Madza3-Nissan Sentra Skirmish II: Nissan addresses Sentra’s shortcomings for 2020

The 2020 Mazda3 Hatchback AWD. (Mazda/TNS)
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By Scott Sturgis The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

2020 Mazda3 Hatchback AWD with Premium Package vs. 2020 Nissan Sentra 2.0 SR CVT: I bet you think you can predict the winner. But read on.

This week: Nissan Sentra.

Price: $25,825 as tested. Lighting Package, $500; two-tone paint, $595; floor and trunk mats, $205. One more package mentioned below.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver liked the “roomy interior, comfy seats, lots of tech and upscale features,” but not the “incredibly slow acceleration, noisy engine, harsh ride.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Refuse to compromise.”

Reality: Is this even a fair comparison?

Catching up: Last week we took a surprisingly disappointing ride in the Mazda3 and found that even the Toyota Corolla compared favorably, despite the numbers. The Sentra also falls short on paper, but how does it compare?

What’s new: Sentra gets a new design and some performance upgrades, and the small sedan test model was eye-catching in bright orange.

Up to speed: The. 2.0-liter engine creates 149 horsepower, 20% more than the 1.8-liter in the previous Sentra. It’s not going to knock any socks off, as 0-60 tested at 8 seconds according to Motor Trend, a full second behind the Mazda3.

But the performance is reasonably fast in most situations. Entering Route 30 from Thorndale to Coatesville means a tight turn and then a long uphill climb, and the Sentra zipped right up to highway speed.

Passing capabilities are surprisingly easy as well. This is a great leap over the previous version, which I warned buyers to test specifically on hills to see if the Sentra worked for them.

Shiftless: But, oh, the sound the Sentra makes getting there. Without the downward scales of gears to shift, the car just blasts forth with a whine like a siren, even despite Nissan’s media information about the CVT’s “steps.” And the needle got scary close to the redline while being pushed, which doesn’t seem as if it would be good for longevity. Still, under normal conditions, the CVT offers smooth performance.

On a sad note, kiss the manual Sentra goodbye with this latest redesign.

On the road: Handling also won’t knock any socks off. The Sentra doesn’t lose its composure, but there’s no feeling of joy on curves. Highway seams are calm, though.

The Sentra kept bringing to mind the handling of Subarus from about 2015 or so — the Crosstrek and the Impreza. They weren’t fun, but you knew where the car was going to go, so zipping down winding country lanes was easier. It matches the old Sentra for competence, which was actually better than its bigger siblings in many respects.

Driver’s Seat: The seat is a little on the skinny side, as I’m finding in a lot of vehicles these days. The wings protrude up high and make the driving experiences a little annoying. I pronounced the 2016 seats hard, but short drives during COVID-19 testing may mean I’m not getting the full comparison.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat offers good accommodations for the category. Legroom, headroom, and foot room are all more than adequate, and the seat itself is comfortable and angled well. The middle passenger may squawk a little.

Cargo space is 14.3 cubic feet.

Play some tunes: The eight-speaker Bose premium audio (part of the $2,170 Premium Package, which also added heated leather seats and steering wheel, AroundView monitor, and more) offered some pretty decent sound, probably a B+.

Operation of the system is fairly simple, with knobs for volume and tuning, a few buttons below for some functions, and touchscreens for everything else.

Keeping warm and cool: The heating controls are simple as well, with dials for temperature and buttons for everything else. Round vents in the center make directing airflow easy.

Night shift: The headlights illuminate the road just right, although the interior lights were bright and interfered a bit.

Fuel economy: I didn’t get the Sentra out to too many places, but it was averaging around 32 mpg. Feed it whatever.

Where it’s built: Aguascalientes, Mexico.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the Sentra a 3 out of 5 for reliability.

In the end: After some troubling times, Nissan is turning back to its roots, offering competent cars for a discount over some of the big names. The Versa impressed me as well.

The Sentra gets far better fuel economy and offers better real-world performance than the Mazda3, despite the numbers. I’d want to see more longevity tests and a couple of more model years under its belt, but — shocker — I’d take the Sentra over the Mazda3.

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