Compact sedans are emerging as a bimodal chess piece.
These once-cheap and cheerful sedans were the econoboxes of the brand, but to get something nice meant moving up and paying more. Now, compact sedans range in price from base models to almost luxurious models with access to advanced technology.
“The competition is getting tight,” said Ken Kcomt, Nissan Director of Product Planning.
And there is tough competition in the front-wheel drive group, including the Mazda3, Ford Focus, Chevy Cruze, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic. Nissan gave the Sentra a major mid-cycle refresh that represents three times the usual amount — 500 components were changed, or 20 percent of the car.
The biggest upgrades were in cabin soundproofing, ride quality, front and rear styling and driver-aid technologies. The car may not look significantly different from last year’s model, but just go for a ride; the Sentra is one of the most comfy and quiet cars in its class.
Only the engine and transmission builds carried over from last year. All models have 124 horsepower and a1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The engine is rated at 130 horsepower outside of California and those states with similar emissions standards. The engine is nearly silent and doesn’t vibrate when idle.
Nissan tweaked the Xtronic CVT for a crisper shift feel to modernize and keep up with power demands. But it is still prone to sputtering as the engine revs.
Drivers who enjoy instant acceleration may not be pleased with the new CVT. But it definitely enables a better fuel economy: 29 mpg city, 38 highway and 32 combined. The manual transmission has ratings of 27/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined. And a fuel economy model is rated 30/40/34 mpg; all running on the recommended 87 octane.
The Sentra is sold in six trim levels. A base model S with six-speed transmission is $17,615; the top-line SL with CVT is $23,005; the fuel economy model is $18,865. Pricing includes an $835 freight charge from Aguascalientes, Mexico.
The exterior styling is rather formal for a small car. Nissan says it was looking for “dynamic emotion” in its so-called “V motion” front-end treatment. “It’s a very dynamic line that we are managing,” said Taro Ueda, Vice President of Nissan Design America.
It’s classy without gimmicks and will hold its age well. But the sportier SR grade ($21,245) shakes loose a bit with lower body-side sill extensions, a rear spoiler with LED brake lights, a chrome exhaust tip and 17-inch forked aluminum-alloy wheels.
Interior upgrades include a new steering wheel, center cluster and audio display design and refined console, shifter and seat fabrics. The instrument panel has a new LCD flat panel display with higher resolution. Upper trim models have a 5-inch advanced drive-assist display between the tachometer and speedometer. A power driver’s seat with lumbar support is also available.
The SL tester — $25,545, with options — was refined with new desirable features. Among them: smart key entry and push-button ignition, rearview camera, leather-trimmed upholstery, eyes-free Siri and iPhone access, heated front seats, six-way power driver’s seat, fog lights, ample four-wheel disc brakes, heated side mirrors with turn-signal indicators and NissanConnect with navigation and mobile apps. Safety features include six air bags, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Sentra is compact but seems larger. My 6-foot-4 friend often rents them because he fits comfortably. The front headroom without the sunroof is 39.4 inches; legroom is long at 42.5 inches. Back-seat space is wealthy, too, with 37.4 inches of legroom and good footroom with a fairly low center exhaust tunnel. Trunk space is huge at 15.1 cubic feet, and the back seat folds (60-40) almost flat, but there are no seatback releases in the trunk area.
The interior has contemporary styling and a sculpted dashboard, with an engaging mix of flat and glossy trim elements and soft materials.
Many features make for a pleasant daily drive, such as nicely padded armrests and a small electronic charging area just ahead of the shift console. The wide visors — with lighted mirrors — have extenders — but the corner of the visor is cut back too far and a slit of sun always seem to get through on the driver’s left. I like the manual parking brake lever at the console, which frees up driver footroom. There is no height adjustment for the front passenger seat, but the seat rides quite tall as is.
The beefed-up chassis is tight and quiet. Despite a rear torsion beam setup, the ride quality is quite smooth over those types of transitions that typically elicit an inelegant clunk and bump.
The 2016 upgrades have transformed an economy car into a savvy statement.
Mark Maynard is online at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find photo galleries and more news at Facebook.com/MaynardsGarage