Can its new Sentra put some pep in Nissan?

The new 2016 Nissan Sentra exterior redesign brings its appearance closer in look and feel to its more upscale showroom siblings. All three Nissan sedans – Maxima, Altima and now Sentra – reflect Nissan’s new design language first introduced on the dramatic Nissan Murano crossover. Key features of the 2016 Sentra exterior include a new front fascia, grille, fenders, hood and signature boomerang-shaped headlights. New LED low-beam headlights with LED signature accents are offered on Sentra SR and Sentra SL grades. In the rear, a new fascia with redesigned boomerang-shaped taillights adds a more premium appearance. There are also two new 17-inch wheel designs for SR and SL grades, as well as a new SV 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheel design.
John Murphy, John Murphy Photography

As SUV and pickup sales hit the gas in the U.S., companies are keeping their sedans up to date in hopes that demand will pick up when prices at the pump eventually rebound. Nissan has introduced an updated version of one of its dependable sellers, the compact Sentra. We got a chance to test drive it this week.

Nissan Motor Co., which also sells the luxury Infiniti brand, is bouncing back from a tough 2015 in the stock market, with shares down 24 percent from their peak. But the shares bounced back by 12 percent in late February after the company announced a planned buyback of $3.5 million in stock.

Nissan Motor also turned in a strong February sales performance, with companywide sales up 10.5 percent over a year earlier and the Nissan brand alone up 14 percent.

With gas prices low and SUV sales particularly strong, sales of the Sentra grew slowly along with most compact sedans. In most months, Sentra is one of a group of competitors vying for third place among compact sales, following the top two in the segment, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

We got a shot at driving the 2016 Sentra, which his been on sale since December, at a press event in New York City. We took the Sentra over the city's legendary mean streets (rough pavement, that is) and up to cruising speed on the West Side Highway.

Here are our impressions:

Styling The exterior gets a sleek update in what the company calls "energetic flow" design. That pattern is already seen in the bigger Altima and Maxima sedans.

Drivability The 1.8-liter, four cylinder, 130 horsepower engine is aimed more at economy than speed. The EPA rating for the engine with continuously variable automatic transmission is 29 MPG in city driving, 38 on the highway. Acceleration is reasonable at low speeds but sluggish in highway passing. A redesign of the steering and suspension provides good cornering and stability through curves.

Comfort Nissan executives boast of the Sentra's smooth ride and quiet interior. It performs well for a small car on both counts, but I was not about to mistake it for a Lexus.

Technology The latest in safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking, intelligent cruise control and blind spot warning, are now available with the Sentra. They are optional with the most popular Sentra version, the SV, and come standard on the higher end SR and SL trims. The SV equipped with all the safety technology comes to $19,570 -- an unusual technology package for under $20,000.

The Sentra starts at $16,780 for the base S model and ranges up to $22,170 for a fully-equipped SL version.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.