The 2016 Nissan Sentra Redeems ‘Basic Transportation’

It's a car, and all the better for it.

Nissan Sentra

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistfull of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike most, if not all, of your targets. It’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it well—nay, making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, for the 99 percent, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,781 in there? Hey, congrats! That’ll buy 26,186 Hostess Cherry Fruit Pies; an 18-karat gold Apple iWatch for you, one for your significant other, and one for your, uh, secretary; 14 percent of a seat cushion aboard Virgin Galactic’s inaugural flight; or a new car at the nationwide average price. For that sum you could also stuff one of Japan’s most popular exports, the Nissan Sentra, like a Wagyu beef cow and still have $8,000 to piss away in Tokyo's best sake dens. So the question you face is no different from that raised by any potential Prolechariot purchase: Should you? We'll answer that in due course, but first consider this: Nissan claims that 93 percent of Sentras sold in the last decade are still on active duty on American roads.

Granted, cars at the lower end of the price spectrum stick around longer partly because fewer of their owners choose, or have sufficient means, to trade in or trade up. In practice, this may mean a car travels another 100,000 miles after a timing-belt or head-gasket replacement. These machines also survive because their owners may want nothing more than basic transportation. Luckily, the Sentra has never really aspired to be much more than that. Now in its seventh generation, the car is like a tax bill or a wicked case of HPV; it sticks around far, far longer than you ever thought possible.

Unlike venereal disease, however, the Sentra is a welcome entry in the Prolechariot canon. It inhabits one of the most hotly contested vehicle classes in the country, the equivalent of the soap aisle at your supermarket—no small feat. (Newsflash: It’s cutthroat down there, dog.) The Prolechariot shopper should consequently savor the cosmic irony of multibillion-dollar companies lathering up to compete for his or her small dollars. And compete they do; say what we will about the burl walnut in a $244,500 Holland & Holland Range Rover, but a surprisingly supple dash polymer in a sub-$25,000 compact sedan can deliver the same zetz—and in this rough-and-tumble segment, that can help land a knockout.

Nissan has given the Sentra a mid-cycle how’s-your-father refresh for 2016, one that includes improved ride damping, a quieter cabin, upgraded interior materials, some facial surgery, and the kind of generous option packages that have served Hyundai and Kia so well. As tested, the 2016 Nissan Sentra SR with the Technology and SR Premium packages clocks in at $25,245 delivered. That’s dear territory for a Sentra, as ‘16 models are expected to transact at $19,570, on average. Yet not once does the Sentra SR make you wonder where your money went.

Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Nissan Sentra SR.

1. The Bezels and Typefaces Are Downright Rolexian

Show us someone who buys a car based on its gauges' typeface and we’ll show you an unemployed graphic designer with a trust fund. The thing is, the Sentra’s gauges are memorable. In SR trim they're surrounded by simulated aluminum bezels the likes of which you’d appreciate in an Infiniti. Rather than the canted, boy-racer typefaces that tend to mar dials around these parts, Nissan specified a clean, upright type and a simple, unadorned, two-gauge layout above the wheel, with an LED panel betwixt. Minor details, but they speak to some of the thinking that infuses this car.

2. You Can Have Adaptive Cruise Control

If you’ve experienced the radar-assisted mindfuck that is adaptive cruise control, where the car automatically accelerates or brakes according to the whims and vicissitudes of traffic ahead, it likely happened in a car costing many several thousand dollars more than a compact Nissan sedan. But thanks to Moore’s law and the inexorable rise of our robot overlords, you can now enjoy it in a Sentra costing just over $20,000.

Adaptive cruise—known as Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC) in Nissan parlance—is available in Sentras for as low as $20,385. The aforementioned Technology package also bundles a Volvo-esque forward emergency braking system and OnStar-like connected services. SR Premium trim brings a moon roof, black leather seats, a Bose audio system, and a clutch of traffic-alert sensors. Floor mats? A whopping $180 extra—roughly 15 percent of the price of the shag in an Acura NSX. We’ve encountered bigger deal-breakers.

Not once did traffic on the perimeter parkways and drives of New York City abate on the weekend of our Sentra loaner, so ICC went unengaged. But the system’s intuitive controls sit mercifully on the right-side steering wheel spoke, fully accessible without having to fiddle with a touchscreen. Score one for sensible ergonomics.

3. Its CVT Keeps You Guessing, in a Bad Way

As in most Nissans, the Sentra’s continuously variable transmission is an enigma wrapped in a paradox, which is then batter-dipped and fried in corn dog oil. In other words, hot garbage. From a stop, the Sentra has bratty morsels of power that easily keep it in the traffic mix, but with repeated goadings the CVT couldn’t decide how long to hold onto the 1.8-liter engine’s revs. We observed a thrashy 4,500 rpm with very moderate throttle pressure when accelerating to about 35 mph, and a more reasonable 3,000 rpm with the same amount of tip-in. Only the inscrutable CVT would know why it behaved differently on Manhattan’s dosa-flat West Street.

4. After It’s Up and Moving, Though...

The Sentra SR is all poise and quietude once its CVT finally settles into a furrow. Nissan has invested in acoustic glass and upgraded sound-deadening materials, and the ride was damped and muted even during brief windows of highway-speed travel. Calling the Sentra SR fun is a stretch, but rich-feeling—absolutely. You ball with 17-inch alloys, LED low-beam projector headlights on a redrawn and slightly aggressive front fascia, a chrome exhaust, and a pert decklid spoiler. Body color-matched sill extensions appear more integrated than they should. Approaching the Sentra SR parked on a Brooklyn street, you could mistake it for an Acura ILX—though you’d be alone in doing so, considering Brooklynites don’t know anything about rebadged Civics.

5. The Sentra Might Prompt Unbidden, Lacerating Self-Evaluation

A Volkswagen Jetta or Mazda 3 is more fun to drive. A Toyota Corolla is the sales king of the segment. Hyundai Elantras have smoother transmissions. Honda Civics have chassis balance that forced our West Coast editor to change his pants and the new Chevy Cruze may make the whole lot bow down to Detroit when it goes on sale this spring. To choose a new compact sedan right now is to make a call whose outcome is as much determined by the voice in your head as the voice at the credit union.

What do you value? Who, in the indelible words of Bo Diddley, do you love? C’mon, you say. This is a compact sedan, not Kierkegaard. Well, yes. But maybe all we can ask of the 2016 Nissan Sentra SR is that it perform as we believe it should, while reserving the capacity to surprise us every now and then. On that score, we have ourselves a proper Prolechariot.

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2016 Nissan Sentra SR
PRICE (as tested):
$25, 245
POWERTRAIN: 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, 130 hp, 128 lb-fit torque; Xtronic continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive
MPG: 29 city / 38 highway
CAPACITY TO INSPIRE EXISTENTIAL CRISES: Surprisingly reliable