COAL: 1983 Nissan Stanza – Compact Identity Crisis

By the time my parents decided to replace their 1972 Chevy Malibu in the early 1980s, the world had changed dramatically.  Two gas crises, three economic recessions and three presidential administrations later, there were a whole host of different options available in the market.  For their first foray into foreign car ownership, my folks chose the name changing 1983 Nissan (formerly Datsun) Stanza, the company’s first front wheel drive effort in the compact family car class to compete with the Honda Accord.  After 9 years of service, it would end up replacing my 1976 Cutlass as the second car I ever owned.

The early ’80s was a confusing time to be a car buyer.  Fuel efficiency standards increased and both American and foreign car companies introduced a profusion of newer and smaller front wheel drive vehicles – GM’s X bodies (Citation, et al), followed by the J bodies (Cavalier, et al) and A bodies (Celebrity, et al), Ford’s Escort/Lynx twins, Chrysler’s Omni/Horizon and K bodies (and the variants that followed), redesigned Honda Civics and Accords, Toyota’s Tercel and Camry, and Datsun’s 310, Sentra and Stanza.  All of these cars competed against rear wheel drive options, many of which had been on the market for several years (Ford’s Fox platform variants, larger GM B/C body full size cars, Ford Panther platform variants etc).  For my dad, it was hard to figure out which would be a suitable family car replacement for his rusty, but trusty Malibu.  After 11 years, it seemed like the car came from another world in comparison.  I was already deep into car geekdom as a teenager and, as I got older, knew that whatever he bought would end up being the first car I would “officially” get to drive as a licensed driver.  So I had opinions and I wasn’t going to be shy about expressing them.

1983 was a pivotal year, in particular, for Nissan Motor Company.  Over the course of the model year, it had begun to introduce the Nissan name and phase out the use of the Datsun name in the American market.  I’m not sure of the exact reason at this point — and I am sure someone has analyzed why Nissan decided to deep-six whatever brand equity it had developed over 15 plus years with the Datsun name in the US (which included legends like the 510 and Z cars).  And so the Nissan dealership in 1983 featured many cars with both Datsun and Nissan name badges. Including the Stanza my father decided to buy.

The saga of the Nissan (Datsun) Stanza has already been covered in some depth here on Curbside Classic.  In sum, it was Nissan’s first front wheel drive compact family car, designed to compete directly with the Honda Accord (and, later on, Toyota Camry).  The cars looked modern, drove and road relatively well, and offered pretty high feature content with the XE package for the price point.  It got generally positive reviews from the car magazines and Consumer Reports recommended it in its first year.  A four door sedan was introduced in the US as a late ’83 model and, after a test drive (including a quick drive by to our house in Queens where my dad confirmed the car would fit in the narrow driveway between our house and the neighbor’s), my folks bought their first new car in over a decade.

It was the most 80’s of models.  The exterior color was called French Beige, but would be better known as mauve.  My mom thought it was “classy”.  It also featured both Datsun and Nissan badges – the company clearly hedging their bets with the rename.  The interior was a bright maroon red velour.  Not for the subtle.  And it featured a cassette player that could seek and scan for the next song.  My teenage heart loved that feature.  It was surprisingly roomy and the four of us (my parents, me and my sister) all fit comfortably.  The trunk, while not huge, actually had more usable space than the Malibu, despite the car being smaller.

The Stanza was a member of the family for almost 12 years – the first 9 with my folks, the last 3 with me.  My dad moved me into my college dorm room with the Stanza – trunk full and back seat packed to the roof.  I passed my driving test in the Stanza.  The car was driven all over the Northeast and, once it became mine, to Oklahoma when I moved there for a year after law school and then to Michigan the year later.

The Stanza was an overall decent performer – everything about its performance was competitive with modern front wheel drive vehicles of the time.  Except it never really had the kind of bulletproof reliability that Japanese cars were supposed to be known for.  The carburetor needed to be rebuilt twice.  The front axle boots tore at the mere sight of potholes.  A bolt dropped on the drive to Oklahoma which resulted in vibrations so severe we had to turn off the A/C.  (This was in August.)  The engine motor mounts needed to be replaced.  The automatic transmission leaked at the seals around 75K miles and, even after resealing, had shift and leak issues.  It finally gave up the ghost driving home to Ann Arbor one January evening in 1995 and refused to shift out of first gear.  It was a slow drive.  I sold it for salvage not wanting to dump more money into the car.  By then, my girlfriend (and soon to be wife) had a 1984 Corolla that we used as a backup.

So while the Stanza looked like it belonged with the Accord and Camry and performed well enough, it always seemed to not quite make it.  Maybe it was the name confusion.  Maybe it was the generally new FWD design for Nissan/Datsun.  It was a car that served its purpose, but didn’t inspire a lot of passion or love.