Traditional car shoppers are moving away from small sedans and toward compact crossovers. That’s the conventional wisdom used to explain the slowing sales we see in some models. But could there be another reason? Could it simply be a lack of focus and attention to the compact segment?
There is one model that’s seen a meteoric rise in sales since 2013: the Sentra. Nissan’s complete overhaul three years ago and aggressive pricing doubled Sentra sales since then, moving it from a “top 15” player in sales to number five in 2015.
In an effort to maintain the trajectory, Nissan opted for a major refresh after just three years on sale. (Sounds like the Honda plan with the Civic, doesn’t it?) Perhaps the key to compact success is a combination of frequent updates and more gadgets for shoppers to choose from. That sums up the 2016 Sentra perfectly.
The 2016 Sentra receives a refresh, not a complete redesign. That means “hard points” such as the wheelbase, track and overall dimensions of the Sentra remain essentially unchanged. That’s not a problem for Nissan’s compact, being it was already one of the largest compact sedans at over 182 inches long. In fact, the “compact” Sentra is so large in fact that the EPA classifies it as a midsized sedan, much like the new Civic, Elantra, and other compact cars.
Up front, Nissan grafts a new bumper, hood and quarter panels to the Sentra, making it more homogeneous within Nissan’s lineup. The new look also injects some much-needed personality into the Sentra with a simpler chrome grille, more aggressive headlamps with optional LED beams and deeper creases in the sheet metal. The design manages to be more fresh and modern than the 2015 Sentra without looking awkward from some angles, a failing seen on the 2016 Civic. The Sentra is not as exciting as a Mazda3 to my eye, but it certainly looks fresher than the Elantra, Forte and Focus.
The interior of the Sentra is more traditionally styled than some entries, but parts quality in the SR and SL testers are above average for the segment. Base models see less premium materials used in the cabin, but the base price of the Sentra is also lower than every other entry except the Forte. The average shopper will find a leather-wrapped steering wheel in trims $5,000 cheaper than in the Civic and for thousands less than in others. Top top it all off, Nissan’s latest front seats are among the most comfortable in the segment and adjustable lumbar support is available in top trims.
Part of the Sentra’s success comes from its size. It offers 80 inches of combined legroom, which is five inches more than the Ford Focus and just 2/10ths of an inch behind the Ford Fusion.
As we’ve seen in other Nissans, the trunk is unusually deep and offers 15.1 cubic feet of stowable volume. This allows 24-inch roller bags (the largest you can carry on a domestic flight) to be stowed upright. Our tester successfully swallowed 10 such roller bags, a feat difficult for much larger sedans like the Camry and Accord. Next time you’re at the rental counter, you’d do well to take the Sentra over the Fusion or 200.
Infotainment & Gadgets
With a base price that starts lower than almost every other compact sedan, S and FE models get a base AM/FM/CD audio system with four speakers. Thankfully, Nissan doesn’t cut too deep and base models still get a USB connector, iPod interface and Bluetooth integration.
For $18,550, the SV gains a 5-inch LCD in the dash with smartphone app integration, hands-free text message support, Siri Eyes Free, a backup camera, XM Radio and six speakers. Optional on SV and SR and standard on SL is a 5.8 inch version of the same system that adds navigation and voice commands. Top trims can be equipped with a 10-speaker Bose sound system.
Like Honda, Nissan is betting on active safety, but Nissan’s approach is different. SV trims allow the addition of blind spot monitoring with cross traffic detection, a feature not found on the Civic. SR and SL shoppers can add a $1,230 technology package that bundles full speed radar cruise control, automatic braking and Nissan’s OnStar-like telematics services. This system will take you to a complete stop, but won’t hold you at the stop like Honda’s will.
Nissan’s package is $230 more than Honda Sensing and lacks the lane keeping and road departure mitigation system you find in the Civic, but does include telematics. On the flip side, the Sentra is considerably less expensive than a Civic, so an SL sedan equipped with radar cruise would still be thousands less than a comparably equipped Honda.
Under the hood is the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine as before. Closely related to the 1.6-liter unit in the Versa, the up-sized engine makes 130 horsepower and 128 lbs-ft of torque (unless you’re in one of the 14 states that follow California’s stricter emissions standards, which drop output to 124 horsepower and 125 lbs-ft.)
Power is sent to the front wheels via, you guessed it, a continuously variable transmission. Like the Versa’s transaxle, this CVT uses a 2-speed planetary gearset to broaden the range. In broad terms, you start out with the gearset in low and the CVT in its lowest range. When the CVT hits the highest ratio, the planetary gearset switches to high and the CVT switches back to low. This design allows the CVT a broader ratio spread than you find in most compact sedans. The high-low shift is noticeable under hard acceleration if you pay attention, but it’s effectively masked by the programming that imitates a stepped automatic when using anything more than 3/8ths throttle. Nissan still offers a six-speed manual, but it’s relegated to the base model only.
Nissan’s broader-range CVT allows the Sentra to feel peppier than I expected. Of course, when you pit 130 horsepower against 2,877 pounds, you shouldn’t expect any great urgency, but the Sentra managed to be a hair faster than the Corolla at 9.3 seconds to 60 mph.
Nissan has tried their best to disguise the CVT’s stepless nature by programming “shifts” that happen any time you command more than 3/8ths throttle. However, the transmission acts just as CVTs always have when driven conservatively. In moderately aggressive driving, the new step logic makes a convincing imitation. The shifts feel “mushy” beyond that, however, with the transmission slipping into the next ratio with a more leisurely pace than a traditional automatic.
The newly tweaked suspension has firmed up the ride and settled the rear end. New tires with grippier compounds have been fitted to all trims, but the sectional width has stayed resolutely narrow at 205. A new steering rack and additional chassis bracing helps complete the package and the Sentra feels altogether more capable than before. Yet, up against stiff competition, the Nissan still ends up being a middling experience in terms of performance and handling.
Although Nissan bumped the price tag on the Sentra by $230 for 2016, the MSRP is still aggressively low, especially when you consider how large the Sentra is compared to some other compact sedans. SV, SR and SL trims undercut the Focus, Civic and Mazda3 by a notable margin, and even manage to be less expensive in some configurations than a similarly equipped Hyundai or Kia. With the most recent tweaks, the Sentra is not only less expensive, but fresher as well.
Comparisons with Honda’s Civic show an even larger delta. The Nissan is at least $2,000 less than the Honda across the range. When you factor in the deeper discounts we often see on Nissan lots, the gap between the Sentra and Civic grows.
The 2016 Sentra doesn’t break any new ground. The dynamics are still in the middle of the pack, and acceleration and braking are moderate. The safety features may be new to the Sentra, but are not new to the segment. However, like the 2013 Sentra I reviewed several years ago, the Nissan continues to be a great value. With sales of competitive sedans declining, Nissan’s aggressive pricing, large cabin and well bundled options explain its popularity.
Enthusiast shoppers are likely to gravitate toward Honda’s new turbo engines or the high-performance Focus models while Nissan fans live in hope the next refresh will include an SR with wider tires and more power under the hood. That would turn the Sentra from the logical, rational option to more of an emotional choice.
Nissan provided the vehicle at a launch event which included travel and a stay at a swanky hotel in Southern California.