Vintage Road Tests: Car And Driver’s 1987 New Car Issues – Reviewing One Small Sedan From Japan And One From America

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1987 was a big year for small cars, so Car and Driver devoted a lot of ink to the newest offerings in the fall 1986 new car issues.  In the October issue covering the ’87 domestic news, Car and Driver took a look at the revamped Nissan Stanza, while in the November issue featuring new cars from Japan, the editors tested the all-new Plymouth Sundance Turbo.  Just like buyers, Car and Driver seemed to be toggling between Japan and the U.S. in search of compelling small cars to challenge the likes of Toyota and Honda.  So while this was not a direct comparison test, reading both articles (and counterpoints) provide some interesting and unexpected insights into the state of the small car art, circa 1987.

Smack dab in the heart of the 1986 issue of Car and Driver, right in the midst of all the new-for-1987 domestic product news, was a road test for the newly introduced Nissan Stanza, imported from Japan.  Was this yet another brutal example of the effective Japanese conquest of the American car market with superior product?

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Nissan would no doubt have wished that Car and Driver’s subhead was correct–“the maker that can do no wrong”–but that was a stretch.  In fact, the Stanza represented a lot of what was going wrong with Nissan at the time, starting with its very unadventurous styling.  While the Honda Accord set the Japanese compact car standard for style, and the new-for-1987 Toyota Camry was sleek and wind-toned, the Stanza looked like it could have already been several model years old.

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Part of the Stanza’s job was to mimic the flagship Maxima sedan in many ways, though with a package that was (a bit) cheaper and offered less power.  However, like many knock-off goods, the net effect can appear markedly inferior to the genuine article.

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The Stanza’s interior was a pleasant place to be.  Build and material quality were top notch for the price.  But performance was subpar, with leisurely acceleration and a disconnected driving feel.  As a transportation appliance it was fine, but nothing more.

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I always love reading Car and Driver’s counterpoints.  With less space to comment, the feedback is typically right to the point with minimal sugar coating.  In the case of the Stanza, the harsh truth comes to light quickly: this was no better than an average car, a middling automotive module for Middle America.  Rich Ceppos’s line summed the Stanza up brutally: “Nissan simply took dead aim at the Chevrolet Celebrity.”  In 1987, being compared with an uninspiring Chevy entering its sixth model year on the market was not a compliment…

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Nor were the specifications and test results of the “knock your socks off” variety.  Not particularly quick or nimble, the most impressive number–not in a good way–was the price: $12,259 ($26,940 adjusted).  For that money, you could get a better compact sedan from Honda or Toyota, or you could go up a size class and get the roomier, equally bland and anesthetized Chevrolet Celebrity for less.

In contrast to the Nissan Stanza, which Car and Driver knocked for being pricey and bland, the Plymouth Sundance Turbo was hailed for its character and cost.  Perhaps C&D’s editors deliberately placed the new Mopar P-Body review in the Japanese-focused November 1986 issue to make a point: Chrysler could cobble together an affordable, entertaining little rocket, but what about refinement?

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Originally this car was envisioned as the successor to the Horizon (and Omni at Dodge), but Chrysler decided to keep the old L-Body “Omnirizon” in place as the low cost leader, so Mopar’s newest parts bin masterpiece was bumped a bit upmarket.  Part of that included offering a Turbo model with more aggressive handling capabilities, which took the car out of the subcompact norm.

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Rather than coming across as an alternate to imports, the P-Car felt like it was made for Peoria (a town in central Illinois, known for being a product test market when seeking to gauge the tastes of middle America).  The Sundance was pudgy for a subcompact, but that give it a heavy “American” feel, as did the plasticky interior and squishy seats.

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The brutal truth comes out: the Sundance Turbo was a good car, but not world class.  Materials and finish were not up to the best standards of the Japanese, and the entire package had the aura of being good idea hamstrung by common components–great for the corporate cost accountants, but less compelling for customers.  The nomenclature, at least at Plymouth, probably didn’t help either.  I have to admit I’d choke if telling people I’d just bought a new Sundance, merely based on the cheesiness of the name alone.

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As tested, the Sundance Turbo listed for $10,830 ($23,780 adjusted), which was a pretty fair price if cheap speed was your goal.  Fuel economy, however, was decidedly lacking, especially for a car in the subcompact class.

In many ways, the Sundance Turbo was so close to being a competitive entry.  Lingering doubts about quality and brand reputation probably hurt the car more than it deserved.  Too bad Chrysler couldn’t have copied Nissan’s refinement (or vice versa, the Stanza could have surely used some of the Sundance Turbo’s brio).  Then you really would have had a world class small car for the late 1980s.