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Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Sentra

Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Sentra

By Christian Wardlaw, February 04, 2016
Last year, the Nissan Sentra ranked highest in the Compact Car segment in the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Initial Quality StudySM (IQS). A simple car that is almost always available with a generous rebate, the Sentra rated highly in all areas except for powertrain, in which it received low ratings from owners.

For 2016, Nissan makes numerous improvements to the Sentra. From updated styling that is better aligned with the larger Altima and Maxima sedans and revised dynamic tuning aimed at delivering better ride and handling qualities to new infotainment and safety technologies, the 2016 Sentra represents an upgrade over the previous year’s award-winning model.

To sample the changes and assess their impact upon the Sentra, we spent a day cruising around Orange County, California, following a route planned by Nissan. In the morning, we drove the sporty looking Sentra SR. In the afternoon, we switched into the upscale SL (seen in the accompanying photos). With three people aboard—each weighing at least 200 lbs.—we traversed city streets, suburban avenues, broad boulevards, and smooth freeways. This is what we learned…

As was true of the 2015 Sentra, the new 2016 model is remarkably roomy for people and luggage. Additionally, for 2016, Nissan claims that interior noise levels are improved by 10%, and it shows when you’re occupying one of the front seats.

A manual driver’s seat-height adjuster is standard equipment, and for 2016 a new 6-way power-adjustable driver’s seat is included on the Sentra SL and optional on the Sentra SR. Both front seats are comfortable, providing relatively high hip points for easier entry and exit.

Rear-seat space is generous for a compact car. Adults fit with no problem, and the bottom seat cushion provides good thigh support. Leg room and foot room is impressive, though the Sentra is appreciably louder inside to people who are sitting in the back. The trunk is commodious at 15.1 cu. ft., which is nearly the size of the Altima’s cargo area.

Updated styling and new aluminum wheel designs give the Sentra greater personality. Everything forward of the windshield is redesigned, and the 2016 Sentra receives new taillights and a revised rear bumper. Inside, a new steering wheel is said to resemble the Nissan 370Z sports car, and trim upgrades for the upper trim levels update the Sentra’s cabin for a more modern appearance.

Nissan has revised the Sentra’s transmission, steering, suspension, and tire selections for 2016, with the intention of giving the car a more responsive and athletic driving character. Under the driving conditions we experienced, it is clear that the steering is dramatically improved. Also, once we had a chance to drive the Sentra without the extra weight of passengers, a tauter ride and zippier handling reflected the Sentra’s suspension updates and tire changes.

Equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is programmed to sound and feel more like a traditional automatic, the 2016 Sentra receives a new sport driving mode, and it works to add liveliness to the car’s acceleration. Revised “D-Step” simulated shift programming is also crisper this year, and the changes make the Sentra more enjoyable to drive. Because our testing environment was limited, we could not ascertain the effectiveness of the Sentra’s new brake-torque cornering feature, called Active Understeer Control.

Nissan has also introduced new infotainment and safety systems to the 2016 Sentra. As an option for the SR and SL trim levels, NissanConnect Services provides Sentra owners with automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, and remote access to engine start/stop and door lock/unlock. Additionally, this subscription-based service package allows parents of teenaged drivers to program speed, curfew, and boundary alerts, letting mom and dad know when the car has been driven too fast, or too far, or too late into the night.

Building on NissanConnect Services safety features, new options include a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert and a forward-collision warning system with automatic emergency braking. The Sentra already meets “Top Safety Pick” standards for the 2016 calendar year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and Nissan expects to earn a “Top Safety Pick+” rating as soon as the IIHS evaluates the Sentra’s collision-avoidance technologies.

Given that the 2015 Sentra ranked at the top of its segment in initial quality, our expectations for the new Sentra were high, perhaps leading to dissatisfaction.

From the unrefined sound and feel of the shifter to the inexpensive texture and grain of the leather wrapped around the new steering wheel, the 2016 Sentra’s interior fittings lacked substance. Hard plastic is used along the tops of the door panels, where people might choose to rest an elbow, and the center console armrest padding is thin, revealing the hard plastic underneath. Also, the plastic panel seams on either side of the center console are uncomfortable when the driver or front passenger rests a leg there.

Nissan revised the Sentra’s center control panel for 2016, but the NissanConnect infotainment systems are ready for a redesign. We certainly appreciate the knobs and buttons, but the touch-screen displays are too small, the largest one measuring 5.8 inches across. Additionally, the information is prone to washout in bright sunlight, making it harder to see and use the system.

Though the new Sentra’s transmission tuning is improved, the 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine frequently struggled to generate velocity with three people aboard. On one occasion, when accelerating up a short ramp onto the freeway, the car could not match traffic’s prevailing rate of speed, making for a somewhat harrowing merge.

Driven without passengers, the Sentra proved far livelier. However, we predict that the Sentra’s powertrain may continue to receive unimpressive ratings from the people who buy this car.

Nissan’s primary goals with the refreshed 2016 Sentra were to update the design with the company’s latest styling cues, improve safety, update the infotainment systems, and enliven the driving dynamics. It has accomplished those goals.

However, the Sentra faces off against several completely redesigned competitors and a handful of similarly upgraded models in its quest to attract new compact-car buyers to Nissan. The changes for 2016, combined with attractive rebate, financing, and lease programs, could sway consumer decisions in the automaker’s favor. What would be better, though, is if Nissan built a Sentra that appeals equally to a buyer’s head and heart.

Perhaps that car will arrive with the next complete redesign.

Additional Research:

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