I’d like everyone to take a minute
to think about which model remains Nissan’s bestselling car of all-time in Canada.
It’s not the Frontier pickup or its Hustler predecessor. It’s not the Pathfinder SUV, which is one of the earliest Nissans to be sold in Canada. It’s not even the Rogue CUV, currently the brand’s best-seller for the better part of three years or so. The GT-R? Yeah, right. Wouldn’t that be the day?
It’s none of those.
It’s actually the Sentra compact sedan, of which they have sold almost 330,000 in Canada since 1990. That may seem a strange stat in this day and age of crossovers being the vehicles of choice when it comes to affordable motoring, but back in the ‘90s that body style hadn’t really staked its claim on the market yet. Compact sedans like the Sentra were the way to go for first-time car buyers and so on.
Thing is, most popular category or not, the Sentra faces some stiff competition from the likes of the Honda Civic – otherwise known as the bestselling passenger car in Canada since the Jurassic Age – and the Toyota Corolla
, otherwise known as the bestselling car in the world since the Jurassic Age. So yeah, there’s all that.
Not to mention that the Corolla and Civic were both all-new in the not-so-distant past, so the Sentra – all-new for 2020 -- has its work cut out if it wants to at least keep its place on the “bestselling Nissan” mantle.
One thing it does have in its favour, however, is the badge sitting within the “V” of the Nissan V-Motion grille. Nissan, for all its recent troubles, has always been known for not being afraid to up the ante in the “quirkiness” department on its cars. Think crazy stuff like the Pulsar NX sports car and its shooting-brake “Sportbak” twin, or the original Pathfinder with its optional two-door body style and triangular side windows. Then there’s the Cube mini-minivan, the GT-R, hitherto one of the most cult-like cars we’ve ever seen; even the Leaf, which took the world by (electrical) storm as the first mass-produced EV beating the long-awaited Chevrolet Volt to the punch by a matter of months. For better or worse, they’ve never really shied away from pushing the envelope.
Thing is, other manufacturers have caught on a little; for the first time in what some would say “ever”, the Corolla actually has some styling and looks rather good. The Civic is a bit less of a head-turner but no shrinking cherry blossom and the Koreans have kind of always had their own quirks, even more so in the case of the latest Hyundai Elantra
which is as handsome as anything else in the segment…and the Sentra still manages to beat them all. It is great-looking especially in top-spec SR Premium trim seen here.
SR adds flash 18” wheels, special rocker panels and a trunk lid spoiler while the most aggressive V-Motion grille ever seen on the Sentra helps lower and widen the stance when seen head-on. It reminds me a lot of a junior Altima, which is good because that, too, is a good-looking car. The Electric Blue ‘do, meanwhile, recalls the GT-R’s popular Bayside Blue colour and wraps it all up in a taut, sparkly package. It’s an exercise in near-perfect proportions and smart detailing, and I absolutely love it.
Inside, nods to the Sentra being a little more “athletic” continue: flat-bottomed steering wheel (that’s actually functional as it does provide some much appreciated room for your thighs), faux-carbon appliqués on the doors and gauge cluster hood as well as contrast-colour stitching on the leatherette seats are all nice touches. There’s more room up-front, meanwhile, than you’ll find in the Civic, Corolla or Elantra and while that means space is compromised in the back seat, I don’t mind as how many adults are spending long drives in the back of compact sedans anyway?
Plus, it’s not all about the numbers, but also how you use the space: the centre console bin may appear shallow – as in, you won’t fit much more than a deck of cards in there – but its depth at least gives the impression you could fit a four-litre jug of milk down there. Should be no problem for typical fare like wallets or snacks, then. I do wish, though, that there was at least a modicum of a shelf so you don’t have to reach so deep to get your wallet out. The glove box is big, there’s a nice grippy pad at the base of the centre stack for your mobile and the sunglasses holder seems big enough to fit a pair of Sir Elton John’s frames. Or those of your Aunt Silvia.
The back seats, meanwhile, can fold flat with a tug on the shoulder-mounted lever even with the driver’s seat pushed almost all the way back – which is good, because you can’t remove the headrests in order to more easily fold the seat. They do make fitting a forward-facing child’s seat a little awkward, though, since you have to pull the shoulder anchor around them instead of beneath them, but at least once in, I had little trouble getting my two-year-old in there because the door opening is wide, if a little short thanks to the aggressively-slanting roofline.
