Ask an Aussie on the street if they’ve ever heard of a Nissan Silvia and they’ll most likely say yes. Ask an Aussie on the street if they’ve ever heard of a Nissan Gazelle and you’ll probably see a puzzled expression form on their face before their head shakes from side to side. But you have never been able to buy a car badged Silvia from an Australian Nissan showroom, and yet the Gazelle was officially sold here for several years. Effectively the Australian market version of the S12 Silvia – better known to North Americans as the 200SX – the Gazelle’s lineup was quite different.
The S12 lives in the shadow of its S13 successor in Australia. That later model has only ever been available as a gray import but has achieved legendary status with young revheads. One would think the S12, also rear-wheel-drive and with the added bonus of having actually been sold in Nissan showrooms, would enjoy some kind of reputation here. Alas, the Gazelle seems to be almost forgotten.
You can probably chalk that up to the powertrain. Gray import S13s are commonly equipped with turbocharged engines. The S12 Silvia/200SX was available in other markets with boosted engines, too. Nissan Australia, however, chose to import the Gazelle with only a naturally-aspirated, fuel-injected 2.0 four-cylinder. Considering this was the same mill available in the plebeian Pintara and Bluebird sedan and wagon, it wasn’t going to set land speed records. The four had 102 hp at 5200 rpm and 116 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm and was available with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Not every coupe buyer wants a firebreathing turbocharged engine. It sure is nice to have one available, though, like Holden did with the Piazza (Isuzu Impulse). Or Mitsubishi did with the Starion. Or Mazda did with the MX-6.
The Gazelle launched here with a relatively soft suspension tune, a live rear axle and rear drum brakes, a level of specification which came under criticism from local automotive journalists. Wheels, for example, savaged the Gazelle in a review titled “Lame Gazelle” in 1985 which opened with, “Nissan’s new coupe is more than just disappointing: it’s as unrefined as it is unsuitable for our roads.” Ouch.
How bad was it? Wheels slammed the Gazelle for a thrashy engine, light and lifeless steering, floaty handling with too much pitch and dive and just generally poor body control. The Gazelle’s excessive understeer that would also change to snap-oversteer when lifting the throttle. The only kind words they had about the Gazelle, dynamically, was that it was a comfortable highway cruiser. The Gazelle’s arch-rival, the rear-wheel-drive, third-generation Toyota Celica had similar power, equally dismal packaging and was priced about the same, but possessed superior refinement, body control and driveability. And that was a car on its way out…
Interestingly, the Gazelle notchback coupe was positioned as the more premium of the two bodystyles with standard power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels, 6 speakers (instead of the hatchback’s 4) and cruise control. A power sunroof and power steering were only optional on the coupe; hatchbacks made do with a manual sunroof and there was no option of power steering or most of the other goodies available in the coupe. It was a curious marketing decision as, for example, the Celica hatchback vastly outsold the notchback. The hatchback Gazelle was also quite practical with a fold-down rear seat.
For 1986, Nissan made a series of mechanical revisions. Rear disc brakes were now standard along with an independent rear suspension that used semi-trailing arms, coil springs and an anti-roll bar; this suspension set-up had been available in JDM and USDM models from the beginning. Both transmissions also received revised gear ratios for snappier acceleration. Alas, there was still no turbo, nor a V6 as in the North American 200SX.
But even though these 1986 revisions improved the Gazelle, that year saw the debut of Toyota’s fourth-generation Celica. The Gazelle was stylish in a 1980s origami way but the Celica heralded the 1990s with a rounded, aerodynamic body. It was front-wheel-drive but out-handled its rear-wheel-drive predecessor and had a choice of two four-cylinder engines, both with more power and torque than the Gazelle’s. While there was no available turbo, the Celica proved to be popular for a sport coupe: Toyota sold 4,275 in 1986, close to sales figures of mainstream Japanese small cars like the Mazda 323.
After 1986, the notchback Gazelle was axed – IRS-equipped notchbacks becoming a one-year wonder – and a single hatchback model was available until the Gazelle was retired for 1989. While it was replaced in other markets by the S13 Silvia/180SX/240SX, Nissan Australia withdrew from the segment, opting to leave a gaping chasm between the Pulsar EXA/NX and the 300ZX. Despite a five-year run, the Gazelle was devoured in the sales race by the leonine Celica and today lives in the shadow of a car that was never officially sold here.
I spotted this striking example on Brisbane’s northside and it’s owned by someone even younger than me. Everything looks stock. Although these may not be the quickest coupes around, I was genuinely excited to see one on the streets – it was my first sighting in years.
Curbside Classic: 1982-85 Toyota Celica