I'm driving down a highway when the truck ahead slows to make a right-hand turn. No problem, as I'm running adaptive cruise control, so my car automatically hits the brakes. More impressive though, once that truck clears the road, the car I'm driving doesn't immediately accelerate back up to its set 55 mph. Instead, detecting cars stopped at a traffic light a couple of hundred feet up, it ramps up to about 25 mph, cruising up to that traffic before coming to a full stop, all without me doing a thing.
It's a sophisticated system, similar to those I've experienced in the Tesla Model S or the Mercedes-Benz S-class, but I'm driving a 2016 Nissan Sentra. Wait, this is supposed to be a simple economy car, right?
The Sentra faces stiff competition from a bevy of entry-level sedans including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra. Like the Sentra, many cars in this segment used to be compacts, but have expanded to midsize cars under EPA definitions, which translates to more passenger and cargo space.
Amidst this competition, Nissan has doubled down on its driver-assist systems, bringing in advanced adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking, among other features. In areas such as drivetrain and connected tech, the Sentra comes up about average in the segment. With a refresh for the 2016 model year, the Sentra gets a new grille and firmer suspension tuning.
This refreshed Sentra gets the same engine as the previous model year, a simple 1.8-liter four cylinder mill, good for 130 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Although it lacks the efficiency of a direct injection engine, Nissan makes up for that with its continuously variable transmission (CVT). In fact, the gearless CVT contributes both to good fuel economy and a feeling of power at the throttle.
When I got behind the wheel, the Sentra felt eager to go, requiring only light throttle tip-in to take off as the CVT pulled low-end torque from the engine. And while you might hear enthusiasts generally decry CVTs, Nissan has perfected this type of transmission, making it responsive and smooth. As I drove, the CVT constantly adjusted the drive ratio, letting the engine operate at optimum efficiency and giving me power on demand.
Of course, at 130 horsepower, the Sentra doesn't have all that much to give. It worked well in most situations, but lacked oomph for passing maneuvers. EPA mileage numbers, at 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, should lead to an averages in the mid-30s, although in my mixed city and freeway driving I never broke 30 mpg on the trip computer.
Near my left knee, a couple of buttons let me put the Sentra in its Sport and Eco modes, each sharpening and detuning the throttle respectively.
The suspension tune on this Sentra felt different from when I reviewed the 2013 model. Where that earlier version tended towards uncomfortable body movement, this newer Sentra's suspension felt firm. While I definitely bumps in the road, this firm tune mitigated body movement, making the whole car feel tight and responsive.
I mentioned the sophisticated adaptive cruise control earlier, which relies on a radar unit embedded in the lower front intake. Nissan uses the same system to make the Sentra automatically hit the brakes if it senses an imminent collision, and the driver takes no action. Complementing that feature is a blind-spot monitoring system, flashing an alert when traffic is in the next lane over, and a rear cross-traffic alert system tied into the rear-view camera, letting you know when it's not safe to back out into the road.
The main driver assistance feature missing here is lane keeping assist, which controls the steering to prevent lane drift.
Standard in the dashboard of this SL trim Sentra was a 5.8-inch touchscreen showing navigation, Bluetooth hands-free phone, digital audio and connected features. The screen looks small compared to the 8-inch offerings in the new Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra, but it responds reasonably quickly to inputs.
Nissan hasn't adopted Apple CarPlay and Android Auto yet, so you will be stuck with the native navigation, communication and audio apps. Making up for that, Nissan integrates online destination search through its NissanConnect app integration. Conveniently, a button for Connected Search shows right up on the destination options screen. With reasonable speed, it delivers a list of businesses with whatever keyword you enter in their titles.
Among the handful of third-party apps available when I installed the NissanConnect app on my phone and paired it with the car was TripAdvisor, which offers many useful features for travellers. With it, I could quickly get a list of hotels or local attractions at my current location or any other city I entered, complete with a star rating and a quick link to navigation.
An optional, robust Bose audio system gave the Sentra's stereo depth and presence.
Entry-level sedan buyers have a wealth of good choices these days, giving the 2016 Nissan Sentra stiff competition. Both the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra have better dashboard electronics, but the Sentra wins for its adaptive cruise control.
The Sentra's driving character is nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done. The CVT in particular gives it smooth acceleration that responds well to throttle input.
The base Sentra, in S trim, goes for only $16,780, but take it up to the SV trim, at $18,550, and you get NissanConnect app integration along with a touchscreen in the dashboard. The example I drove was in SL trim, with a base price of $22,170 and quite a few useful features, from navigation to the blind-spot monitor system. Nissan's sophisticated adaptive cruise control comes in the Technology package, for an additional $1,230.