This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Sentra is ranked in last place of eleven.
The 2014 Nissan Sentra makes a pretty good first impression. You'll see the clean, classy styling that looks neither forced nor econocar-basic. You'll see the affordable price and excellent gas mileage. And then you'll open the doors and find the outstanding interior room and an attractive dashboard.
But things fall apart when you drive the car. The engine is down on power compared to most other compact cars and drones loudly when you try to accelerate; it's okay right off the line, but the Sentra isn't very responsive if you try to summon extra power when you're already moving.
Handling, too, is clumsy. The Sentra doesn't have the quick responses or controlled body lean of a good small car, and the suspension is loose enough that the car even pitches significantly when you gently brake to a stop.
There's another flaw besides the driving dynamics: the worst crash-test scores in this comparison, trailing even several older competitors that predate some of today's most demanding safety evaluations.
The Sentra does offer something unique to the class – outstanding value for the amount of interior room. Just one competitor offers a similar amount of space: the Volkswagen Jetta, which costs over $2,000 more and is rated for 4 miles per gallon less. But unless you need the most space out of your small car, you can get one that feels a lot less like a compromise.
The Sentra's most important strength is its interior volume, specifically for the rear seat. Expansive legroom trumps even many midsize cars, and the high seat cushion provides real-world comfort. This is a strength that carries over from the 2007-2012 Sentra, which placed second of ten cars in this reviewer's 2011 comparison.
The old Sentra had unusually wide, plush front seats; the current model is still comfortable but more in line with the competition than charting its own course. Someone who favors a bigger car might have felt more at home in the previous model, but the new car offers more lateral support. Note that the 2014 Sentra has revised seats after the 2013's were criticized.
The Sentra's dashboard layout is straightforward and most materials are nice, but a few panels don't fit cleanly. The old Sentra had a dated dashboard design but more solid assembly. Instruments are at least simple to operate, and good visibility is another plus. Unlike most competitors, though, a rearview camera is available only when bundled with the navigation system for an extra $800 over the cost of the tested car, though that cost does also include a more advanced touchscreen radio.
When a car is designed around fuel economy, it's not unexpected for performance to suffer accordingly. The Sentra matches that expectation. Gas mileage is near the top of the class at 33 miles per gallon in mixed driving, but with the least horsepower in the comparison, the engine's performance is sluggish.
The car's continuously variable automatic transmission doesn't help. CVTs lack fixed gear ratios, instead constantly adjusting optimum efficiency. However, on small engines that don't sound very nice, this often yields a steady fixed-pitch drone; a couple of competing small sedans pull off their CVTs better, but the Sentra's makes the car feel even slower than it is.
The previous-generation Sentra also had a CVT, but it was less objectionable due to a larger engine: 2.0 liters instead of the 1.8 in the current model.
Don't expect sportiness to improve much when you go around a corner. The Sentra's suspension is tuned for a soft, plush ride, which doesn't do many favors to handling – which is similarly soft. The steering feels natural enough, but not terribly responsive. Ride quality is pleasant at least, though not as outstanding as one might hope for given the sacrifices to agility, and the booming engine reduces a sense of refinement. The Sentra is also missing the big-car solid feel found in a growing number of small cars.
Expect to spend about $18,305 out the door for a Sentra comparably equipped to other cars in this comparison, with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen. This is one of the better prices in this class.
You can also get a relatively inexpensive in-dash navigation system, a handy feature that also gives you a more advanced touchscreen for the radio and the backup camera. Note too that if you sacrifice the alloy wheels, you get a bigger savings than on most competitors. The excellent fuel economy also contributes to the Sentra's value quotient.
But while the Sentra avoids looking like a budget car, it feels like one, mainly due to the lethargic and noisy acceleration. The vast interior makes it compelling as a discount family car, but you'd have to be willing to give up ground of safety ratings compared to most competitors.
Shop it if you prioritize space and value, but other small sedans have a better overall blend of strengths with fewer objectionable weaknesses.
Overall grade: C+
More about the 2014 Nissan Sentra SV:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?
Vehicle tested: 2014 Nissan Sentra
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $15,990
Version tested: SV
Version base price (MSRP): $17,540
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $19,585
Vehicle price as comparable* (MSRP): $20,320
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $18,305
Test vehicles provided by: Darcars Nissan of Rockville, Md.; Karlito Knowlden at Passport Nissan of Marlow Heights, Md.
Length: 182.1 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Height: 58.9 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Weight: 2,847 pounds
Trunk volume: 15.1 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Engine: 1.8-liter I4 with 130 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 30 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 39 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 33 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Mexico
For more information: Nissan website
* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.