2021 Nissan Sentra SR Review – Good Car Spoiled


2021 Nissan Sentra SR Fast Facts

2.0-liter four-cylinder (149 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, 146 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm)

Continuously-variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive

28 city / 37 highway / 32 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)

8.2 city / 6.2 highway / 7.3 combined. (NRCan Rating, L/100km)

Base Price: $21,750 (U.S) / $26,598 (Canada)

As Tested: $25,910 (U.S.) / $27,183 (Canada)

Prices include $925 destination charge in the United States and $2,060 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can’t be directly compared.

Continuously-variable automatic transmissions (CVTs) are often criticized – and that criticism is often well deserved. Some CVTs, however, operate seamlessly and smoothly, and Nissan makes more than a few of those.

Unfortunately, the CVT in the 2021 Nissan Sentra SR I tested earlier this year does the opposite. Its unrelenting whine and drone spoil an otherwise surprisingly good time.

Nissan has brought the Sentra back from irrelevance and made it into a serious challenger to the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Toyota Corolla. Well, almost all the way back. The transmission is the biggest factor holding the car back.

You might think the power from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder (149 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque) also holds the Sentra back, but in real-world driving, the Sentra feels swift enough. You will need to plan your passes a bit, but for urban motoring, you’ll be fine.

The most pleasant surprise here is the handling – it’s sharper than you’d expect. Not a Civic Si challenger – let’s not get carried away – but surprisingly fun for an affordable compact without sporting intentions. Credit precise and relatively well-weighted steering and a chassis that’s well-tuned.

For reference, the steering is dual-pinion electric and Nissan bakes in an Active Understeer Control. This being a commuter car, I didn’t push it hard enough to find “the limit”, so I can’t speak to the electronic trickery’s assistance, but at a relaxed hustle, the Sentra feels predictable. Sentra uses an independent strut front setup and a multilink rear suspension. Other electronic aids include Intelligent Trace Control and Active Ride Control.

There is a slight ride trade-off – it’s on the stiffer side, though not enough to annoy. Overall, the Sentra SR is at least entertaining enough to keep you on your toes.

Unfortunately, the CVT also keeps you on your toes because it’s so dang whiny and loud. I’m not one to bag on CVTs the way some automotive journalists and enthusiasts are, but this one is annoying enough to be a deal-breaker.

Not all the noise comes from the CVT – the engine gets a bit buzzy, especially at higher RPMs.

The Sentra ain’t pricey, and the interior shows that, with a minimalist look that prioritizes function over form, making controls simple and easy to use. Unfortunately for most of us, the tacked-on infotainment screen also plagues this dashboard. This taller driver had plenty of headroom and legroom upfront.

Nissan has priced the top-trim SR nicely – my test unit based at $21,750. That price included features like keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, 8-inch infotainment screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, Bluetooth, three USB ports (one Type C, two Type A), 18-inch wheels, LED headlamps and fog lamps, and a rear spoiler.

Standard safety aids included automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, intelligent forward collision warning, rear automatic braking, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning with haptic steering wheel, high-beam assist, and a rearview monitor.

For $2,270, the SR Premium Package added a moonroof, thin-type LED lights, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, Bose audio, and AroundView monitoring, along with NissanConnect services and a Wi-Fi hotspot. A $500 Lighting Package added exterior ground lights and interior ambient lighting, and two-tone paint cost $250. Carpeted floor mats would set a buyer back $215.

With the $925 destination fee, the register rang at $25,910. Fuel economy is a frugal 28/32/37.

I found myself pleasantly surprised with Sentra’s handling and overall driving dynamics. I also liked the easy-to-use controls. But every time I thought the Sentra might present itself as a challenger to the Civic or Elantra or Toyota Corolla, the car’s flaws reared their head. A little too much noise/vibration/harshness, mostly caused by the cursed CVT, and a slightly too-stiff ride hold it back from being deeply in the mix.

The Sentra is a pretty good car. But it’s spoiled by its CVT. If Nissan can fix this, the Sentra will be back in the compact-car conversation for the first time since – well, let’s just say I was a lot younger.

Nissan is 80 to 90 percent of the way there. That last 10 percent will take some work, but if it’s done well, Sentra can once again be a legit contender.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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