People ask me all the time if I ever get sick of driving cars, and I tell them that if one day self-driving cars are our only option, I’m going to live it up while I still can. Sure, I detest traffic congestion, abhor potholes, and think that 90% of the people on the road are unhappy behind the wheel and borderline homicidal, but that’s America’s roadways for you.
It’s also worth noting that I’ll drive anything. Though I may lust for unlimited performance, power, and prowess, giving an entry level economy car its just dues is as equally important as gallivanting around in a finely tuned track star. It may not be nearly as glamorous, nor as fun, but because most drivers are financially confined to vehicles like these, evaluating their inherent strengths and weaknesses is arguably more important in many ways than reviewing a new Porsche.
In this spirit, I got a chance with the 2016 Nissan Sentra SR, a fantastic vehicle to compare to the Ford Focus EcoBoost sedan and the duo of Korean hatchbacks I had a few months back. But for as much as I prefer this car stylistically over the others in certain regards, halfway through the week I slowly began to realize that the new Sentra is somewhat incomplete, even though on paper it looks like it should be the complete package.
One of the strongest things the Sentra has going for it is its sharp exoskeleton. It may be a compact sedan, but it’s also a tastefully done one, cleanly blending in with the rest of the modern Nissan lineup with its reconstructed fascia and tighter lines. I’ve become quite keen on Nissan’s new direction in the styling department over the past few years, and even though the SR doesn’t step outside of any comfort zones, there’s a lot that can be said for playing it safe and sensible.
Exterior pros and cons
+ The lighting on the SR model is great, as it features LED low beams, accents, turn signals, tail lamps, and that signature Nissan daytime running light display.
+ The addition of the side skirts really helps tie the nose and tail together, and the flushmount spoiler above the sporty rear bumper is nicely done.
+ The use of a sliver antenna, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a polished exhaust tip all bring a subtle level of refinement to the game.
– For as nice as side skirts are there isn’t a complete SR aero upgrade available, which on a top-end model you would think would at least be an option.
– The wheels you see here are your only option when buying the SR, so if they don’t float your boat, be prepared to cough up some extra dough in order to get some wheels you like.
– It isn’t noticeable until you look at it dead-on, but Nissan has a pretty large rectangular plastic sensor box in the driver section of the lower grille. When compared to images of the vehicle without it you’ll realize how out of place it looks.
As promising as this 1.8-liter sounds in theory with its variable timing, beehive valve springs, and 38-mile-per-gallon fuel economy, in real world conditions it doesn’t excite. It has a “performance button,” which doesn’t seem to do much of anything. Though there’s a clever CVT transmission, it doesn’t have paddle shifters or manual gearbox alternatives to keep it sporty and fun.
The more compact EcoBoost 1.0-liter motor from the Ford Focus had more torque and almost the same amount of horsepower. Nissan took a base engine and transmission and put it in a top-tier model, then called it a day. Is it good for commuting? Absolutely. But it does so with all of the sensationalism of licking a manila envelope.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ You can’t hate on the fact that the Sentra gets almost 40 miles per gallon, and with the ability to kick it into “green mode” with the push of an Eco button, you can opt when and how the gains roll your way.
+ 130 horsepower and 128 foot-pounds of torque may not be astounding, but in this lightweight sedan, it gets the job done.
+ From a reliability standpoint, long-term owners don’t have to fret over turbo headaches or diminishing V6 fuel gains with such a simple motor.
– Putting the car in Sport Mode supposedly adjusts throttle sensitivity and the CVT’s shift points, but the only noticeable difference I found was a decline in fuel economy and that the tachometer would sporadically spike, even when cruising.
– 38 miles per gallon on the highway is pretty solid, but you’re going to struggle if you come across an incline, and often you’ll hear the engine straining itself in order to keep up to speed.
– Nissan went through all the trouble of putting automated shift points in the Sentra’s CVT, and then neglected to attach paddle shifters to it. Even the SR model doesn’t have a shift option, and rocks the exact same 1.8-liter motor as the base version.
But just when the powertrain begins to leave you wanting, the interior on the SR steps forth to remind us of how good economy cars have become. Everything from the blue contrast stitching across the charcoal leather seats to the padded armrests and piano black interior touches are dialed in properly.
Interior pros and cons
+ For $2,590, I strongly suggest upgrading to the SR Premium Package, which gets you a power moonroof, LED cabin lighting, a six-way power driver’s seat, and leather-bound seats for everyone. This kit also includes all kinds of tech amenities.
+ The look and feel of the hard and soft materials in this car are spot on. Door handles are sturdy and snap back into place with dominance, and the decorative trim pieces and the shifter assembly look and feel stellar. I also love how Nissan continues to over-stuff its armrests and door inserts, making soft touch materials that much… softer.
