The 2021 Nissan Sentra is a stylish and modern example of how far the once humble compact car has come since Nissan first introduced the nameplate in 1982. Bearing practically no resemblance to its ruthlessly frugal counterpart, the 2021 Sentra maintains an impressive value proposition without sacrificing style, safety, comfort, or technology.
To understand just how far the Sentra has come over the four decades it has been sold, we’ll look back at each of the car’s eight generations to see how it has evolved over time, all culminating in the high-tech cruising machine that the 2021 Sentra is today.
While this is a history of the sometimes overlooked Nissan Sentra, it also shows just how car cars have come from the early eighties till now. While many wouldn’t see much difference between a car of then and now, besides the style upgrades, the structure and machinery underneath have been transformed completely. Each intermediate point in the story is important to the greater arc of this underrated compact car and of the wider auto industry it grew up in. These days the Sentra is back on the scene with something of vengeance, and we will see why when looking back at how the little car came of age.
The first generation of the Sentra debuted in the early ’80s as a replacement for the Datsun 210. This new car was part of a new branding wave, as the Datsun brand gave way to its parent Nissan company. Datsun had paved the way for Nissan with such cars as the 240Z, and now Nissan was ready to capitalize on the newly opened market. That said, the B11 chassis code first-generation Sentra was no sports car. Equipped with a series of engines whose combined outputs would be barely on par with the powerplant of a 2021 Sentra, it made up for lack of power with a similar lack of weight, but this low weight was also a symptom of very few creature comforts. In any case, you could still order a first-generation Sentra with whitewall tires.
The second generation Sentra was a massive step up in style and refinement but largely kept the old first generation car’s engine lineup. That said, these engines began to receive upgrades like early fuel injection technology and even a turbo system. The B12 Sentras would be produced from the mid to late ’80s with their sharp lines and increasingly sporty character very much intact. One of the big innovations the second generation Sentra kept from its progenitor was the front-engine, front-wheel drive layout, which offered better packaging and, in many ways, lower cost. This general layout would stick with the Sentra for its entire tenure.
The B13 Sentra of the early ’90s is where things truly started to get interesting for enthusiasts. The Sentra SE-R was introduced, its flashy nameplate backed up by the introduction of the soon to be renowned SR-series engine. The SR20DE in the SE-R variant of the third generation Sentra was the car’s first true sporty engine, producing a respectable 140 horsepower from the factory without a turbocharger. This power, coupled with the car’s truly impressive curb weight of barely over a ton, made the tiny economy car accelerate to 60 miles an hour from zero just a second slower than that year’s Chevrolet Corvette. To this day, the B13 SE-R is sought after by enthusiasts the world over.
The fourth generation of Sentra, carrying the torch from the mid to late ’90s, focused more on comfort than speed, despite keeping the SE-R trim level and its SR20DE engine. With new slicker ’90s styling, the B14 Sentra was no longer the wobbly lightweight it began life as, but it had reached a certain level of maturity. This maturity is exemplified in the wider ranges of trim levels offered, as well as the technical sophistication required to reach what would be excellent MPG ratings even by today’s standards. B14 Sentras could regularly get more than thirty miles to the gallon on the highway, even well over two decades ago. This is largely due to efficient engine management and aerodynamic bodywork.
At the turn of the century, the Sentra would once again become part of an enthusiast uproar while still providing dependable, reliable transportation for a very low cost. While the mainline Sentras of the era simply expanded on the previous economy car adages of low weight and high efficiency, the SE-R variant would take a different approach than what had been done before with the Sentra. Instead of a ground-up sporty engine, Nissan instead opted for the Hot Rod approach, taking the QR25DE from the Nissan pickup line and dropping it in the tiny 2,500 lbs Sentra. The result was a riotous experience, with the humble compact car transformed into a pocket rocket. And all of this speed was still available for that frugal Sentra price.
Moving into the modern era of 2006 and onward, the B16 Sentra was made to be as economical as possible. This included a hybrid version and a general shift away from speed and power and more towards responsible efficiency. In addition to the emphasis on low cost, the sixth generation Sentra also took pains to add more comfort to the compact car package, despite still managing 30-plus miles per gallon on the freeway. This generation was a step forward in efficiency and luxury for this particular Nissan sedan.
The seventh generation of the Nissan Sentra marked yet another turning point. This time, it was not for speed or extensive pursuit of low costs, but instead a sort of upscale comfort. Nissan began to decide that the Sentra had spent too long as a standard economy car and began allocating funds to make it into something noticeably more expensive feeling. The magic of this is that while it looks and feels like a more upscale car than before, it maintains the low pricing that has always made the Sentra as accessible as it is.
The current generation of Nissan Sentra is the B18, introduced in 2019. It is about as dramatic a departure from the status quo that the compact car has ever experienced. While Nissan began looking to make the Sentra more stylish and classy with the B17 generation, the B18 Sentra is undoubtedly the culmination of those efforts. Beautiful styling makes one wonder if this is indeed a compact car, but the MSRP is still low despite the high style. Also included is a battery of new active safety features that keep the Sentra at the technological forefront.
The Sentra has come a long way from its humble beginnings as one of the first Nissan-branded cars in the US. Now it is a low-cost tech showcase, a highly safe automobile, and in many cases, a rolling art piece. Equipped with a Continuously Variable Transmission for highly efficient propulsion and an engine that produces nearly three times the horsepower of what the original Sentra did, it is surprising two cars could share the same name, even forty years apart. But that is just the reality of the lesser-known heritage of the Nissan Sentra. Its been a long road from featherweight econobox, to sport compact hero, to the impressively stylish and comfortable modern automobile it is today.