The 2010s saw several mainstream car companies pivot upmarket. Hyundai and Kia entered a new era with the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, two vehicles focused on delivering value based on feature content, not price. Similarly, Mazda redesigned their lineup with premium interiors on par with Acura. But not all brands were able to position themselves more favorably. Nissan chased market share, and as a result, seriously compromised their profitability in America. Many would agree that their lineup contains too much rental car fodder. With the redesigned Sentra, Nissan hopes to put their downmarket past behind them.
The current generation Sentra is arguably the weakest product in Nissan’s lineup. But it’s not the only model that could use improvement. The Rogue and Rogue Sport, Pathfinder, Titan, and Frontier are all outdated, mediocre, or both. Until recently the company didn’t really care about those problem vehicles, as the solution simply involved fleet sales and generous incentives to move the metal. Those corrosive tactics came back to bite Nissan. They’re struggling to make money in North America. Sales are down by double digits. Every Nissan model with the exception of the Kicks and NV van lineup is down when compared to this same period in 2018.
Nissan essentially reached its nadir in 2019. The fallout from the Ghosn debacle exposed the frailty of the partnership between Nissan and Renault. That fraught relationship contributed to the aborted merger between FCA and Renault. Nissan also experienced several leadership changes this year. Fortunately, it seems like CEO Makoto Uchida understands the challenges at hand.
Uchida has billed himself as a “product guy.” Basically, he believes product is paramount to a healthy car company. Although Uchida recently presided over Nissan’s Chinese operations, it’s unclear if he has ever made any product-related decisions. That being said, if he follows the current formula established by the company’s recent debuts, he just might be able to bring the automaker back from the brink.
The latest Sentra follows the footsteps of the Altima, Kicks, and Versa with its chiseled appearance and adoption of the new Nissan design language. Gone is the boxy yet bloated aesthetic of the previous generation. But the changes are more than skin deep. The interior received a hefty dose of premium materials thus far not seen in any compact Nissan. The dash is now clad in leather and satin-chrome aluminum accents are spread throughout the cabin. Nissan also introduced their Zero Gravity seats into the Sentra, making it the least expensive model with the technology.
And the new platform brought with it the usual benefits of increased NVH and body rigidity. More importantly, the redesign also included an independent rear suspension, an addition conspicuously absent on rivals like the Mazda 3. A new dual pinion rack power steering system was similarly engineered to improve the sedan’s driving dynamics. Nissan benchmarked the Volkswagen Golf for handling. Could you picture them doing that five years ago?
In terms of pricing, the company seems to have also benchmarked the competition. At $19,090, the Sentra starts out cheaper than the Toyota Corolla ($19,600) and Honda Civic ($19,750) but more expensive than the Kia Forte ($17,790) and Hyundai Elantra ($18,950).
Nissan seems to be taking the middle road when it comes to brand rejuvenation. Unlike Hyundai and Kia, their approach to interior quality will likely go beyond a mere aesthetic upgrade. It also appears Nissan paid attention to driving dynamics as well. But those changes have not resulted in a substantial increase in price like we see at Mazda. The company isn’t out of the woods just yet, but if they stay the course and apply the lessons learned from the 2020 Sentra to other models, they might just make it.