As of late, I have started to think of the phrase “compact car segment” as another way of saying, “How much can we squeeze into a car and keep the price below $20,000?” Sure, the competition is fierce across the entire automotive landscape, but lately the battle of new compacts is especially brutal. The idea of simply offering a reliable, no-frills people-mover is obsolete. Today, compact cars like the 2016 Nissan Sentra offer standard features and amenities that used to be reserved for entry-level luxury cars.
Ironically, the current low gasoline prices are only adding fuel to the fire. With crossovers selling at a record rate, many consumers are willing to sacrifice a little fuel economy in exchange for utility and sport. The increase in sales has resulted in burgeoning subcompact and compact SUV segments that offer something for just about everyone. In light of the current situation, manufacturers hoping to keep their compact car sales healthy are required to bring their A-game to the design, manufacturing, marketing and sales process. And while this may be a burden to automakers, the end result is a blessing to consumers. Never before has the compact car segment represented so much value.
Looking to keep step with the latest and greatest, Nissan recently launched a refreshed version of the brand’s compact Sentra sedan. While the 2016 Sentra falls short of wearing the “all-new” moniker, the development and design teams at Nissan have been keeping notes since the seventh-generation Sentra was launched for 2013. The updated 2016 Sentra features apparent improvements, a few of which are even newsworthy.
Performance and Fuel Economy
The drivetrain is relatively unchanged, with the 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine carried over from the 2015 model. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while new mapping for the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) lends to a more natural feeling when driving and helps it avoid that horrible nagging drone under full throttle.
Not that I need to point this out, but folks hoping for a performance-oriented Nissan will want to look elsewhere. Although the Z-inspired steering wheel is quite nice, it does nothing to help the car accelerate. That said, I spent the better part of a day in Southern California traffic and didn’t feel that the Sentra got in the way of itself. The retuned suspension and steering are adequate for moving the compact car around without drama, but the rear drum brakes found in the S and SV trim levels feel old for a vehicle being offered in 2016.
The Sentra’s Eco and Sport drive modes allow you to push a button and electronically reconfigure the responsiveness of the CVT and throttle. These changes are subtle, but it is nice to have the option to burn a little more fuel in exchange for that small percentage of extra kick when you need it. The Sport mode is especially helpful in high-speed traffic when you need extra power for more competent passing and maneuvering.
Fuel economy is about what you expect for the segment. The six-speed manual is the thirstiest member of the group achieving 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. Models with the CVT earn 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, while an economy-oriented FE+ S trim gets 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. The numbers are right in line with the majority of competitors, but fall a little short compared with the 2016 Toyota Corolla LE Eco’s 30/42 mpg city/highway and even further behind the more performance-oriented 2016 Honda Civic EX-T’s 31/42 mpg.
Updated Interior and Exterior
The Sentra’s new exterior adopts Nissan’s latest design language, a look that started on the 2015 Murano, found its way onto the 2016 Maxima and Altima and now graces the Sentra. While some may find it too bold, I am a fan and feel that the V-motion grille and boomerang headlights suit the Sentra particularly well.
The 2016 Sentra’s refreshed interior includes some very comfortable new front seats, including an available power driver’s seat with power lumbar support. The rear seating provides plenty of room for two adults or three children, with 37.4 inches of legroom (a number you’d expect to see in a midsize sedan). The Sentra has always been known for having a spacious interior and the refresh only reemphasizes the fact. Its 111 cubic feet of total interior volume and the fantastic 15.1 cubic feet of cargo space place the Sentra’s cabin in midsize sedan territory.
The 2016 Sentra provides soft-touch surfaces where they need to be, door armrests for instance, but still suffers a bit from the pricing constraints of the segment. While Nissan has done a decent job camouflaging the ample hard plastics, it may be the one aspect of the interior that immediately reminds you of the Sentra’s inexpensive price tag.
Other interior enhancements include an acoustic windshield that provides a quieter driving environment and some new technology equipment. The base Sentra has a simple four-speaker audio system, but includes a USB connection for an iPod or other compatible devices. Midlevel SV and SR models come with a six-speaker stereo and a 5-inch touch screen, while a 5.8-inch touch-screen navigation system is available (standard on the top-trim Sentra SL). The 5-inch touch screen audio also includes SiriusXM Radio, Siri Eyes Free Voice Recognition, Bluetooth and the NissanConnect with Mobile Apps system.
2016 Nissan Sentra Prices
The base 2016 Nissan Sentra S with the six-speed manual transmission starts at $16,780, which is quite the value for an entry-level compact car that offers this amount of space. I normally point to the entry-level Toyota Corolla, which starts at $17,300, for those in the market for reliable inexpensive family sedan. However, if you are happy with a manual transmission the base Sentra represents excellent value.
The top-trim 2016 Sentra SL starts at $22,170. The SL trim is the “luxury” pick in the lineup, with highlights that include 17-inch alloy wheels, projector LED headlights, leather seats, a 5.8-inch display with navigation, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert.
Based on the available S, FE+ S, SV, SR, SL trim levels, and time behind the wheel, my recommendation for a nice balance between value, convenience and comfort would be the $18,550 Sentra SV with the $1,020 Driver’s Assist package. Considering that the Sentra has one engine choice, the SV provides most of the performance that the more expensive higher trim levels provide at a lower price. Just remember that the Sentra SV uses rear drum brakes, which certainly stop the car, but lack the crispness of the four-wheel disc brakes found on SR and SL models.
The SV includes a rearview camera and Nissan Intelligent Key with push-button ignition, which are two features that really help a car feel new. The Driver’s Assist package adds a 5.8-inch color touch-screen display, navigation, SiriusXM Traffic and SiriusXM Travel link (subscription required), blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. Interestingly, the SV is historically Nissan’s best seller, making up 35 to 40 percent of Sentras that roll off the lot.
Nissan Sentra Highlights
The new 2016 Sentra’s available adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and forward emergency braking are impressive. While none of these are necessarily new for the brand, the fact that you can get these safety-oriented options in a compact vehicle is a testimony to the impact of technology on the automotive industry. As less expensive cars continue to gain active safety technology, our roadways become safer for everyone who travels them.