Tech-wise, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are present and accounted for, but you won’t find wireless charging or a 4G LTE hotspot. Big problem? Well, that depends: if you believe the rhetoric that this is a car meant for younger drivers, you may run into those issues as those types love their tech. The Civic, Corolla and Elantra, meanwhile, all get a wireless charging option, and that great centre console pad the Sentra has seems like the perfect place for that feature. Thing is, with a bargain-basement $18,798 base price (even my top-spec tester barely crests 26 grand), Nissan had to save money somewhere and it seems they felt that money was better spent on heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, sunroof and all manner of safety tech, from adaptive cruise control, to rear cross-traffic alert, 360-degree AroundView parking monitor (that’s an SR Premium special) and blind spot warning, lane departure warning and forward collision warning. That last feature, meanwhile, I found to be right on and not overly-sensitive. In hindsight, including all that and dropping the wireless charging was probably the right idea when push came to shove.
The next cost-saving measure is one that’s harder to forgive. Both the SR and SR Premium trims come equipped with the latest version of Nissan’s long-serving XTronic CVT transmission. That’s not terrible in itself as fewer and fewer people are interested in rowing their own gears these days (or, indeed, having any traditional gears to row in the first place), but even though this is kind of the “athletic” entry into the Sentra line-up, there are no paddles or any option to swap the virtual ratios yourself, just a “meh” “L” gear for better low-range response; which, as it happens, I selected too often since the gates between “D” and “L” aren’t that well defined, leaving me with a car that was yelling at me once I hit 30 km/h or so. It’s not that manumatic CVTs don’t exist – Nissan themselves have included them in many cars and they’re often rather good – it’s just that it seems the value add just wasn’t there. Which is too bad, especially considering you can’t get a manual transmission for the SR even though there is one available on base Sentras – a six-speed – and they all make do with the exact same engine (a 2.0L naturally-aspirated four good for 149 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque) as does the SR.
So what gives?
Well, once again it’s the same old, same old: people ain’t buying ‘em, so Nissan ain’t makin’ them.
But I think they’ve got that wrong. I think a Sentra SR with a slick six-speed manual would be a great combination for this car (especially in Quebec, where they love their small sedans and hatches with manual ‘boxes); heck, let Nissan’s NISMO performance skunkworks have their way with it and we wouldn’t be just talking about the Sentra v the Civic or VW Jetta -- we could be talking Sentra v Civic Si or Jetta GLI. That’s some heady company but I think the Sentra would do well there, and here’s why.
It starts with the engine, actually. There’s only one choice as opposed to the Corolla and Civic which can be had with multiple engine choices (in the Honda’s case, one of which is turbocharged and in that of the Corolla, a hybrid), but it makes more power than the base engines offered for the Corolla or Elantra, and more torque than the Honda. Yes, you can get more power from the Honda and Corolla, but you’re up around the 25-30 thousand dollar level at that point and you get the same power on the Sentra even if you go all the way down to base.
Even though the CVT does tend to rob some of the driving fun, this one isn’t so bad and there’s some decent in-gear acceleration that makes highway passing a fine experience. You won’t get the same launch as you do with the Corolla and its trick hybrid-CVT that actually provides a traditional first gear, but I wouldn’t call the Sentra “wheezy”.
So while the engine is up to the task, the chassis and steering surpass it. Turn the wheel and what follows is some properly responsive turn-in with no more than a hint of body roll – all great stuff that points to the Sentra’s sporting character. There’s no need for constant steering adjustments as you move through longer bends, and the steering isn’t nervous so as to make long drives on straight freeways uncomfortable.
It does come at a price, however: you’ll want to make sure that if you are planning on test driving one of these, try and do so on a road with some proper bumps (expansion joints would be great) as the ride is best described as “firm”.
But what, then, best describes the Sentra in SR Premium trim?
I think the best way I can put it is that it’s a bit of a tease, really, and it mostly boils down to the lack of a manual transmission. A fun little performance-ultralite sedan like this could really use one, or at least a way to play with the transmission yourself. It just left me wanting more after I stepped out…which is a good thing if they can eventually deliver it. Come on, Nissan -- find a way to increase the pedal box’s population and you’d have a real cooker here. Maybe go to NISMO for a little more power. For now, the Sentra SR Premium is a fantastic-looking, well-equipped entry into the category but perhaps one that could use a slightly more defined calling card – an affliction that I’d guess isn’t felt quite as much at the lower levels, where not only can you get manual, but you can have one for a firecracker of a deal, too.