Newport Beach, CA – If you think the “cheap-n-cheerful” cars just chug along while their pricier cousins get all the affection, you haven’t been paying attention. The mainstream compact market is a huge and fiercely-fought one, especially in Canada, and automakers have to stay current.
So having been introduced as the all-new, sixth-generation model for 2013, the Nissan Sentra gets a makeover for 2016. The basic mechanicals don’t change, but the styling is updated, there are tweaks to the steering and suspension, the transmission gets some fine-tuning, and new features are added. It’s not currently a top seller in the segment with Canadian buyers, and Nissan is hoping to move it up the ladder.
The company calls the styling “Energetic Flow,” and it’s making its way across the product lineup. One writer at the event dubbed it the “Small-tima,” and that’s a great way to describe it. With its chrome-accented grille, boomerang-style headlamps and swooping body lines, it looks like a scaled-down version of its larger Altima sibling. It really suits it, kicking it up a notch to look better than its price.
Just how much the Sentra will cost hadn’t been divulged at press time, but Nissan says that the SV trim line, one up from the base S and traditionally the best-selling trim line, will come in under $20,000 with a CVT. The SV will be available with an optional moonroof – it seems Canadians buy more of these than in any other market – and you can also move up to the SV Luxury, SR, SR Premium, or top-level SL trim.
The engine remains the same as before: a 1.8-litre four-cylinder producing 130 horsepower and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. The default transmission is a six-speed manual, but everything on my drive was fitted with the Xtronic CVT, which is optional on the S and SV trims, and is the only choice on the SL and SR.
The transmission’s performance has been tweaked for this refreshed model. It’s unnoticeable, which is a compliment, given that these continually-variable units can often be noisy or feel rubbery when bolted to an engine that doesn’t have a lot of torque. Overall, the engine works well for most driving conditions, although it runs low on puff when serious acceleration is requested. Plan your passing manoeuvres wisely.
A thicker steering shaft and updates to the electric power steering system give the wheel more weight. The steering is stiffer than before and there’s better on-centre feel on the highway, where this new Sentra feels very solid and substantial. The ride is bigger-car comfortable due to re-tuned springs and shocks, and a heavier-duty tunnel bracket for extra body rigidity. It’s extremely quiet, too, thanks to an acoustic windshield and extra noise-absorbing material stuffed into the door panels. Despite these additions, the weight difference between the 2015 and 2016 models is nominal, with the base S model coming in slightly under last year’s version, and the top-line SL gaining only nine kilograms.
Other than the new steering wheel, it takes a keen eye to differentiate this year’s interior from last year, with minor revisions to the centre stack and console, an available six-way power driver’s seat, and a liquid crystal display in the instrument cluster. Nissan’s famously-comfortable chairs are back, and while the rear seats are flatter than the front ones, there’s a lot of legroom.
The biggest news is in the new technology, available on the upper trim levels. The SV Luxury and SR Premium include blind spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert, while the SL then adds adaptive cruise control with forward emergency braking, which used to be the stuff of the premium brands only. The SL also includes NissanConnect, a suite of apps that lets you remotely lock and unlock the vehicle, call for roadside assistance, plan your trip, and get alerts if you lend the car to someone who drives it too fast or takes it beyond a specific boundary, among others, all using your phone. All but the base S trim comes standard with Apple Siri, too.
My day’s drive took me up and down the California coast, cruising alongside little houses that would have been priced at around $200,000 in my neck of the woods but were probably $2 million thanks to their proximity to the beach. I didn’t get on many twisty, higher-speed roads, but I did the type of highway and suburban driving where these commuter compacts are really meant to be. I also didn’t get anyone ogling my made-over little car, but that’s not surprising in an area where beat-up Volkswagen vans sidle up to Lamborghinis at the lights.
Ultimately, my impression of the Sentra is that it’s a good car that’s competitive in the segment, but not a standout that screams, “Buy me!” The ride is smooth, the interior is comfortable, and the features on the $20,000-ish trim – rearview camera, heated seats, satellite radio, pushbutton start, automatic headlights, and the Easy Fill technology that lets you pump up your tires to the correct pressure without using a gauge – sound like a deal.
I think the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta are better drivers, but they’re over that twenty-grand mark to get close to the Sentra’s features. On the other hand, I prefer the Sentra’s ride and handling to Toyota’s Corolla, and it’s more comfortable than the Kia Forte. This new Nissan looks good, and it’s a well-done makeover, but it doesn’t leapfrog its competition. Instead, it’s better-looking, current, and on the MSRP teaser I was given, remains competitive. Even if you buy it strictly on price rather than performance, it will have achieved what its designers, and its re-designers, set out to do.