2021 Nissan Sentra shows improvement, merit as Car of the Year finalist

For the 2021 model year, enhancements to the Nissan Sentra include the addition of standard Apple CarPlay integration and Android Auto on all grades (previously available only on SV and SR grades), available NissanConnect Services and NissanConnect with Wi-Fi hotspot on SR grade and a new two-tone paint combination – Electric Blue Metallic with Black roof for the SR grade. Metro News Service photo
For the 2021 model year, enhancements to the Nissan Sentra include the addition of standard Apple CarPlay integration and Android Auto on all grades (previously available only on SV and SR grades), available NissanConnect Services and NissanConnect with Wi-Fi hotspot on SR grade and a new two-tone paint combination – Electric Blue Metallic with Black roof for the SR grade. Metro News Service photo

To be a finalist for North American Car of the Year is an honor. It is the Oscars of the car of the world. While the old cliché of “it’s an honor just to be nominated” sounds played out, it applies to my tester this week.

The 2021 Nissan Sentra is improved so much from the previous generation that it warranted being of one of the three finalists for NACOY. The Sentra lost out to the eventual winner, the Hyundai Elantra, but that shouldn’t diminish it.

I once owned a bright blue Sentra. It was one of the first cars I bought on my own. So I was pleasantly surprised to see them deliver my tester in what looked similar to my blue beauty. The exterior paint color may have resembled my old Sentra, but that was the only similarity.

The front end is incredibly attractive with styling that adds distinction. That’s important in the shrinking compact car segment. Being a standout is key when you’re trying to lure in buyers, especially young, first-time drivers, which is one of the target audiences of the Sentra. For sure the looks of the 2021 Sentra will resonate with younger people

It has a modern, updated, clean look. While the front certainly presents the best angle of the car, the rest of the Sentra has a complete, well-put-together look, although the back end does lose some of the styling cues from the front. I’d like to see a little more continuity in styling to have completed the exterior aesthetics of the Sentra.

I am not a member of the Car of the Year jury, but I bet the Sentra lost out because of its lackluster powertrain. As good and improved as the aspects of the exterior and interior are, the overall performance of the Sentra is uninspiring. Add that to a continuously variable transmission that performs as annoyingly as most CVTs, and the overall drive performance of the Sentra doesn’t leave a strong impression.

The front-wheel drive Sentra has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The industry is doing so much with turbo-charged four-cylinders it’s disappointing the Sentra did not get such treatment. As such, the 149 horsepower is quite lethargic off the line and is nothing more than utilitarian. In this regard, the Sentra will miss the mark trying to appeal to younger buyers.

Inside, I can’t sing the praises enough for the Sentra’s noticeable improvement. As a compact car, price point is a major factor and that usually the cutting of corners and leaving off certain niceties. But the Sentra feels less like an economy car and more mature with a high-quality cabin that even has some soft touch points. A few nice perks came as part of the SR Premium Package including power sliding moonroof, heated front seats, heated steering wheel and interior ambient lighting.

Base trim Sentras start below $20,000, meaning it’s priced to attract first-time and young buyers. My tester was the SR trim (the top trim of three). Base price of the SR Sentra is $21,750 but with the aforementioned premium package plus the lighting package, my tester had a final price of $25,910.

The 2021 Nissan Sentra, with the more efficient CVT, has an EPA rating of 28 mpg/city and 37 mpg/highway. In a week’s worth of mixed driving I averaged just over 34 mpg which left me quite pleased. I can almost look past its poky ways and even that CVT with such good fuel economy (from a non-hybrid).

I called the Sentra I once owned the Blue Beauty. It wasn’t much. It wasn’t special, but it was mine. I can certainly call my tester this week, Blue Beauty II, for it was far better and far nice than my own Sentra.

Jimmy Dinsmore is a freelance automotive journalist.

2021 NISSAN SENTRA SR

  • Price/As-tested price....................................$21,750/$25,910
  • Mileage.......................................... 28 mpg/city; 37 mpg/hwy
  • Engine............................................. 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
  • Horsepower................................. 149 hp/146 lbs.-ft.
  • Transmission................................. Continuously Variable (CVT)
  • Drive wheels................ Front-wheel drive
  • Final assembly point................ Aguasa, Mexico

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