+ The cabin and trunk of the redesigned Sentra are spacious, and while legroom wasn’t overly abundant in the back, it wasn’t super confined either. Both front seats get heat options, and small touches like the sliding center armrest and the snazzy steering wheel add points.
– The backseat headrests on this car are fixed, so when clipping a child seat in, you are forced to run the rear anchor strap over the top of it instead of underneath. No matter how hard you pull there’s always going to be a sizable amount of slack left in the restraint system, an issue that isn’t just terrifying for parents but dangerous for small children as well. Oh, and after removal you’ll also have a fat crease in your leather headrest from where the strap dug in.
– Even with the additional premium package you won’t get a lot of the extras found on similarly priced vehicles. So don’t expect to find vented front seats, a heated rear bench and steering wheel, or performance sport pedals in the SR.
– For as well trimmed as those leather seats are, the front two in particular were pretty stiffly padded, and driver lumbar support seemed to start at “FIRM” and only go up from there.
Tech and safety
My tester model came with not just the SR Premium Package, but also with a bonafide Tech Package, both of which featured all sorts of nifty gadgets that came right out of Infiniti’s playbook. This was a nice surprise, considering the Sentra’s humble beginnings, and misconceptions that this might be just another economy car.
There’s already a lot to like about the new model, and Nissan has gone the extra mile to make the technological side of the Sentra that much more engaging and safety-oriented. Oh, and for concerned parents of teenage drivers, the Tech Package includes customizable alerts for curfews, shows when a teen leaves a safe “Drive Zone,” and tracks speeding.
Tech pros and cons
+ From the glowing red push-button start “orb” and the internally mounted blind spot warning lights to the large MID, dual zone climate control, and Google powered touchscreen, there’s a lot to appreciate here.
+ The eight speaker Bose audio kit included in the Premium Package sounds pretty nice, and with voice recognition for both audio and navi, there’s a lot to play with.
+ Safety highlights include intelligent cruise control, blind spot warnings, rear cross traffic alerts, emergency braking, and NissanConnect service. This last one links you to a 24-hour service that covers collision notifications, emergency calling, and stolen vehicle tracking.
– While the driver’s multi information display (MID) is nicely sized, sports sharp graphics, and is somewhat customizable, it doesn’t show digital speed read outs, even though other Nissans do.
– The 5.8-inch touchscreen is responsive, but it’s a hair on the small side when compared to the competition, and not having a manual control knob for navigating around inside it can be a pain for people with large fingers or shaky hands.
– The back-up camera may work well, but without a surround view system, the SR loses points when compared to its Korean competition.
I have to admit that compared to the old Sentra, Nissan has really tightened things up nicely in its little sedan. The suspension spring rates have been re-calibrated, the chassis is stiffer, and when you opt for the SR model, you get things like disc brakes all around. But for as reworked as it is, it still isn’t reaching its full potential, especially in SR trim.
Driving a Sentra really is just as predictable and mundane as you would expect. You find yourself tapping into the infotainment system or fiddling with the MID in order to keep yourself entertained because throttling it in Sport Mode (if you can even call it that) gets you little more than extra engine noise and an erratic tachometer needle. The alloys may be 17 inches in diameter, but they’re also pretty narrow, negating any handling benefits, and there’s a significant amount of body roll, so even with the stiffer springs and tighter chassis, the car tends to flop around.
Other driving issues include excessive wind noise, distracting Bose plaques in the back reflecting onto the rear glass, steering inputs being about as exhilarating as the CVT transmission, and leather seats that become increasingly uncomfortable after a while.
Wrap up and review
I feel pretty torn over the new Sentra. Having driven several previous generations, I know exactly how far it has come, and I commend Nissan for instilling a lot of Infiniti-grade goods in it. The SR model in particular gets pretty snazzy too, especially when you tack on the Premium and Tech packages. By that point you’ve reached the $25,000 mark, which is pretty reasonable considering what all you get, even if it does fall short in certain amenity and aesthetic departments when compared to similarly priced competitors’ cars.
Perhaps the biggest miss for the Sentra SR, though, is that it isn’t really all that fun to drive — even though it looks like it should be. Since the turbocharged NISMO concept still has yet to come to fruition, this top-tier version has been forced to hold the sporty Sentra reins, and it does so with all of the enthusiasm of oatmeal. It’s well-appointed, sharp-looking, techy, and practical, but it also feels a bit incomplete, and driving enjoyability doesn’t hold up when you compare it to similarly priced vehicles from the competition — putting the Sentra back into the fold as an economical commuter car.