Nissan Sentra — A pleasant surprise

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Nissan's compact Sentra has suddenly become competitive in an extremely competitive segment. Nissan claims the refreshed 2016 Sentra has an improved ride, a quieter interior, numerous upgrades including an advanced safety package and even a new steering wheel inspired by the 370Z sports car. And the Sentra has incredibly ample rear-seat legroom for a small sedan. In improving the Sentra for 2016, Nissan changed out 550 parts.

We found Nissan's claims substantially true. In fact, the Sentra, which in recent years was a very average a car, has been turned into a player in the world of outstanding sedans such as the new Honda Civic, Mazda3, Kia Forte and even the all-new Chevrolet Cruze. The Sentra has been the surprise car of the year for us — a very pleasant and unexpected surprise.

Most notable among exterior styling changes are an updated front end with redesigned hood, fenders, fascia and the familial V-Motion grille. Nissan also tweaked the tail lamps and rear fascia.

Inside, a new three-spoke steering wheel, shift knob, center stack design, seat fabrics and an available new 6-way power adjustable driver’s seat are all new for 2016.

Available for the first time this year are a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. We discovered that Sentra's adaptive cruise worked as well as nearly all systems we have tested over the past year. And the Sentra may be the first sedan on the market with this feature for under $25,000.

The one thing that wasn't changed was the engine and transmission, and that's one area that perhaps should have been given priority. The Sentra soldiers on with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque mated to either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable (CVT) transmission. That's one of the smallest — and one of the slowest — drivetrains in the rapidly improving segment. For example, the Sentra has been clocked in a rather turtle-like 10.1 seconds from 0-to-60. That being said, we never found the little sedan lacking the requisite forward momentum to merge with highway traffic even as a pedal-to-the-metal exercise was sometimes necessary.

Nissan apparently is of the opinion that buyers in this segment are more interested in fuel economy than performance because while the four-banger is adequate at best, it exhibits commendable fuel economy measured at 29-mpg city, 38 highway and 32 combined with the CVT. And mileage is even better with the special FE+S trim level that prioritizes fuel economy with low-rolling-resistance tires, a rear spoiler and underbody aerodynamic deflectors. Mileage with the FE+S is measured at 30 city, 40 highway and an impressive 34-mpg combined.

Perhaps the most impressive features of the new Sentra are its newfound solitude — we rate it as quiet as any mainstream compact car on the market — and its remarkable interior space. While even tall front-seat occupants are afforded adequate room, it's the rear-seat space that is most impressive. Legroom is generous. And inexplicably, no space has been taken from the trunk, which also ranks as large as many mid-sized sedans with 15.1 cubic feet of useable space.

The gauges are easy to read and the switchgear is intuitive. A standout feature on the refreshed Sentra includes NissanConnect, which allows you to do Google searches via the car's 5.8-inch touchscreen interface in navigation-equipped models.

The Sentra is offered in five trim levels — S, FE+S, SV, SR and SL. Standard on all trims starting at $18,865 including destination charge are remote keyless entry, air conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, full power accessories, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player, USB port and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Nissan says the SV grade is the biggest seller starting at $19,385 including destination. Additional features on the SV include keyless entry and ignition, upgraded cloth upholstery, five-inch driver information screen, a five-inch central touchscreen, rearview camera, six-speaker sound system with satellite radio, and smartphone applications including hands-free text messaging and Siri Eyes Free voice controls.

What we found the most impressive trim level is the top SL with a couple of options that turned the Sentra into a modern well-equipped sedan. The SL starts at $23,005 with such standard features as blind-spot monitoring, leather upholstery, a larger 5.8-inch touchscreen with navigation, dual-zone climate control, and six-way power driver's seat.

The bottom line goes to $25,545 with a couple of worthwhile packages — Technology, which brings adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking and NissanConnect emergency services for $1,230; and Premium for $1,130 that adds power moonroof and Bose premium audio system.

Base Price: $18,865; as driven, $25,545
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 130 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 128 foot-pounds @ 3,600 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 182.1 inches
Curb weight: 2,848 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 city, 38 highway, 32 combined
0-60: 10.1 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Mazda3

The Good
• Exceptional rear-seat room
• Excellent fuel economy
• Quiet interior
• Cutting-edge safety available

The Bad
• Compact segment loaded with excellent vehicles

The Ugly
• Performance lags competitors