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Nissan believes younger drivers want sedans because they don’t want the SUVs of their parents.

Mark Richardson

Nissan introduced its eighth-generation Sentra compact sedan last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, talking up its new style and boost in performance. Younger drivers want sedans, Nissan believes, because they don’t want the SUVs that their parents are buying. This flies against the anti-sedan stand that Ford and some other manufacturers are making, but time will soon tell who’s made the best bet.

There are five available trim levels, and while Canadian pricing isn’t yet announced, American prices show that there’s a small bump in cost from the previous generation. This is pretty typical. When the 2020 Sentra comes on sale in February, its base “S” edition will probably list for around $17,000 – it’s built to be as affordable as possible, and even comes with a 6-speed manual transmission that won’t be available in the U.S. You have to go up a grade for heated seats, but push-button start is standard across the lineup.

Nissan expects most buyers to opt for the mid-trim SV edition, which throws in 16-inch alloy wheels, a slightly larger 8-inch central LCD touch screen and larger 7-inch display between the gauges, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and intelligent cruise control.

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The overall layout is a clear improvement over previous generations.

Mark Richardson

I drove only the highest-end SR Premium edition, which lists here in California at US$24,400, before taxes and freight and PDI charges. Nissan expects just 10 per cent of Sentra buyers to opt for this, since most others who want more stuff will just upgrade to the larger and more powerful Altima. It offers bigger 18-inch wheels, a better Bose sound system, LED “jewel-style” headlights and a sportier look (with things like sill extensions, a rear spoiler and a chrome exhaust). There’s also a powered driver’s seat and an “Intelligent Around View” monitor that upgrades the camera system.

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: Not yet released
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: CVT or 6-speed manual / FWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): S: 9.4 City, 6.4 Hwy., 8.0 comb.; S Plus and SV: 8.0 City, 6.0 Hwy., 7.1 comb.; SR: 8.2 City, 6.2 Hwy., 7.3 comb.
  • Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra

Looks

The new Sentra follows the lines of its larger Maxima and Altima siblings, with more aggressive looks that belie its grocery-getting predecessors. The entire car is 5 cm wider and almost 6 cm lower, built on a brand-new platform that gave its designers the chance to create something more memorable than most compact sedans. It now has a large V-shaped grille that’s flanked by shallow, squinty headlights (LED lights are an option at the higher trim levels) for that more aggressive look that’s popular these days. The “floating roof,” thanks to B-pillars coloured differently from the sharply-creased body, helps the sporty allusion.

My 32-inch legs did not feel cramped with the leg room available in the back.

Mark Richardson

Interior

I only experienced the highest-end edition, with larger displays and “Prima-Tex appointed seat trim,” whatever that is, but its overall layout is clearly an improvement on previous generations. Fit and finish is excellent without being remarkable, and everything is well to hand. The seats are now similar “zero-gravity” units to those found in the Rogue and Altima.

There’s a surprising amount of space inside. Even with the front seats pushed back for comfort, there was enough leg room in the rear for my 32-inch legs to not feel cramped, and enough headroom for my six-foot frame to sit without brushing the headliner.

Performance

There’s only one available engine, a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder that’s taken from the Rogue Sport and the Qashqai SUVs. It makes 149 hp and 145 lbs.-ft. of torque, which is a boost from before of 20 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. This seems like just the right amount. In the busy traffic of the Pacific Coast Highway, the Sentra was never shamed at the lights, and in the canyon backroads, it pulled well through the corners with no shortness of breath.

The car handles well in corners, rocking and rolling less than you’d expect in the tight curves. It helps that the rear suspension is now an independent multi-link system, and that there’s a new dual-pinion rack electric power steering system. Press the “S” button on the CVT shifter and the revs will rise higher and pull more readily, as if you’ve shifted down a gear, but that’s all; it doesn’t affect the steering feel, or response of the throttle or brakes.

Fuel consumption is pretty good at a claimed combined average of 7.1 L/100 km.

Mark Richardson

The CVT, which Nissan calls an “Xtronic” transmission because, seemingly, it likes the name, is a night-and-day improvement over earlier CVTs. Frankly, Nissan’s been chipping away at the belts and pulleys to finally figure out how it should be done, and there’s no envy of full automatics. Nor is there much envy for the stick-shift, which is really just a cost-saver rather than an enthusiast’s option. After all, it’s not available in the sportier SR and SR Premium trims.

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Fuel consumption is pretty good at a claimed combined average of 7.1 L/100 km. My own observed average was just over 8 L/100 km, but I was driving through those canyon roads without sparing the horses.

Technology

Every new generation of a vehicle has better technology than before, and the Sentra is no exception. All trims come standard with six safety features that Nissan calls Safety Shield 360: intelligent emergency braking with pedestrian detection, high beam assist (to automatically dip the lights when another car approaches), lane departure warning, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, and rear intelligent emergency braking, which will hit the brakes if the sensor thinks you’re backing into something.

If you need extra space in the trunk, the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split.

Mark Richardson

It’s too bad that you have to go up a couple of trims to get intelligent cruise control, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but at least they’re available.

Cargo

There’s reasonable space in the trunk for luggage, and the rear seats do fold down in a 60/40 split to create a large pass-through area if you need extra room.

The verdict

The new Sentra is a very good car, no doubt, but it’s not really a great car. I can’t think of any one thing it does better than its competition. However, it does everything well, and that’s all that most buyers are looking for, and after that, it usually comes down to price. Cross-shop the competition, by all means, but don’t ignore Nissan’s newest compact sedan.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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