As I had mentioned near the end of The Cars of My Father, after suffering through five years with their 1978 Plymouth Horizon, my parents felt that it was time to seek greener pastures. Not surprisingly, GM, Ford and Chrysler were not on their short list of potential replacements.
Having grown to appreciate the efficient, and, to some, stylish hatchback body style, they were looking for another in that same vein. The only other car I recall my parents looking at was the Toyota Tercel, which was all new that year with a previously unavailable five-door version. Dad said it was loaded (for a Tercel) with alloy wheels and rear louvers, and of course, priced accordingly. Besides the price, his biggest problem with the car was that, even though it was a manual, 2nd gear was a huge jump from 1st. This caused the car to bog down unless you wound it out in 1st. The front-drive Corolla was still a year away, and Honda didn’t offer this body style on US-bound Civics. The Rabbit was either still too expensive, or he had heard that it offered no better quality than the Horizon.
He may have already known about it, or had heard it from me, but the new Nissan Pulsar five door fit the bill quite nicely.
As soon as we drove onto the lot, however, my parents saw this Sentra sitting right out in front and were smitten. Believe it or not, I still tried to steer them to the Pulsar, since I really didn’t like the Sentra Coupe. I was a big fan of the Datsun 210 hatchback and its straight lines, and I didn’t like the roundness of the Sentra. Fortunately, they didn’t listen to me, and I quickly realized that the Sentra was quite a handsome car.
The Sentra, which was new for 1982 along with the Stanza, were the first Nissan branded cars sold in the US. As was noted in previous posts both “Nissan” and “Datsun” badges were placed on the cars to avoid confusion. Right.
I’m guessing that most of the people reading this post have never seen this body style or knew it existed. That’s because this car was manufactured back in the days when you had a choice of body styles if you liked a particular model. The B11 Sentra was available as a 2-door sedan, 4-door sedan, 4-door wagon and sporty 2-door coupe (hatchback). For 1982 and 1983, only the coupe was available in fancy XE trim. So, our car represented the top-line model of the range. For 1984, the XE trim spread to the rest of the line, and the coupe got a new SE trim the following year. The B12 range, introduced for 1987, actually added a 2-door hatchback (picture the 2-door sedan with the trunk cut off), but when the B13 came out for 1991, it was down to just a 2-door and 4-door sedan. The 1995 B14 Sentra was a 4-door sedan only, and that’s how it’s been ever since. The 1980-84 Corolla came in even more body styles than the Sentra. I think that’s what I miss most about “the old days.”
We were fortunate that we were shopping in 1983 and not a year earlier, as the engine received a minor bump from 1.5 liters and 65 horsepower to 1.6 liters and 69 horsepower. It may not sound like much, but when you’re down this low, every little bit helps. The XE also came with larger 175/70 R13 tires, while lower-end models made do with 155/80s. Neither power nor handling were all that great, but the ride was decent, and we had no trouble keeping up with traffic on the smooth, flat South Florida roads. My friend Alan had an ’85 XE sedan with the 3-speed automatic, and he had to keep it floored most of the time or other drivers would honk at him for going too slow (impressive in a community filled with senior citizens). I am glad that the days of cars with 0-60 times in the mid- to upper-teens or higher are long gone. Gas mileage, of course, was excellent: 39 city/50 highway by 1983 EPA estimates.
What really impressed us about the car were the sheer number of standard features, most of which were optional or not even available on the domestic competition like the Ford Escort or Chevrolet Chevette (I consider the Cavalier one class up). Power brakes were standard on the entire lineup, but were still optional for most everything else in this class. Our Sentra also came with variable ratio power steering while the domestics were still using full power steering that yielded absolutely no road feel. Other niceties included an AM/FM Stereo, dual remote outside mirrors, variable-speed intermittent wipers, remote hatch and fuel-filler door release (a rarity in this class), rear-window defogger and wiper, back-lit sport instrumentation with tachometer, a lovely door-open chime instead of an annoying buzzer, and two trick levers in the center console to control the rear vent windows. This was all in a car that retailed for $6,899 plus air conditioning. Our Horizon, despite being an up-level model, only had air conditioning and the defogger, though many of these items were optional if my parents had checked the right boxes on the order form.
