Another employee goes, "Stop, you're killing him!" This car faking shifts was like that. And if you listen carefully, you can actually hear the CVT's belt doing its business inside the transmission case when you're driving along. It sounds like the anchor on a really tiny ship dropping whenever you're on the throttle.
The only respite for this condition is to turn up the music, which thankfully comes piped out of what is actually a very good sound system for the money. Every range is crisp, clear and there's very little distortion as you turn up the volume higher. Trust me, I did.
A Good Sound System, but Not Much Else
But that's almost where the praise for the interior ends. Sorry, I didn't want to get you excited. I mean sure, the center stack and center console both look fine, but if you take a glance around—or take a seat—things really start to come apart.
First of all, just look at the window switches. They just look like Nissan walked down the street and got them from "Car Parts R' Us." If the generic brand of Fruit Loops called "Fruity Tires" at my local grocery store was a set of window switches, it would be these. They're also surrounded by carbon fiber trim that—I mean, this car is so cheap that there's just absolutely no doubt in your mind that it's fake, and that just makes it sad. Just put piano black there. Again, just stop trying.
I also had the misfortune of spending some time in this car on a long journey, which revealed how uncomfortable and ill-conceived the seats were. They're made of what might as well be Crisco-brand leather—you slip around on them like you've been greased up like a pig ready for the county fair—and I really try not to slump when I drive, but it was very hard in these seats. My ass was killing me by the time I got out.
Driving the Sentra
This thing is very easy to park, thanks in part to the short wheelbase and tight turning radius, but also the really great 360 camera. It gives you everything you need to know and nothing you don't. One could take issue with the low-quality rear-view camera, but it does the job. There's also a variety of cross-traffic, blindspot, and pedestrian warnings that beep at you while you're parking. They don't make any mistakes and caught me off guard at least once, spotting something I missed. It may seem obvious that a small car is easy to park, but thanks to these effective cameras and sensors, it's even easier.
The radar cruise control also works surprisingly well, dealing with people cutting you off not by slamming on the brakes; it seems to just let off the throttle and wait to see if the car ahead accelerates. If it does, the Sentra just carries on. If it doesn't, then the braking occurs. My test vehicle did not have lane keep assist because it's not available at all, but radar cruise is included as standard on the SR trim, for just $22,675. Not bad!
And a Two-Tone Paint Job
That actually brings me to even more good news, because the exterior of this car thankfully looks pretty good. It's completely subjective, I know, but the black roof and this great blue color—a $250 option for the combo—really does some legwork on the outside of this car. The new headlights and taillights also help, as does the single piece of chrome window trim running down the side. It's nice and subdued. The 18-inch wheels are also not bad, and the ride only suffers a little bit from the lack of sidewall.
Speaking of the ride, this car does. It's not uncomfortable over imperfections, but it doesn't provide over the top ride quality that makes it worthy of praise, even with an all-new platform featuring independent rear suspension. It's not going to bother you with how it rides, but it didn't leave me impressed, either. The steering, however, actually feels pretty direct. That's not really a goal for a car like this, but it's nice to see. As I mentioned, the wheel does feel a bit big. It's also hard to get it positioned exactly where you want it, even though it tilts and telescopes.
As a result of the acceptable if not incredible ride, disc brakes at every corner, and steering that is surprisingly communicative, the car feels nimble and throwable. Once again, it's hard to have any fun in this car because of the transmission, but if it were offered with something else, the Sentra SR would be a fine compact sedan for a twisty road—certainly more fun to drive than any of its CUV counterparts.
Overall, the Sentra doesn't quite measure up to others in the segment. When the new 2022 Honda Civic comes out, it's not gonna be good news for this car, and competition from Hyundai and Kia gets better and better every product cycle. If it was between this and a Civic, the decision would be pretty easy. That being said, if you still want one of these, get the cheapest one possible. If you can live without heated seats or a heated steering wheel, that's for the best. At its base price—or even a base SR trim—this car isn't bad. But even once you get into the mid-twenties, that value really begins to fall apart. Parts of the interior just feel a little too cheap to get used to.
And that leads to another question, which is, even if you wanted to pay as much as somebody theoretically would for my test car, you enter the territory of other better cars, even within Nissan's own lineup. Vehicles like the Kicks, Rogue Sport, or even a full-fledged Rogue. If you're going to lease or finance a new Nissan, does that little extra payment really make that much of a difference? I'll answer my own question and tell you no, it definitely doesn't.
And don't give me this "oh, a cheap car feels cheap, I'm stunned!" attitude in the comments. Other companies do cheap cars better, especially in 2021. Small, cheap cars are better than they've ever been. If key parts of this car like the seats, switchgear, and transmission get updated in the facelift, then this thing would be worth buying, even for 26 grand.
As it sits, though? It's a day late and more than a few dollars short.
Do you have any additional questions about the 2021 Nissan Sentra? Send me a message: [email protected]