NEWPORT COAST, California — This is not a small car. Just because it’s technically a compact sedan, there’s no reason to think that the 2016 Nissan Sentra is anything like the little crackerbox that your dad made you drive in high school when what you really wanted was a Mustang.
Compact sedans have grown up, and now they’ve become spacious, quiet and even safety conscious. More important, compact sedans have even cast off the curse of crumminess. The 2016 Sentra is a particularly great example, since it’s unexpectedly transformed itself into a thoroughly adult-rated automobile. And if you’ve cast off your own personal crumminess (no more cargo shorts, please), the Sentra might be a good first step into the world of grown-ups.
Sooner or later, everyone grows up
We’ll admit that the compact sedan is not exactly a sexy topic. But even as the shift in public preference to utility-style vehicles has made compact sport-utilities the largest segment in the automotive marketplace with 18 percent of total sales, compact sedans still represent the third-largest market segment with 14 percent of sales.
Younger owners are the prime audience here, just as you’d expect, yet older drivers are also turning to small, affordable cars. As small cars have become accepted into the mainstream over the last 50 years, baby boomers have learned that a small car can deliver big value, so they’re increasingly likely to choose one for their ride into retirement.
The 2016 Nissan Sentra certainly looks the part of a grown-up sedan thanks to some new body panels. The newly revised Sentra is not exactly handsome, but neither does it seem as unpleasantly cheap as when this same basic package was introduced for 2013. More important, the 2016 Sentra’s new full-size look helps you realize that there’s 111 cubic feet of total interior volume here (95.9 cubic feet of passenger volume), which technically classifies it under EPA standards as a midsize car, not a compact.
The same thing, only completely different
We’re kind of touring the beach cities of Orange County, one of the most prosperous places on the planet, where some one-percenter is always parking his Lamborghini Huracán in front of the Fig and Olive restaurant over there at the Fashion Island shopping plaza. But because we’re in a compact-size car, we can scoot through the narrow, traffic-choked streets of the old downtown on Balboa Island, the kind of place where the born-and-bred locals wear surf shorts and Rainbow brand flip-flops. The 2016 Sentra even fits easily on the tiny ferryboat that takes you across the harbor to Balboa Island. Let’s face it; if you want to stop for fish tacos anywhere in the O.C., a compact car is required.
The basic, mechanical building blocks of the Sentra haven’t changed since 2013, and yet the driving experience in this thoroughly revised 2016 Sentra feels all new. We’re told that the makeover started right where the rubber meets the road with a selection of Continental tires. Although there’s no zippy high-strength steel in the structural platform, some key reinforcements and a lot more spot welds make the car feel much tighter. The familiar front suspension struts and rear torsion-beam axle now incorporate upgraded dampers, and the ride is as supple as that of a Volkswagen. A recalibrated electric-assist power steering helps reinforce a feeling of unwavering stability on the freeway, while the rear drum brakes that are standard equipment on the lower trim models of the 2016 Sentra perform unobtrusively. The ABS system has even been programmed to minimize understeer in the corners by tugging the inside front wheel toward your apex.
When it comes to performance, of course, the Sentra is still a stone. When you’ve got a package that weighs nearly 3,000 pounds, a 130-hp engine has to work pretty hard, and this ultra-long-stroke, 1.8-liter inline-four doesn’t sound very happy in its work. Fortunately the continuously variable transmission (CVT) has been reprogrammed, so it transmits power in a series of steps (as has become common in most CVT usage lately), and this keeps the engine out of the speed ranges where it would moan in dismay. Even better, the use of an acoustically insulated windshield and lots of added padding in the firewall and doors makes the 2016 Sentra remarkably quiet compared to other cars in its class.
Living in a compact world
The interior of the 2016 Nissan Sentra is the place where you really understand just how far this car has come since its introduction for 2013, when the aftershocks of the Great Recession made us all inclined to think cheap. First of all, it looks much better thanks to a sporty steering wheel and a new TFT instrument display. Second, the surfaces at your elbows are thickly padded, so things feel luxurious. As before, it’s easy to climb in and out thanks to wide door openings and a reasonably high hip-point to the seats, plus you’ll find 37.4 inches of legroom in the rear seat. And you can now fold the right-front passenger seat so it’s flat, and this means you can fit a reasonably long surfboard from the trunk through the 60/40-split folding rear seat. (This a standard of measure along the coast in the O.C. from the cove in San Clemente to the pier at Huntington Beach.)
Just as other carmakers have done, Nissan has incorporated some of its latest electronics in this compact car. An optional suite of active-safety features includes forward emergency braking (20 mph and slower), radar-controlled blind spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and even active cruise control. The electronic entertainment system is Apple iPhone compatible with Siri hands-free voice recognition, and navigation is communicated through the 5.8-inch central screen. At the same time, Nissan has made an effort to keep the price down, so lane keeping warning isn’t included and the entertainment system is compatible only with Apple devices.
As much as you need, but maybe not as much as you want
You can have the 2016 Nissan Sentra in a very wide range of flavors: the S with the manual transmission with a $16,780 MSRP and the models with the CVT—the $17,630 S, $18,030 FE+ S, $18,550 SV, $20,410 SR, or $22,170 SL. And you can expect 27/36 mpg city/highway from the stripped-down S with its manual transmission, 30/40 mpg city/highway from the mpg-oriented FE+ S, and 29/38 mpg city/highway from the CVT-equipped S, SV, SR, and SL.
Of course, each of these cars is built to a price, so there are tradeoffs that you have to make when it comes to equipment. To its credit, Nissan has done its best to deliver a practical choice with an optimal amount of active-safety features, and it reckons that a 2016 Sentra SV with the Driver Assist Package will deliver its new NissanConnect emergency service, a range of mobile apps, navigation, and the active-safety features that you appreciate every day—blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert—for a price under $20,000.
It seems like every car in the compact class has been renewed or revised lately, and you’d think that they’d all be the same. But they’re not. The 2016 Nissan Sentra isn’t the zippiest car to drive in the class, like the 2016 Honda Civic. It’s not stylish, spacious and cheap like the 2017 Hyundai Elantra or comprehensively equipped like the 2016 Mazda3 or simply lively like the 2016 Ford Focus. But the 2016 Sentra is the quietest and most composed car in its class, more like a full-size sedan than any of its rivals. Sometimes being a grown-up can be a good thing.
2016 Nissan Sentra SL Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Price: $23,005/$26,560 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 1.8L DOHC 16-valve I-4/130 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 128 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
- Transmission: Continuously variable
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 29/38 mpg (city/hwy)
- L x W x H: 182.1 x 69.3 x 58.9 in
- Wheelbase: 106.3 in
- Weight: 2,943 lb
- Top Speed: N/A