After a full redesign in 2013, the 2016 Nissan Sentra gets a midlife refresh that gives it a revised look, an improved ride and more features. It's also quieter and better-riding than the car it replaces, and offers an optional active safety package that includes one of the best adaptive cruise control systems we've sampled. It's now a more competitive car, but unfortunately, the rest of the segment has gotten so much stronger that the "B"-rated Sentra finds itself far down the compact sedan bench.
What Is It?
The 2016 Nissan Sentra is a four-door compact sedan available in five trims: S, FE+S, SV, SR and SL. In base S configuration with a manual transmission, the Sentra starts at $17,605. Opt for the automatic (like 98 percent of Sentra buyers) and you'll pay $18,445. Jumping all the way to the top-of-the-tier list, the Sentra SL costs $23,005.
For the 2016 model year, the Sentra receives a host of upgrades inside and out. The exterior now mimics Nissan's larger Altima and Maxima sedans, while the interior features a new steering wheel, center console and audio display. New active safety features are also part of the updates for 2016.
What's the Interior Like?
Nissan likes to point to the new 370Z-inspired steering wheel and shift lever as the highlights of the 2016 Sentra's updated interior. It also wants you to focus on the Apple Siri Eyes-Free integration (on SV, SR and SL trim levels) or maybe on the new interior materials. These are all tangible, touchable things that are easy to identify as improvements to an already user-friendly cabin (the touchscreen interface in particular is easier to decipher than Honda or Mazda's).
Yet, what we noticed more than anything is how quiet the cabin is when you're on the road. Nissan added thicker sound-damping materials and a new "acoustic windshield" that blocks a noticeable amount of noise. The result is a compact car with interior sound levels on par with many mid-to-full-size sedans.
During a long highway stint on a road surface we know to be particularly loud, we managed to have a conversation with rear-seat passengers without anyone raising their voice. Just make sure to go easy on the throttle: The underpowered engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) can conspire to create a ruckus akin to an amplified Ninja blender.
As for those rear-seat passengers, there's so much legroom that Delta would charge extra for it. Besides an ample wheelbase, there are two reasons for that. First, the bench is mounted high, which may cause your hair to brush the roof a tick despite the Sentra's bubble-like roof. And second, the driver seat doesn't slide far enough rearward.
Both front seats are also mounted curiously high (the non-adjustable passenger seat more so), which limits headroom and comfort. A 6-foot passenger's head was grazing the roof, while several editors found it difficult to find a comfortable driving position. The leather-lined seats in our SL test car also lacked the superior long-distance comfort of those found in pricier Nissans.
In total, the Sentra's cabin space is generous, but really no better than the all-new and generally more appealing Honda Civic. The same could be said of its otherwise huge-for-a-compact-car 15.1-cubic-foot trunk.
Are There Any Interesting New Features?
SR and SL level Sentras are available with Nissan's new Technology package. This $1,230 option includes automatic emergency braking and one of the smartest adaptive cruise controls we've ever used. At any price.
Unlike some other adaptive cruise control setups, the Sentra's system seems to understand how traffic actually works. The gas is applied smartly and smoothly, keeping your speed even on sharp grades. The system also uses the brakes efficiently and will bring the car to a complete stop more smoothly than most human drivers. (We did not test the automatic emergency braking for obvious reasons.)
Nissan also offers a subscription smartphone app/telematics service, NissanConnect Services, with plans starting at $11 per month. For this you get collision notification, emergency calling, stolen-vehicle locator, maintenance alerts, dealer service scheduling and more. Remote door lock and unlock, boundary/speed/curfew alert (think: a way to keep your teen driver within a virtual fence) and point of interest search cost extra.
What's New Under the Hood?
Nothing. Unfortunately. The 2016 Nissan Sentra is powered by the same lethargic 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that powered the 2015 Sentra. It's rated to deliver 130 horsepower but it feels like even less. In Edmunds testing, it propelled the Sentra from zero to 60 mph in 10 seconds. That's not only the slowest time in the segment (tied with the Scion iM), but it's nearly 2 seconds slower than the segment average. Those gaps are very significant, and represent differences you'd be able to identify when pulling away from a traffic light or merging onto a freeway.
Now, acceleration is far from being a top priority for many car shoppers. Instead, fuel economy is usually of much greater concern, and the Sentra doesn't disappoint. With the FE+S model, the EPA estimates 34 mpg combined (30 city/40 highway) with the CVT. All other CVT-equipped models achieve an estimated 32 mpg (29/38). In our own testing, a Sentra SL managed an impressive 37.7 mpg on our 116-mile evaluation route.
However thrifty it may be, though, it is matched or even bettered by competitors like the Honda Civic (both available engines), Mazda 3i and Toyota Corolla that also offer better acceleration.
How Does It Drive?
It only took us a few minutes on a local highway to tell that the upgrades to the Sentra were more than just marketing gimmicks. Previous Sentras could get flinty at highway speeds, and while they weren't loud, they never seemed particularly quiet, either. This new one fixes both problems.
Nissan retuned the suspension with higher spring rates and stiffer rear bushings, which translates to a car that doesn't bob or bounce as much. The carmaker also managed to retain all of the impact-isolating characteristics that we liked in the previous car.
Then again, and forgive us if this is getting repetitive, such improvements relative to last year's model aren't enough to give it a significant leg up (if any) on many competitors. The Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf manage to be comfortable and quiet, while simultaneously delivering a sharper and more refined driving experience. The Mazda 3 isn't quite as cushy, but it's not what we'd call uncomfortable, and is capable of putting a smile on your face.
The Sentra's brakes also leave much to be desired. The 124-foot stopping distance from 60 mph is average for the segment, but it's overshadowed by substantial nosedive, some lateral shimmying and ample ABS pedal feedback.
What Competing Cars Should You Also Consider?
The Honda Civic is a game-changer in the compact car segment. It does just about everything very well. It has raised the bar for all competitors.
The Mazda 3 isn't quite as dominant as the Civic, but is nevertheless well-rounded and one of our top-recommend "A"-rated compact cars. It is also available in sedan and hatchback body styles.
The Kia Forte likely slots just below those two, as it lacks some general, overall polish. It's high on value, though, and like the Sentra offers more user-friendly electronics.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
You want compact car pricing, fuel economy and dimensions, but big car quietness, space, tech features and cargo space.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
The 2016 Sentra is slow, and steep terrain will exacerbate this trait. More than this, though, it is simply outdone by most competitors.