Though the Omni had four doors, the Sentra became our family car for the next year, not only because it was new, but there was a better chance that we’d get to our destination and back home again without a break down. That was fine, as there was plenty of room in the back seat for my sister and me, and the soft gray cloth upholstery was very comfortable.
Three years and 50,000 trouble-free miles later, Dad offered me the keys since he and my mother didn’t need two cars (see my last COAL). Shortly thereafter, he went back to working outside the home. Since my mother didn’t really like to drive, it was easier for her to continue letting me use the Sentra. Of course, even though I was paying for gas, repairs and insurance, I was still at her beck and call since I was driving her car. Surprisingly, we would continue this arrangement for almost eight years (what was I thinking?!?).
I was thrilled to just not be driving the Zephyr anymore. Dad taught me to drive on this car, so I was very comfortable behind the wheel. The only thing I really didn’t like was the angle of the steering wheel, which was more bus than sports car. Nissan added an adjustable column the following year, which helped me not one bit. Another minor gripe: The transmission in the Sentra is not very forgiving. Even someone who can’t drive a stick can be an expert on a Honda in a few hours, but you have to have a lot of practice (and patience) to launch and shift a Sentra smoothly, and even then you’ll still occasionally grind the gears shifting into 2nd or 3rd. It’s not as bad as an ’80s Chrysler, but leagues away from Honda. Funny story: I once went to visit my cousins in Long Island and, for a week, drove my Aunt’s ’84 Plymouth Voyager with a 5-speed manual and a clutch that could be used for physical therapy. You know how your leg adapts to a clutch? When I came home, I thought the clutch cable had snapped in the Sentra because it was so light by comparison. I seriously couldn’t drive the thing for the first few minutes.
As the car was now older, I would not enjoy the same trouble-free experience that my father had. There was a little grill at the top of the dashboard, which I believe was for the lesser models with the AM/FM radio (not stereo), that cracked like they did in all B11 Sentras. The seat cloth was comfortable, but not especially durable. A couple of nice, thick seat covers fixed that problem. CV-joint replacement seemed to be a regular occurrence. One time, after having some work done on the front brakes, the mechanic mentioned the CV-joint boot was ripped and I should look at getting it replaced soon. I thanked him and left, but after making a right-turn out of the shop, I felt/heard thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. I immediately brought the car back to the shop, and the mechanic mentioned again the ripped boot and swore he didn’t do anything else that could have caused this condition that the car didn’t demonstrate before I brought it into his shop. How many times have you heard that one? Having no mechanical ability to disprove his claim, I was somewhat powerless. However, Dad brought the car back to him the next day and, after pointing out that since the guy had the car on the lift with the wheel and brake off when he saw the torn boot, he should have called and given us the option to replace the part. He agreed to perform the repair for the cost of the part only.
Some issues were the result of the fact that a teenager was driving the car. One day when leaving work, I was in the lane to go straight, but decided to make a left turn instead. Simultaneously, my friend Todd, who didn’t feel like waiting, decided to jump the line and shot through the left-turn lane to continue straight. You can say we met in the middle. The front marker light was smashed, and the surrounding area on the fender was crumpled. Dad and I pounded out the crumpled area as much as we could and replaced the marker lamp. Todd was driving a beater and really didn’t notice any new damage to his car.
The major issue – and the one that would ultimately do the car in – was that the shifter appeared off. When I was in 1st, 3rd & 5th, it appeared to still be in the middle, while 2nd, 4th & reverse were way back further than I remembered. Over at my buddy Mitch’s house, he slid under the car to see what was going on. He came back out, grabbed a jack, went back under the car and told me to see if the shifter looked OK now. It did. Apparently, several of the bolts connecting the transmission to the engine had corroded and snapped, and it was currently hanging by one bolt. He had to jack it up to get it to sit correctly.
The job was a little more involved than just inserting new bolts, and I spent $700 to get it fixed. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Less than a year later, at about 90,000 miles and after three years of driving the car (and still on the original clutch, I’m proud to say), Dad needed the car to run an errand and when he came back asked me about the gear whine. Gear whine? The noise had come on so gradually, that I hadn’t noticed it until I took a spin in the car with him, and he pointed it out. And, yes, there was a gear whine. A loud one. We took it back to the shop that had replaced the bolts, and the mechanic quoted us $1,000 for the repair. At this point, that was more than the car was worth, and Dad told me to start looking for a new car. OK!