2021 Nissan Sentra review: Not a benchwarmer, not quite a benchmark

Long an also-ran, today’s Sentra is wholesome and surprisingly stylish.


Sean Szymkowski/Roadshow

It’s been a long time since the Nissan Sentra could be considered not just a “cool car,” but a genuinely good car. Thankfully, the folks inside the Japanese automaker have hashed out a winning formula with striking looks, a lofty features list and a comfortable package with value to boot. Some rivals may have an edge here or there, but by and large, the Sentra is squarely back in the game.

Like

  • Quite stylish in its own right
  • Seriously comfortable seats for long drives
  • Lots of features for a fair price

Don’t Like

  • Scatterbrained transmission
  • Dated infotainment

There’s something inherently charming about this little compact. Right from the start, the 2021 Nissan Sentra oozes an appeal all its own. It doesn’t look like another attractive car, the sedan is simply its own thing. If anything, there’s a lot of mini-Maxima going on here, rather than shrunken Altima, which I think is a very good thing. Nissan’s V-Motion grille sits proudly up front with chrome and black accents connecting to edgy headlights. This Sentra SR trim boasts the optional Premium Package, which among features we’ll talk about later, adds sharp LED headlamps and premium daytime running lights, too. At night, they offer a lot of attitude, and my tester even sports underglow lights. Yes, like, factory stuff straight out of a Fast and Furious flick. The optional lighting package tosses some white lights underneath, which look really great paired with this tester’s two-tone Electric Blue Metallic and black paint scheme.

Out back, family ties to the Altima are more clear with a similar taillight treatment, though the Sentra still rocks its own look with a widened stance and this SR trim’s sportier single exhaust outlet. A small spoiler continues to flirt with the diet Fast and Furious charm, and 18-inch alloy wheels help fill the stylish profile in.

Those looks don’t necessarily translate to sporty performance, but the Sentra’s wholly capable of serving as a stupendous daily driver. Under the hood is a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four engine matched with Nissan’s XTronic continuously variable transmission, which includes simulated “shifts” to help drivers try and forget it’s not a CVT. It’s not fooling anyone, I promise. In fact, I found CVT to be the lowest point of the Sentra’s entire package while zipping around. From a stop, the XTronic invites a surge of low-end torque. While snappy, the momentum created can feel like a case of the cart getting ahead of the horse. The “shift points” remain scattered, too. Embrace the CVT and let it rev, I say. Otherwise, the inline-four hums along without complaints and returns an EPA-estimated 28 mpg city, 37 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined. The engine’s 149 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque are more than capable of scooting the compact sedan around.

Driving the Sentra remains smooth when it comes to handling, too, thanks to a new multilink independent rear suspension and surprising sure-footed characteristics when cornering. The steering surprises as well, with a natural weighted feel. The Honda Civic and Mazda3 cater more to enthusiast drivers, but the Sentra isn’t bound to the rental lot anymore, friends.

Pleasingly useful, but with a modicum of style.


Sean Szymkowski/Roadshow

Plopping down inside reveals one ace up the Sentra’s sleeve — literally as you sit down. Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats are stupid comfy and amazing for long stints behind the wheel. The interior’s also dressed up appropriately in the SR trim with some faux carbon fiber accents, contrasting orange stitching and soft materials where your hands typically rest in the cockpit. The flat-bottom steering wheel is also a nice touch and feels at home here.

What I adore about the Sentra’s interior is how simple it is. Yes, the Hyundai Elantra wows with a massive display screen and digital gauges, but you know what? Physical buttons and analog gauges still work, and they work really well in the Sentra. Everything sits within reach and designers laid all the controls out in simple fashion.

There are a couple of screens to keep up with the tech fashion. In between the two gauges in the cluster is a 7-inch driver-information screen that showcases essential information clearly, while an 8-inch touchscreen on the SR trim handles infotainment duties. The infotainment looks a tad dated and it doesn’t compare to sexier displays like in the aforementioned Elantra, but it works reasonably well, save for the occasional input lag. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (wired) come along for the ride, as do baked-in SiriusXM and Bluetooth capabilities. Crank the volume knob and audio funnels through an optional six-speaker Bose audio system. It’s an adequate upgrade for those who like to jam behind the wheel, but don’t expect home-theater-like crispness.

The value-laden 2021 Nissan Sentra has got your back, Jack.


Nissan

Keeping with modern-day tech, Nissan’s Safety Shield 360 reports for duty as standard equipment on all Sentras. Automatic emergency braking, blind-spot alerts and the typical slew of active-safety equipment are all present and accounted for. The available 360-degree camera coverage is also a nice bonus for the segment. Gladly, these features all work well, too — I observed no hiccups while driving the sedan around town and on the freeway. The SR trim also includes optional adaptive cruise control which gets A-OK marks from me. I didn’t experience a single issue during its time active.

The 2021 Nissan Sentra makes a strong case for itself, and not because it simply ticks a lot of boxes compact car buyers look for. With this tester’s $25,910 price after a $925 destination charge, the Sentra SR won’t leave you longing for more equipment. More interior style? Maybe, but Nissan’s compact car finally feels like it has some personality again to go with its strong value play. And as SUVs continue to reign supreme, why not be a bit more of an individualist and go with a sedan?

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