Nissan Sentra: Refreshed and techier for your pleasure

1982 was the year of "Cheers," the Commodore 64, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the debut of Nissan's Sentra. Today, Norm's bar stool is empty, most of us have pocket-size phones with far more power and Michael Jackson has sadly left this world. Only one thing carries on: Nissan's Sentra.

The compact sedan has been around since the tail end of Generation X. Four million examples have been sold in the United States, and Nissan says that 93 percent of them sold in the last 10 years are still on the road. This indestructible little car is now in its seventh generation, and Nissan invited me to Southern California to take a look at its latest incarnation, which has receives a midcycle refresh for 2016.

Nissan probably could have left the Sentra alone for a bit longer. It's been enjoying a big sales surge, with 91.2 percent sales growth since 2012, even though it still trails segment volume leaders like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Still, why mess with a good thing?

Well, you have to keep up with the Joneses. There is stiff competition in this segment, from the aforementioned Civic, which is all new for 2016, to the fun-to-drive Mazda3, the Chevrolet Cruze (which is just about to get an all-new generation of its own), and the newly turbocharged Volkswagen Jetta. All of these cars are offering more and more safety and convenience features than when the current-generation was introduced for 2013, meaning Nissan is smart to update the Sentra now.

Revised front and rear styling better aligns the 2016 Sentra with Nissan's current Altima and Maxima sedans. Inside, there's a new steering wheel and revised dashboard elements, while a high-resolution driver information screen has been added to the SV, SR and SL trims.

Built for commuting

My press drive in an SR took me on roads the average driver might encounter; residential neighborhoods, high-speed freeway stints, and stop-and-go traffic. With a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, the Sentra has enough power to get up to speed, although acceleration isn't what anyone would call "brisk." At only 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, the Sentra's initial push off the line was never going to be thrilling.

Still, it's composed enough at 75 mph on the highway for everyday commuting. The cabin is extraordinarily quiet, thanks to the door trim being stuffed with a material called Autozorb (which, incidentally is the name of my next punk rock band), and the laminated windshield has an extra acoustic film barrier to help to deflect wind noise.

Surprisingly, the Sentra's continuously variable transmission also helps with the refinement at higher speeds. The CVT has been tweaked a bit for less noise and less of that stretchy, rubber-band feeling inherent in these transmissions that can sometimes make it sound like the driveline is slipping. In all, the CVT helps bring back an EPA fuel rating of 29 miles per gallon in the city, 38 miles per gallon on the highway and 32 miles per gallon combined. That puts it right in line with the Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, but playing catch-up to the Honda Civic's combined rating of 35 mpg. A six-speed manual transmission is available on the lowest S trim line only, but I didn't get a chance to sample it.

2016 Nissan Sentra

The revised CVT in the 2016 Nissan Sentra contributes to the quiet ride in the cabin.

Emme Hall/CNET

Behind the wheel the Sentra offers a compliant, if uninspired ride. A new steering system makes it easier to handle at lower speeds, and a slight application of the front inner brake during cornering helps to mitigate any understeer and keep the Sentra rotating through the turn. There is a sport mode, but for the life of me I couldn't feel any noticeable difference in the throttle or transmission when so engaged. It should be noted that only the SR and SL trim lines come with disc brakes all the way around. The lower trims get disc brakes in front, but drum brakes in the back. It's worth the extra cash to upgrade to the modern braking system.

Refreshed both inside and out

2016 Nissan Sentra

The entire front end of the 2016 Nissan Sentra has been tweaked for a sleek and taut look.

Emme Hall/CNET

On the outside, Nissan has incorporated a whole new front end. The design language is picked up in Nissan's trademark V-Motion grille and boomerang headlights (LED on upper trims), and the hood and fenders have also been reimagined to lend the face a sense of what Nissan's designers refer to as "energetic flow." Yeah, it sounds like the latest yoga fad, but Nissan is on to something here. The front end is a bit sharper and a bit cleaner, yet it has a touch more character. New wheel designs and a revised rear fascia only serve to improve the overall visual appeal of the Sentra, which was previously somewhat awkwardly styled.

Inside, there are a few updated goodies. The Sentra now has available intelligent cruise control, forward collision warning and blind-spot monitoring. The intelligent cruise control follows the speed of the car in front, and will bring the car to a full stop. However, in such instances, a flick of the "resume" button is required to reactivate the system.

The interior has an abundance of legroom, although at 5-foot, 9-inch I felt a little cramped due to the optional sunroof. There is a handy new storage cubby in the center console for smaller items like your phone and keys, and the available new six-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support was comfortable enough for the day's drive, but was not nearly as cushy as the zero-gravity seats in other Nissan models.

Slightly awkward technology

2016 Nissan Sentra

The navigation works well, but the graphics suffer.

Emme Hall/CNET

My SR test model came with a 5.8-inch color touchscreen with navigation. The display responds quickly to inputs, but the graphics look dated. Also included is a 5-inch LCD driver assist screen in the gauge cluster, which can display simplified navigation instructions, fuel efficiency and audio information, and more.

The new NissanConnect services provides a bit of handy remote access. Not quick as slick as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (which are still unavailable), this system gives access to music, social media and travel apps on the touchscreen using your phone's data connection. It's a little clunky, and iPhone users will have to tether their phones via the USB port to take advantage of the system, while Android folks can access the system wirelessly. The app provides remote start and door lock/unlock, as well as a series of customized alerts including speed, curfew violation and boundary control. Beware, teenage drivers; your parents will know where you take your Sentra.

The 2016 Nissan Sentra starts at $16,780, with the top of the line SL model starting at $22,170. My test SR trim line starts at $20,410.

While the Sentra still doesn't offer as entertaining an experience behind the wheel as some of its Japanese rivals, it still offers up reliable and comfortable transportation, with enough new cabin and safety tech to pass muster with folks that just need to get about their daily lives as easily as possible.

CNET accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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