Redemption song. For a long time, the Nissan Sentra was synonymous with cheap, dull, basic, and boring - all the adjectives no marketer wants attached to their product. The eye-catching price was about the only attractive quality about old Sentras.

The latest model has finally changed all that. The Sentra's newfound self-respect was evident from the moment Nissan pulled back the wrapper for the first time in 2020; it was clear that the nameplate was making a leap from back of the pack to potential frontrunner. The new sheetmetal is premium and stylish, and there's more than a passing resemblance to the Nissan Maxima. The new styling signals the intentions of the current-generation Sentra.

This is no easy segment to compete in, however. The competition includes such winners as the Honda Civic and Mazda 3, not to mention up-and-comers like the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte. Among these cars is a fierce battle for small-sedan dominance. But for the first time in a long time, the Nissan Sentra has a fighting chance against its adversaries.

Compelling new interior. Other than the sharp new styling, the first thing Sentra shoppers will notice is the improved, redesigned interior. Materials, once a sore spot, are a class or three up from where they were, though they still aren't quite class-leading. Build quality, as well as the heft and action of the switchgear, is all notably better as well.

Moving up the trim ladder awards Sentra buyers with niceties that can even include quilted leather upholstery. Somehow, these premium aspirations are convincing. This would never have been the case just a few years ago.

Nissan could do a good business if it stopped selling cars and only peddled its seats. We've made mention before about how comfortable the brand's Zero Gravity front seats are when it comes to all-day support and cushioning, and the Sentra's thrones are no exception. Soreness or fatigue never plagued us during our testing.

Highlighting the renovated interior is either a 7.0- or 8.0-inch touchscreen mounted atop the dash. Both screen sizes feature Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The system is easy to use and learn.

Nissan Sentra

Decent performer. The Sentra was never a performance car - and it still isn't. You can try and throw it around a few difficult corners, and while the suspension does claw at the pavement with something approaching finesse, there just aren't any happy tactile sensations to take away from the exercise. The best way to drive the Sentra is measured and slow.

The reason for this is more powertrain than chassis. The chassis, particularly the buttoned-down independent rear suspension and surprisingly alright steering, could be more willing to play if the engine and transmission were a bit more polished. As it stands, the base 2.0-liter four-cylinder and its 149 horsepower are merely adequate, and only just so.

A CVT pairs up to this engine, and it has the response time of a customer service call center. The lag as you wait for it to adjust its ratio kills any chance of speed or even just the sensation of speed. With a conventional automatic, the meager power of the non-turbo engine would likely feel a bit more snappy.

The CVT's laggy tuning, which is irritating when you want power quick, probably contributes to the Sentra's EPA ratings of 29 mpg city, 39 highway, and 33 combined. Those figures beat out the last-gen Sentra, despite this model having a bigger engine. But they don't quite beat the competition. You can expect up to 41 mpg highway from a Kia Forte and similar from a Honda Civic. The Corolla can also hit 40 mpg.

How's it stack up? So the Sentra looks good, has a surprisingly nice interior, and drives alright. That's a strong resume for a car of this modest caliber. But no car exists in a vacuum, and certainly not in the vicious compact sedan segment. So how does the Sentra stack up against its rivals?

Well, it's certainly competitively priced. Starting at $19,000 or so, the Sentra is priced right in the heart of the market. It undercuts the Honda Civic and Mazda 3; it is a few hundred dollars more expensive than a Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra, and Volkswagen Jetta.

Most of these models, including the Sentra, are only offered as sedans. The Mazda 3 and Honda Civic are the exceptions: both also offer a hatchback option. The VW Golf is essentially a hatchback Jetta, but it's being discontinued within the next year or so. Its sporty GTI variant will live on, however.

That brings us to another, more notable demerit for the Sentra: it doesn't offer a performance upgrade. Sure, the SR trim looks the part with its racy exterior trim. But the same anemic 149-horse powertrain lives on under the hood. Nissan doesn't even bother to tighten up its chassis.

Maybe Nissan's Nismo division is working on a hotted-up Sentra SE-R Spec V, but we aren't holding our breath. Considering Nissan's performance lineup currently consists of the ancient 370Z and the slightly-less-ancient GT-R, we can't imagine there's much internal support for a Honda Civic Si or Jetta GLI fighter. That's a shame: these performance-minded compact sedans are affordable thrills that enamor those of us who can't afford the big-dollar sport sedans. The more of these pocket rockets on the market, the merrier we all are.

Final thoughts. The new Sentra does a lot right, and for the price, we don't have much to find fault with. The biggest issue is that it doesn't offer buyers much choice outside of color: unlike most of its competitors, there are no other body styles to choose from, no uprated engine on offer, and no particularly impressive options to add on. Configuring a Sentra is limited to choosing among three trims and two major option packages.

But that's more of a quibble than anything else. For those who want an easygoing, stylish compact four-door sedan, the Sentra should fit the bill nicely.

Check prices for the 2021 Nissan Sentra »