Nissan launched the eighth-generation Sentra for 2020, and we were exceptionally surprised with it after our first drive.
The last two generations were fairly subpar, and sat quietly at the bottom of the compact sedan segment, unnoticed and largely forgotten, so it was a massive surprise to us when we discovered just how good this latest one is. The 2021 Nissan Sentra SR tested here is a bit unique, in the sense that it’s one of the higher trims, but comes equipped with a six-speed manual transmission.
While the Sentra starts at an aggressive $19,198, the SR starts at $22,898 and adds a heated steering wheel, black 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, sportier body styling, and all other features available on the S and SV trims. Pricing is fairly competitive with the likes of the Honda Civic LX, Toyota Corolla SE Upgrade, and Hyundai Elantra Preferred Tech. That said, Nissan remains one of the only manufacturers left to offer a three-pedal option in a higher trim, while many others only offer this on fairly base models.
The only engine Nissan offers on the 2021 Sentra is a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. It outputs 149 horsepower and 149 lb-ft. of torque. It’s adequate for a compact, and right in line with many competitors’ entry level offerings, but many of them do offer higher output options. The Sentra gets out of its own way, but my personal experience says that while sacrilegious for me to say, the two-pedal CVT feels like the more eager, responsive option.
It’s not that the six-speed manual on our test car is bad, but enthusiasts just have to let go of the adage that a three-pedal option can make any car better. The shifter here is fairly precise, but rubbery and notchy at the same time, and not in a good way. The gearing is fairly short, requiring more shifting than necessary, and unlike the rev-happy 2.0-liter in the Corolla, the Sentra runs out of breath quickly. The clutch is extremely light and it’s nearly impossible to drive the car smoothly if wearing winter boots, because the lack of feel makes it difficult to find the bite point of the clutch.
Regardless, the Sentra rides fairly well on the highway and once you’re at cruising altitude, is a remarkably comfortable place to spend time. There’s less cabin noise than observed in the Civic or Subaru Impreza, and the taller profile of the Sentra means visibility is good as well. Ride quality is impressive, and much like the Qashqai, this compact minimizes fatique over longer distance driving. Our managing editor Nick Tragianis had an errand to run that involved a 500-kilometer round trip in this Sentra, and he returned with positive impressions on highway manners.
Official fuel ratings for the 2021 Sentra SR with the manual transmission are 9.4L/100km in the city and 6.5L/100km on the highway, for a combined 8.1L/100km. We observed 9.0L/100km in extremely cold temperatures with a heavy bias toward city driving. Our longer highway trip returned 7.4L/100km, which is a bit worse than expected, but expected given the winter tires and freezing weather. Naturally, 87-octane is all that’s required for this compact sedan.
On the inside, Nissan’s current design language works just as well as it does on the exterior.. Most buttons are easy to find, and all major controls are clearly marked. The heated steering wheel is toasty and works well this time of year. The “Zero Gravity” seats, claimed to be inspired by NASA, are satisfactory, at best. I’ve never been able to get my driving position quite right, but your mileage may vary. The weirdest part of the interior is the position of the steering wheel. It’s angled far too high, almost bus-like, and just doesn’t go low enough.
Rear seat occupants will be reasonably comfortable as well, and we observed an easier entry-exit than in the Corolla or the Civic. The Sentra just feels like it’s a touch bigger, which works to its advantage. The trunk will hold nearly 405-liters of cargo, and the opening is big enough to swallow most objects and enough luggage for that weekend away for the growing family. It’s worth noting that the outgoing Civic’s trunk is a little bit larger.
All Sentras come with Intelligent Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, a rear-view camera, and blind spot monitoring. This trim also includes adaptive cruise control and heated mirrors with LED turn signals. Opting for the manual transmission eliminates the ability to get built-in remote start, but SR models without a clutch will have this Canadian godsend on board. The only advanced safety option missing from the SR is a surround-view camera system, which is limited to the SR Premium.
Nissan raised the bar with the latest iteration of the Sentra, and it’s not just a worthy contender – it takes the podium for the segment, shared with the current Corolla. The upcoming 2022 Honda Civic will really test the envelope for the class, but until then, the Sentra remains the style champion. The manual transmission is definitely the enthusiast’s choice, but our test concluded that the CVT just makes this car better, more versatile and accessible to the kinds of buyers Nissan wants.