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First Drive: 2016 Nissan Sentra

Cheap, efficient and even kinda fun, Nissan's 2016 Sentra is a competent compact

Compact economy cars compete primarily on price, and within their price bracket, they compete on features. If you break out of the price bracket, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got better features – you won’t even be in the game. So, the competition among the lowest-priced cars is especially brutal. How can an automaker win on price, offer a competitive feature set, and still make a buck?

The answer is to sell in volume, keep production costs down, and use technology that has gone fully mainstream and is therefore as inexpensive as it’s going to get. That’s the game plan Nissan uses when it builds the Sentra compact economy sedan.

2016 is a mid-cycle refresh for the Sentra. The basic design has been around since the 2013 model year, and it still has some life left in it. The 2013 model was a complete redesign for the modern era, so the changes for 2016 are limited primarily to four areas – the front and rear bodywork, the suspension, improved cabin insulation, and transmission tuning.

A Little Nip and Tuck

The bodywork changes to the Sentra are unremarkable. The car received a new front bumper and grille that are both a little more aggressive than the outgoing model, and a new rear bumper treatment. That’s fine and it will help to distinguish the 2016 model from older cars, but who buys a Sentra to look aggressive? Trust me, it’s not going to leave BMW M3 owners quaking in their boots.

Overall, the Sentra is a good looking car. It has nice, flowing lines that look like some effort was made to give the little commuter sedan some style. The Sentra does not try to hide what it is, and that’s a virtue. This is a car built for a specific purpose – to move people and a little bit of cargo around cheaply and reliably – and the styling gives the Sentra a little pizzazz.

Most-Improved Suspension

The biggest improvement in the 2016 Sentra is the suspension and steering, and this is the most important reason why you should consider the Sentra if you’re shopping for economy cars. Nissan gave the Sentra a true sports car suspension that is firm, responsive, and fun to drive.

Nissan gave the Sentra a true sports car suspension that is firm, responsive, and fun to drive.

Nissan boosted the Sentra’s spring rates by about 10 percent, and adjusted the damping on the shocks to match. That’s about the same change you get when you put an aftermarket “sport” suspension kit on a car, so the Sentra is now pre-modified for you. It’s no surprise that Nissan would do this – they’ve been building excellent sports cars since the company came to America in the 1960s, and they pulled in a few cues from the current 370Z to underline the point.

On the road, you really feel the new suspension as a tight connection to the road with flat cornering and an eager steering response. In fact, traditional economy car buyers might find the new suspension a little too racy for their taste until they get used to it. I think most drivers ultimately come to appreciate a car with better handling, even at the expense of feeling a few more bumps.

A Quiet Interior

Another area where Nissan has been making dramatic improvements is to interior insulation, which leads to a nice, quiet cabin. Small cars are notorious for road noise, so you’ll really notice that the new Sentra is much quieter than the outgoing model and generally quieter than the competition.

2016 Nissan Sentra
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Nissan achieved this by putting a bunch of research into new sound-deadening materials in the door spaces and under the dash. By using new materials and placing them strategically in noise centers, Nissan really cut down on the drone inside the cabin. The Sentra gets major plus points for this, and interior noise (or the lack of it) is a big factor in long-term customer satisfaction. Mid-size and larger buyers will be happy to note that the Nissan Altima and Maxima have received the same treatment, with similar improvements.

Lackluster Performance

Coming off high praise for the suspension and noise reduction, the only real disappointment with the Sentra is in overall drivetrain performance. Like many automakers, Nissan made the switch to continuously variable transmissions a while back, and these are still not delivering the performance that we’d all like to see.

The CVT equation is simple – they cost little to make and they deliver better fuel economy, but at the expense of performance. Nissan has tried to simulate the action of a traditional automatic transmission by programming their XTronic CVT to simulate gear shifts, but that bit of legerdemain still needs work. Plus, if you’re flooring the gas to horsewhip the Sentra to go, you’re not getting the fuel economy benefits of the CVT anyway.

Small cars are notorious for road noise, so you’ll really notice that the new Sentra is much quieter than the competition.

It’s important to note that Nissan is far from the only automaker to wrestle with this issue. Every automaker selling a CVT is doing their best to disguise the distinctive “rubber band” CVT performance pattern where the engine winds itself up and then the CVT accelerates the car. Nissan deserves credit for making the effort and in due time, the CVT will be sorted out.

Also worth a mention is that you can get the Sentra with a six-speed manual if you are willing to accept the lowest trim level in the lineup. It’s also the cheapest Sentra you can buy, so there’s a big win if you are willing and able to drive stick.

Related: 2013 Nissan Sentra: Altima’s little brother claims 40 mpg highway

Lastly on performance, the engine in the Sentra is a 1.8-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder mill rated at 130 horsepower (or 124 if you’re in California) and 128 pound-feet of torque. That equals low stress on an engine of that displacement, so the Sentra is likely to run reliably for a long, long time. You can get up to 30 MPG in the city and 40 MPG on the highway with the right packages on the Sentra, but expect a few MPG less with the manual transmission or luxury packages.

Competitive Connectivity

If the performance summation left things on a down note, you’ll be please to hear that things are more positive where connectivity is concerned. The base trim level Sentra S comes with a traditional AM/FM/CD stereo with an auxiliary port and four speakers. That base system provides Bluetooth hands-free phone support, but that’s about it.

As soon as you move up the trim line, you get 5.0-inch or 5.8-inch color touchscreen displays, and the 5.8-inch models give you navigation and voice-controlled access to NissanConnect apps through Sirius/XM. This system provides automatic crash response features as well as the usual apps for music, traffic, and so on. It’s the same system provided in more expensive Nissans, and it doesn’t cost that much to get it in the Sentra.

Priced to Compete

As I said at the beginning, compact economy cars primarily compete on price. Nissan has done the homework here, with the base 2016 Sentra S starting at just $17,615 (including destination fees). That gets you the manual transmission, but you have to add $850 to get the CVT. That base price also gets you air conditioning and cruise control, which is nice.

Moving straight to the top of the line, the 2016 Sentra SL comes in at $23,005 (including fees), so there’s not a huge jump to get leather, navigation, NissanConnect, and so on. In between, you’ve got the FE (Fuel Economy) model at $18,865, the SV mid-grade trim with the 5.0-inch display screen at $19,385, and the SR sport trim with spoiler, chrome, and so on at $21,245. Except for rear disc brakes, the SR trim does not give you any actual performance enhancement – it’s mostly a visual package.

The bottom line is that your best buy with the 2016 Nissan Sentra is the base trim, unless you really need the CVT, a set of heated seats, or the sport trim. The engine will work better with the manual transmission, and you can upgrade the infotainment cheaply in the aftermarket. If you’re buying any economy car, the best value is usually the base model.  By that reckoning, the 2016 Nissan Sentra is a solid contender. It won’t win any stoplight races, but you will get a proven, high-quality car that will do the job you’re asking it to do.

Highs

  • New suspension is firm, sporty, and responsive
  • Quieter than before
  • Good looking car
  • Competitive connectivity package

Lows

  • Anemic engine power
  • Continuously Variable Transmission still needs work