Nissan aims to double or even triple sales of its next-generation Sentra by offering a car with styling more in line with the mid-sized Altima.
"We miss the heart of the market right now," said Al Castignetti, Nissan Division vice president of sales.
"A lot of people reject the Sentra because of its looks. It's not a bad car; it's a great car. But it is not a natural progression to move down to it from the Altima."
Nissan will sell about 100,000 Sentras this year in the United States, well below its compact rivals at Toyota and Honda.
The redesigned Sentra is still two years away. But Nissan acknowledges that the new one must do a better job of holding the interest of customers who, after considering an Altima, decide to shop in the next segment down.
"It just has to do with the aesthetics of the vehicle," Castignetti said. "When it launched, it was a polarizing vehicle."
Nissan wants the same family relationship between the Altima and Sentra that Toyota enjoys with the mid-sized Camry and the smaller Corolla and Honda has with its Accord and Civic.
"We've never been up to the levels of Civic or Corolla in matching our mid-sized product," Castignetti said. "That's something we've looked long and hard at.
"Toyota might sell around 400,000 Camrys and 300,000 Corollas; Honda can sell 350,000 Accords and 300,000 Civics. "We sell 270,000 to 300,000 Altimas but 100,000 Sentras. That's a big gap in our portfolio."
He added: "If we can sell 300,000 Altimas and 300,000 Sentras, that dramatically changes our whole portfolio.
"And with the next vehicle, I think we've got the opportunity to do that."