If you had asked me a couple years ago to recommend an affordable small to midsize sedan that was fun to drive, the Nissan Sentra would not have been on my list. In fact, it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.
After spending a week with the 2021 Nissan Sentra SR, however, it’s most certainly worthy of consideration. Despite the collective appetite for crossovers and SUVs these days – Nissan alone offers six different models, from the little Kicks up to the massive Armada – those looking for affordability and practicality in a package that is smaller and handles better can still find a selection of sedans on the market to choose from. The Sentra in particular has quickly climbed the list thanks to its recent redesign, and now it’s back for more with a manual transmission in the sporty-looking SR trim.
The last Sentra, along with those that came before it, was rather generic and dull. Actually, it was bland enough to make an Anne Murray album seem like psychedelic thrash metal music. This time around, though, Nissan has gone for a look that stands out at the very least.
Often when automakers go for bold styling, it goes all kinds of wrong – cough, Acura, cough, BMW. But in this case, Nissan has pulled it off, the Sentra’s new look following the same design language as its larger siblings, the Altima and Maxima.
The two-tone Electric Blue paint and black roof seen here is a new option on the SR trim for 2021, complemented by the black 18-inch rims that come standard this year. The SR also includes LED lightning with a visually pleasing light signature befitting a more expensive vehicle, and a rear fascia that adds a sporty touch. Inside, the cabin design and layout are pleasing to the eyes, while materials are of higher quality than some of the Sentra’s contemporaries. Contrast stitching on the seats, dash, doors, and shift boot accentuate the styling.
The Sentra gets a long list of both passive and active safety features in SR trim that’s impressive for the cost of entry. ABS and traction control, obviously, and LED lighting and automatic high-beam headlights, tire-pressure monitoring, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, forward and rear collision warnings with emergency braking, and a driver alertness monitor. While there’s no lane-keeping aid, which can often be annoyingly loud or feel shockingly intrusive, the Sentra’s lane-departure warning includes haptic steering feedback that mimics the sensation of rumble strips on the side of the highway. It’s enough to get your attention and no more.
Previously, if you were interested in having a manual transmission in the Sentra, the base trim was your only option. [This is a decades-old tactic automakers employ to keep advertised starting prices as low as possible. – Ed.] That meant that if you wanted the added engagement and joy of rowing your own gears – or simply didn’t want the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is completely understandable – you had to do so like a pauper, because it meant depriving yourself of the comfort provided by heated seats, the convenience of heated mirrors, or what millennials might consider to be a basic human right: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. And while all of those creature comforts are now standard in the entry-level S trim, Nissan Canada has brought a six-speed manual transmission to the well-equipped Sentra SR that adds extras like a heated steering wheel and sporty looks, among others.
User Friendliness: 9/10
It’s easy to find a comfortable driving position in the Sentra. Controls for the heated seats, stereo, or HVAC can easily be found whether you’re parked or driving. I always rejoice when a vehicle has buttons and knobs to adjust those features rather than having to remove your gloves and fumble through various menus on a touchscreen.
On that point, the Sentra’s infotainment screen is simple and easy to navigate. The dash features two classic gauges for the tachometer and speedometer, along with useful information on the digital display that can be prioritized based on preference. Being a relatively small car, the Sentra has excellent visibility and a small footprint. It’s fun to drive and easy to like.
The Sentra’s 405-L trunk features a large opening and the 60/40-split folding rear seats accommodate larger items. Living in a condo with a small parking garage, the ease with which I’m able to navigate in and out of my narrow spot is telling. The Sentra’s stature, visibility, turning radius, parking sensors, rear cross-traffic alert, and mandatory back-up camera all made entry and exit incredibly easy.
My tester had fabric seats, but faux leather is available – albeit with the SR Premium trim that can’t be fitted with the manual transmission. Road noise is less noticeable than some of the key players in this segment, even at highway speeds on winter tires. The dual-zone automatic climate control, heated steering wheel, and heated front seats all helped provide an enjoyable winter driving experience. The suspension is adequately sprung for the purpose of its application. The ride quality certainly feels quieter and more supple than its direct competition like the Honda Civic while also feeling athletic enough to be enjoyable when the road bends.
The Sentra’s 2.0L naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine makes 149 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration isn’t brisk enough to throw you back into your seat, but it’s more than ample for the class. Having the manual transmission allows you to drop a gear for on-ramps or passing. It also provides control over your fuel economy by keeping revs to a minimum. The transmission is far more enjoyable to operate than having the CVT scream at you whenever you step on the throttle.
Driving Feel: 8.5/10
I can’t recall enjoying the driving experience of a vehicle this inexpensive in quite some time. Acceleration is ample for most drivers and braking is equally adequate, but the Sentra SR is not a sports car. As someone who loves to drive a manual transmission but rarely gets the chance these days, the opportunity itself provided a great deal of the appreciation here.
Steering is nicely weighted, and the handling is well balanced. Clutch action is light and predictable, while the six-speed shifter is deliciously smooth. As I shifted gears, I just kept thinking how good of a transmission it would be to teach someone to drive standard rather than the vague, notchy setup I learned on.
Fuel Economy: 7.5/10
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) figures for the six-speed manual transmission are 9.4 L/100 km in the city, 6.5 on the highway, and 8.1 combined. My experience was predictably less frugal, as I averaged 10.5 L/100 km over the course of a week. Both the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla have marginally better fuel economy numbers, while the Civic is even better. The Subaru Impreza may offer all-wheel drive, but it also has one less gear when optioned with its manual transmission, resulting in worse fuel economy.
The Sentra SR features remote start, 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, a power sunroof, heated steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, and signature LED lighting. The eight-inch infotainment screen and interior fit and finish create a tangible feeling of quality for the price of admission.
If you’re cross-shopping it against the Civic and Corolla, my gripe with both is that they feel exactly as inexpensive as they are. Road noise is very evident, and every time you close the door you’re reminded that they’re economy cars. The Sentra, on the other hand, feels more expensive than it is. You can get into a Subaru Impreza for about the same money, but it won’t be as quiet a ride on the highway or feel as refined as the Sentra either. The Honda Civic may save you some money at the pumps, but you’ll have to jump up to the Sport trim level that starts at $28,601 if you want comparable equipment like dual-zone climate control, heated seats, remote start, and 18-inch wheels.
The only option was the two-tone Electric Blue paint and black roof that added $485 to the bottom line, bringing the total before tax to a reasonable $25,153.
If you’re set on having all-wheel drive to tackle those Canadian winters but still want a small sedan, then the Impreza is your only real option in this price range (there’s the Mazda3, too, though it’s a few thousand bucks more with its optional all-wheel drive). But if you can live without, the 2021 Nissan Sentra SR delivers excellent driving dynamics.
The new Maxima made waves when it came out a few years ago for taking a large step forward in terms of quality and value. Then there was the Altima, and now Sentra follows the same formula, but in a smaller and more cost-effective package. It looks and feels like the larger Maxima but is far less expensive, more nimble, and easier to park. Now that this better-equipped trim is available with a manual transmission, it makes the Sentra a very compelling proposition.
|Peak Horsepower||149 hp|
|Peak Torque||146 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||9.4 / 6.5 / 8.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||405 L|
|Model Tested||2021 Nissan Sentra SR|
|Price as Tested||$25,153|
$485 – Two-Tone Metallic Paint, $485