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The all-new 2020 Nissan Sentra.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Timing is everything. For instance, Nissan’s decision to launch a new car during a global pandemic is what English author A.A. Milne would call “probably not ideal.” Even so, the new Nissan Sentra might have missed its planned rollout but may have still hit its mark.

Historically, the Sentra nameplate arrived in 1982 as a replacement for the Datsun Sunny. An entry-level car, the Sunny was an economical cousin to the sprightly 510, which got the critical acclaim, the racing pedigree and the lasting enthusiast base. It was purchased by your maiden aunt, served its duty, then headed off to the crusher to be turned into dishwashers. But there’s just one thing – the Sunny always outsold the fan-favourite 510.

So too did the Sentra, which was always a pragmatic choice. There were a few slightly sporty variants, but the Sentra badge always signalled a sensible option. This new one does too, but it’s not the poor cousin anymore.

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The Sentra effectively incorporates the brand's latest design language.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

All-new from the platform up, the latest Sentra has essentially all the improvements of the current Altima. It’s a great-looking little car, incorporating Nissan’s current design language well.

Things are even better on the inside, where the Sentra can boast the kind of refinement you get in a mid-sized car like a Honda Accord or a Mazda6. Comfort levels are outstanding with Nissan’s so-called Zero Gravity Seats. Built around more than a dozen pressure points, they’re designed to make long drives feel effortless, and they work.

Nissan's Zero Gravity Seats are extremely comfortable.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The Sentra engine is an efficient four-cylinder with not much in the way of character nor particularly impressive acceleration. It should be noted, however, that Canadians do have the option of a manual gearbox (the U.S. market does not), and fuel economy is very competitive.

The handling is quite good, with reasonable grip and solid brakes. The larger wheels of the higher trim levels are slightly crashy over larger road imperfections, but the suspension is otherwise smooth. Steering is well weighted, and despite the modest power, the Sentra is good fun to drive. Over the course of a week, the it continued to impress with its sharp styling, well-sorted interior and pleasing dynamics. The enthusiast in me faintly wished for a Nismo (Nissan’s in-house performance division) variant to take the fight to the likes of the Honda Civic Si; my more pragmatic side noted the consistent fuel-economy results and relaxed into those very comfortable seats.

The larger wheels of upper-tier trims can be a bit crashy on large road imperfections.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

In normal times, this competent little sedan would emerge to have its clock cleaned by the sales figures of more expensive crossovers. Financial experts have long pointed out the ever-longer terms involved in how we finance our vehicles and have warned that Canadians might be buying more car than we need.

As with its Sunny ancestor, the Sentra is about as much car as anyone could need – and more. It’s also pleasant to drive and has an interior that’s much nicer than you’d expect in its class, and it looks sharp and returns decent fuel economy.

In these uncertain times, the Sentra offers a sensible choice without making you feel like you’ve had to cut corners. Going forward, buyers will likely be examining their purchases just that little bit more closely. The Sentra will likely pass that test.

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Tech specs

The Sentra is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

  • Price: $18,798 (base); $26,133 (as teste)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder AC motor
  • Transmission/drive: continuously variable transmission (CVT) six-speed manual
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0, city; 6.0, highway
  • Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3

Looks

The Sentra is a good-looking car, though its 'floating' roofline may eventually look dated.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Nissan’s corporate look includes a large grille, LED headlight trim and a “floating” roofline. Only that last feature will perhaps one day look dated. Overall, the Sentra is a great-looking little car.

Interior

The new interior is a big step forward from previous models.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The very comfortable seats get the headlines, but the Sentra’s redesigned interior is a huge step forward. Storage space is useful, fit and finish are better than expected, and the overall look of the higher trims is at least as good as something like the entry-level luxury Mercedes-Benz CLA.

Performance

The Sentra handles well but doesn't boast particularly lively acceleration.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The Sentra is not particularly fleet of foot. With 149 horsepower and 145 lb.-ft. of torque available, acceleration times are quite modest, and a continuously variable transmission is not on any enthusiast’s checklist. However, the Sentra handles better than expected and is perfectly capable of keeping up with traffic.

Technology

Top-level trims feature 360-degree cameras.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

Very basic models get a 4.2-inch display, with most trims getting a 7-inch or 8-inch touch screen. Mid-level models get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, meaning they’ll have all the technology you need. Top-level Sentras get 360-degree cameras and navigation.

Cargo

Trunk space is competitive for the class at 404.9 litres.

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The verdict

Sharp-looking and well-equipped for the price, the Sentra represents what it always has – good value in the compact-sedan market.

brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

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

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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