In the “What were they thinking” file, under Nissan (it’s a big tab, that one), there lies a curious AWD contraption with a strange name. It’s not quite as disturbing as the Toyota Will IV or as hilarious as the Mitsuoka Viewt, but it sort of defies common sense the way only JDM vehicles can. But before I could put it under the CC microscope, a specimen was needed.
I had promised myself that I’d catch it (but release it back into the wild) in due course, and so, one fine day, I did. Very soon after, I also caught a green Forza. No, that’s not a disease, though these days, you could be forgiven for thinking it was. But let’s start this in order of (bizarre) appearance.
In October 1993, Nissan displayed a prototype on their stand at the Tokyo Motor Show that met with overwhelming public approval. It was a cross between a small saloon and an SUV, draped in a boxy body with a touch of the neo-retro style that had just started to become popular. The Rasheen craze was born. The company now had to figure how to capitalize on this sudden fandom: prototypes and styling exercises displayed at these venues are not usually destined to turn into production models, but sometimes, one must strike while the iron is hot.
Nissan turned to Takada, a Yokohama-based firm that had grown from being an auto parts supplier to a sort of Japanese equivalent of Karmann or Heuliez. If you had a special version of a car you wanted made in low volumes, Takada could do that for you – they worked with Nissan on the Be-1 and a host of other models (the similarly retro-themed Pao and Figaro (above), but also the Silvia and March convertibles), but also worked for Isuzu, Mitsubishi and Subaru. By December 1994, the production version of the Nissan Rasheen was unleashed.
The basis for the Rasheen was a peculiar mélange of the B13 Sunny / Sentra platform and the N14 Pulsar’s AWD drivetrain. Some English-language sites describe the Rasheen as a derivative of the B14 Sunny, but the Japanese sources all agree that despite the model’s alphanumeric “RNB14” designation, there are no B14 Sunny bones underneath that unusual skin.
Engine-wise, the Rasheen started out with a modest 1.5 litre mill providing 105 PS. This was mated to a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual – the former being the favoured option by most Japanese buyers in this class by that point in time. In January 1997, the Rasheen got a minor facelift (new grille, clear indicator lenses, airbags and ABS) and gained access to the optional 1.8 litre engine, giving it 125 PS.
Our first feature car is one of those facelift cars. The external spare tyre also makes this a higher-grade “Type II” model. “Type III” cars have a bullbar to make the front end more macho. Base trim “Type I” and “Type IB” cars lack these implements and tend to favour relative exterior discretion coupled with optional interior luxury, such as wood paneling.
The design of the Rasheen came out of the same inspiration as the Pao, Figaro and S-Cargo pike cars. These were all penned by Naoki Sakai – a man who almost single-handedly launched the ‘90s neo-retro craze in Japan and the wider world. The Sakai designs have something its imitators usually lacked: they were retro in their use of chrome and funky grille textures, but combined this with actual innovation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Rasheen, in my opinion. It was boxy and utilitarian to reflect its drivetrain (though very low for a 4×4), but it also had a dash of madness mixed in to conquer the fickle hearts of the JDM. So far, so good. But now comes the big all-caps “HOWEVER” side of the argument: what is the deal with that face? The previous iterations of Sakai’s neo-retro cars had round headlamps, but with the Rasheen, things went a bit composite – and in a very strange way.
The Wartburg 353 (known as Knight in the UK, for some unfathomable reason) has been widely named as a possible source of inspiration. And indeed, there seems to be something in the Rasheen that smacks of Eisenach, but this was never acknowledged by Sakai, as far as I know. Japanese sources I’ve perused on the Rasheen do not reference the Wartburg, as it is not a car they are at all familiar with, I assume. Or is it that an East-German muse is too awkward for them to even contemplate? Using English, Italian or American design cues is something of a specialty in the Japanese automotive world, but the line is usually drawn on the Western side of the Iron Curtain.
The putative Wartburg connection only concerns the front of the Rasheen. The rest of it has no particular relation to anything designed by a planned economy, nor any other body politic for that matter. The only fly in the ointment, to fully appreciate the rest of the car’s design, is that spare wheel. It’s completely in keeping with the AWD nature of the beast for sure, but it does get in the way. Anyway, it’s impossible not to get distracted by the gobbledygook Engrish Nissan felt compelled to add on the cover.
Fortunately, I caught this early model “Type I” a while back. The contrast with the front end is quite startling. The square frenched taillights seem to belong to a different vehicle and do not scream retro in the least. Neither does the “Rasheen” script, come to that. It’s as if the designer changed his mind by the time he got to the rear end. I’m sure we’ve all been there.
Here’s the front end of the same car, with the original grille design and amber turn signals. The mid-life 1997 refresh was quite mild, as is usually the case with Japanese cars. But a far more radical Rasheen variant was waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting public.
In October 1997, Nissan displayed the Rasheen Forza at the motor show, though the model only went on sale in April 1998. There were a lot of new external features to the model, but there were some differences underneath, too. The main one was a 2-litre SR engine, good for 140 PS. Just like the 1.8 litre Rasheen, the 2-litre Forza was only available with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
The interior was left mostly alone, as far as I can tell. Seems the HVAC controls were given a bit of a shakeup, but other than that, it was just a case of same same. On the outside, though, the Forza did have a few distinguishing characteristics.
The front end is the obvious one, with that butch grille and those geeky quads. The rear of the car was just as transformed, with a different C-pillar / rear window arrangement that gave the profile a bit more dynamism. The tailgate and rear lights remained identical to the Rasheen, but at the rear wheel cover was unfortunately spared another Google Translate haiku about bosoms and wood. Missed opportunity there, Nissan. But redesigns and extra bits have consequences.
The Forza’s beefier side cladding edged it over the 170cm width limit that had allowed the Rasheen to keep within the mid-size car tax bracket, so it was subject to a heavier tax than its sibling, which may have hurt sales. This was all rendered moot pretty quickly, as a sinking Nissan were rescued in 1999 by then-White Khight in Shining Armour Carlos Ghosn, who proceeded to wield his ax left and right within the plethoric JDM range.
Though it had a dedicated following, the low-volume Rasheen/Forza duo was up for the chop, which occurred in the summer of 2000. Just under 73,000 were made in six years. Not sure how many Forzas are included in this tally, but those only last two years, so they must be relatively rare. The bigger Nissan X-Trail, which replaced the Rasheen in 2000, was far more successful and widely distributed, but what it made up in sales, it lacked in quirkiness.
Japanese sources agree that, for a 20-plus-year-old vehicle, the Rasheen is still sought after. Some have even ended up in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, so this is another oddball JDM car gone global after the fact. A face only its mother could love? Maybe not. Still don’t know what the heck that name is supposed to mean, though.