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2018 Nissan Altima vs. 2018 Nissan Sentra: What’s the Difference?

  • The 2018 Nissan Altima is a midsize sedan, and the 2018 Nissan Sentra is a compact.

  • Size and pricing put these cars in different classes for different drivers.

  • The Sentra is more affordable, but is it a better value?

For decades, the name plates that have served as Nissan’s compact and midsize cars are the Sentra and the Altima. These have become trusted names synonymous with affordable, sensible transportation often good enough to compete with tough competition from Honda and Toyota. Whether that’s still the case in 2018 is a different question, but we’re here to figure out the difference between the Sentra and the Altima.

The short answer is that the Altima is bigger than the Sentra, but there’s a lot more to it than that when you start looking at factors like performance, fuel economy, technology and pricing. Let’s take a look at what these two Nissan sedans have in common, what they don’t and which one is right for you.

Exterior

Being a class bigger, the Nissan Altima is quite a bit larger than the Nissan Sentra. The Altima is about 10 inches longer and three inches wider than the Sentra, which is a pretty significant size difference.

As for styling, both cars are identifiable as Nissans from their similar styling. In fact, they’re similar enough that the untrained eye might confuse the two because of their similar headlight, taillight and grille designs. However, the longer body of the Altima affords it a little more styling flair.

Interior

The way the interiors of these two cars compare might surprise you. The front seats of both cars will be plenty comfortable for just about any driver, especially the Altima, which has especially comfy front seats, but it’s a different story in the back seat. The Altima has below-average back seat legroom for its class, and the back of the Sentra is roomier than most other compacts. That results in the Sentra actually having more back seat legroom than the Altima, despite the Altima being 10 inches longer on the outside. This is both a pro for the Sentra and a con for the Altima.

As for interior styling, both cars are a bit bland looking on the inside with a lot of plastic that looks like it’s just empty space. The Altima feels a little more premium than the Sentra on the inside, but not by much. Neither car hides its budget pricing very well from the inside, but they are both reasonably comfortable.

Mechanicals

The Nissan Altima has two engines available: A thrifty 4-cylinder and a more gutsy V6. The base engine makes 179 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, which are adequate numbers, while returning respectable fuel economy of 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway. Upgrading to the 3.5-liter V6 brings performance numbers up to 270 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, while still being pretty good on gas at 22 mpg city/32 mpg hwy.

The Nissan Sentra has two engines available, only one of which we’d recommend. The disappointing base engine is a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, and it isn’t in any hurry by only making 130 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. With numbers that low, you might expect stellar fuel economy. It’s pretty good on gas, but not amazing, as it returns 29 mpg city/37 mpg hwy. For a little more thrust, you can upgrade to a turbocharged 4-cylinder that turns up the performance to 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, while netting 27 mpg city/33 mpg hwy. If you’re going to get a Sentra, do your right foot a favor and spring for the turbocharged engine.

The balance of performance and fuel economy is achieved better with the engines in the Altima than it is with the Sentra. With the Altima you have a clear choice: Do you want better fuel economy or better performance? You technically have the same choice with the Sentra, but the compact’s base engine’s efficiency isn’t good enough to make up for what it lacks in performance.

Features and Technology

Despite coming from the same brand, these two cars have different infotainment systems. They’re both starting to look a little dated, but they’re both reasonably responsive. One of the biggest differences is the availability of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in the Altima, two connectivity features that are absent in all trims of the Sentra.

A nice safety feature of both Nissans is standard automatic emergency braking on all Altimas and all Sentras equipped with an automatic transmission. In the higher trims, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring and intelligent cruise control become available, but lane-keeping assist and lane-departure warning are notably absent on both cars.

Pricing

The pricing of the 2018 Nissan Altima is right in line with its segment with a starting MSRP of $23,260. The 2018 Nissan Sentra, however, undercuts a lot of its competitors on price with a very reasonable starting price of $16,990.

Unfortunately, the good engines in these cars can make them a little pricey. The most affordable turbo-equipped Sentra is the SR Turbo model, which starts at $22,490, and you need to go all the way up to the 3.5 SL trim to get the V6 in the Altima, which starts at $33,630.

Conclusion

The bigger Altima is in some ways a better family car than the Sentra, but it’s cramped back seats are a big downside to an otherwise good sedan. The Altima has very comfortable front seats, pretty good technology features and two good engines available under the hood. The Sentra is very competitively priced, has a very roomy back seat and it’s just a good, practical compact.

If you need a car that will get you from A to B without any fuss, and you’re planning on having back seat passengers often, you’ll like the value proposition that the Sentra offers. If you want something nicer, bigger and more powerful with more connectivity features, then the Altima would be a good upgrade if your budget allows it.

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