By on December 23, 2021

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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31 Comments on “2021 Nissan Sentra SR Review – Good Car Spoiled...”

  • avatar

    “the Sentra will be back in the compact-car conversation”

    Even setting aside the CVT issues, what does this do better than a Civic, Corolla SE or Elantra? Beyond those heavyweights, it doesn’t offer AWD like the Impreza while the Mazda3 seems quieter with a nicer interior.
    You praised the handling in the review but even there would you consider it “best in class”?

  • avatar

    The Sentra SR is arguably the best looking compact sedan at the moment, and at $26k loaded it is cheap in the era of $30k Honda Civic Touring’s. But that CVT…

  • avatar

    Had a fully loaded Sentra as a rental for a day last month. Generally a nice car. The one thing that stood out to me in that short period of time is how long the infotainment screen took to boot up each time I started the car.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The Kicks 1.6 CVT I test drove in late 2018 seemed OK (almost bought), but the rental Sentra CVT I had in mid 2019 was not good. It was the same noisy thing you describe.

    Are these the same transmission, or maybe calibrated differently per car? Or was my experience not applicable to a 2021 model?

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    Without a manual transmission, there’s no good reason to buy this car.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I know that I am in the minority but I preferred the previous generation of Sentra because of the increased height of the greenhouse over its competition.

    As for this generation/vehicle. Why are heated seats part of an add on option package? Other manufacturers/vehicles offer them as standard equipment.

    Glad to see so many ‘safety nannies’ are standard.

    What about the steering wheel, shouldn’t it be leather wrapped, at least at this trim level?

    Finally, yes I think that a MT should be available.

    • 0 avatar

      “Why are heated seats part of an add-on option package?” For the same reason that a radio used to be an add-on option in this class: Price.

      And the reason you can get a loaded Sentra for less than a loaded Civic is because people won’t pay the Civic’s price for a Sentra.

      As for the CVT, I won’t act surprised by this CVT after about the last 15 years of Nissan products, from Rogues to Maximas, has been ruined by droning and failure-prone Jatco sh#tboxes. Thank you (again), Carlos Ghosn. Don’t let the cell door hit you in the hindquarters on the way out.

  • avatar

    In 2021, I’d expect a bit more than 149hp out of the 2.0 engine. That’s only 9 more than the ’91 Sentra SE-R I had in college.

    • 0 avatar

      Sentra SE-R was giving birth to those horses at 7500 RPM. +500 less pounds.
      So, less horses at more RPM, significantly less weight, means – difference is actually greater. Add MPG 24 vs 32
      Are you ready to retract your statement?

      • 0 avatar

        No. I knew and appreciate all those things you mentioned. The performance objectives/priorities were obviously different for the MR20DE(?) than for the SR20DE, it develops peak hp at lower RPM and gets better mileage (probably lower emissions too). Even with all that, I STILL would have expected closer to around 165hp out of 2-liters with an extra 20-30 years of technical evolution. It all makes me wonder what they could/would do with an SE-R version. Without looking it up, I don’t know what engine currently in the Nissan stable would be appropriate for an SE-R.

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I would also expect more out of 3 decades of development. Besides, drive this and a B13 SE-R back to back and let me know which one drives better

    • 0 avatar

      With any more power the CVT is liable to break down before the end of the warranty period, instead of just after it ends. Nissan can’t be having that.

      • 0 avatar

        This. They know exactly what the mean time between failures is…and just so it is out of warranty, it’s perfect.

        Like a lot of cars, the power output is dictated by marketing, not technology.

        I recently drove an A class benz with 184 HP. They have a gauge for HP output and boost. The computer is designed to put out 184 hp and bleeds boost once it hits that number. Likewise, my Jetta S is rated 140 hp. A tune allowed the engine to limit boost by knock, not HP, and now it makes 180 hp, with zero additional mods. If the Nissan is tuned to not blow the CVT, the fact the engine can easily do more isn’t relevant.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the company that rode that paint mixer 2.5 into the ground, what did you expect?

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      After having soured on the Sentra when Gen 6 hit our shores, I thought I would hate the car forever. But I’ve actually found the current version to be a decent choice if you’re in the market for a value-focused automobile.

      That 149 hp isn’t impressive but it works and the steering is fairly responsive even if the suspension isn’t up for shenanigans. It’s also not bad looking and may even be most comfortable to drive long distances in vs Corolla or Civic. But Tim’s right, the CVT isn’t one of the better options on the market and spoils the experience. It just isn’t enough to make it the weak link anymore because all the cars have small problems.

      Honda’s user interface kind of sucks and the car is very boring (despite being pretty good to drive). The Toyota needs to be more comfortable and make the interior feel less cheap. The Nissan’s pitfall is that sad transmission and that’s made up for by its lower price.

      The modern Sentra is not a dud. It’s very strong competition starting at a few grand less and regular consumers won’t be so put off by that CVT.

  • avatar

    Its really sad Nissan killed the 1.6T and manual gearbox combo. Nissan finally made the Sentra competitive, but then gave it a horrible engine/CVT only powertrain. I’d own a new Sentra if it would correct this. Missed opportunity

  • avatar

    And the CVTs are still Nissan’s Achilles’s hill. They blow right and left

  • avatar

    Handsome little car that needs the NISMO treatment.

  • avatar

    It needs a manual transmission and an SE-R version.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    So, it is what it’s supposed to be, and not what enthusiasts hoped it would be. So long as the CVT doesn’t distract from texting, most owners will not care.

    Regarding no MT: if Nissan (a struggling company) did pay extra to certify the 6MT, would it really have increased sales? I think it would have just cannibalized CVT sales; some would pick it only because it’s cheaper.

    • 0 avatar

      The manual would last the life of the car, assuming a competent driver. The CVT is a guaranteed service and sale of a new-reman transmission. The trick is that it dies at a time where the car still has enough value to justify the $3000 job-and it has to be jussst out of warranty. Win for Nissan even though it will crater used values.

  • avatar

    Nissan, along with Hyundai, Honda, Kia, Volkswagen, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Mini, Acura, Buick, plus a few others I can’t be bothered to even think of right now, could vanish from our shoes tomorrow — and I could care less.

    From trash like this to those ridiculous giant SUVs that have all the style and class of a Rubenesque woman in a tube top, short shorts, and flip flops — Nissan’s proof that as long as you pile on enough incentives somebody’s stupid butt will eventually wind up in one of your seats.

  • avatar

    Nissan/Infiniti make a number of vehicles I’m interested in, but CVTs are the deal-breaker on most and oil-gallery gasket failure the deal-breaker on the rest. It’s like Nissan is the Ford of Japan, some nice stuff, with fatal flaws, and they don’t show any inclination to get better.

  • avatar

    CVT is a no sale….period. It exists because it is cheaper to make than a with-gears autobox. I’d say a car like this should be manual but I get it is 2021-2 and the market just won’t.

    CVT=No sale, and an enthusiast non-recommend when non enthusiasts ask about car choices.

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