(first posted 5/13/2016) It’s important, when looking at this Nissan Stanza, to consider the historical context. Nissan was embracing front-wheel-drive for its non-sporting offerings, ditching the overwrought design language that characterized its cars during the 1970s and, most jarringly, phasing out the well-known Datsun name. While not the first compact hatchback or compact front-wheel-drive car from a mainstream brand, Nissan managed to beat Toyota to the punch in North America. With a fresh, new name, thoroughly modern mechanicals, and crisp, up-to-date styling, the Stanza was ready for the 1980s. Why, then, would Nissan’s mid-range offering be a perennial also-ran?
The Stanza replaced the Datsun 510, badged as Stanza and Violet in other markets, which was a cynical attempt to cash in on the esteemed 1968 510’s reputation by affixing its name to a rather ordinary new compact.
Initially launched in 1982 with three- and five-door hatchback bodystyles, a more conventional four-door notchback sedan joined the range in 1983. That means Nissan was offering both of the Accord’s body styles plus a five-door hatchback, something Honda never introduced. The Stanza’s debut in 1982 also meant it beat the Camry to market while offering a three-door hatch, something Toyota never introduced. In fairness, however, the notchback was the best-selling Stanza variant.
The Stanza was thoroughly modern. Suspension was independent all-round with MacPherson struts and coil springs front and rear; lower control arms were used at the front, trailing arms at the rear. The antiquated recirculating ball steering was replaced with a power rack-and-pinion set-up, while there was a choice of three-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmissions.
The only engine was a carbureted 2.0 four-cylinder with 88 hp at 5,200 rpm and 112 ft-lbs at 2,800 rpm. This was punchier than the Accord’s 1.8 mill, allowing the Stanza to sprint to 60 mph a whole two seconds faster than the Honda (approximately 13 seconds). The Stanza later gained fuel-injection, yielding another 7 horses and 2 pound-feet and still keeping it in front of the Camry and Accord in performance (Honda later added a fuel-injected 1.8 in its second-generation Accord, but this commanded a hefty premium).
While the Stanza may have been more powerful than its arch rivals, its handling was no superior to the Camry and was inferior to the Accord and 626. Consumer Guide praised its “refined and responsive engine” but said there was “too much body lean and tire squealing in corners” and that it “[lost] its composure when the road got twisty”. They made similar complaints about the Camry’s handling, however, while also criticizing that car’s inferior engine performance. Unlike rivals like the Chevrolet Cavalier and Citation and Mazda 626, no sporting Stanza was offered despite the presence of more powerful, Auster-badged models in the Japanese market.
Efficient packaging meant the Stanza sat four in surprising comfort, although the fifth seat was best left for a child or small adult. The interior was well-assembled and somewhat similar to the Accord’s in design. The exterior was clean and modern, with the hatchback featuring a Cd of 0.38; the Datsun 280ZX, in comparison, had a drag coefficient of 0.36.
It was clear Nissan had a thoroughly competitive, if not perfect, compact offering that compared well against rivals from Japan and the United States. In 1982, Nissan recorded 59,152 Stanza sales, a 27% improvement over the last year of the 510. But in 1985, the penultimate year of this Stanza’s generation, sales had increased to just 64,398 units. By contrast, the 626 recorded 92,839 units, the Camry clocked 128,132 sales and the Accord sold a whopping 268,420 units. The compact Nissan was outsold by similarly-sized cars like the Subaru DL/GL, Tempo, Skylark, Reliant and Aries, as well as all of the J-Car lines except for the Firenza and Cimarron. Even more interestingly, the larger Maxima outsold the Stanza by around 30k units, and even Nissan’s SX and ZX sports cars were selling better. The Stanza, despite being a fundamentally good car, was Nissan’s under-achiever. The three-door hatch was axed for 1985 and the five-door hatch discontinued for the 1986 model year with Nissan focussing on the more successful sedan.
Nissan itself was struggling with market share. While they were still selling every car they could despite voluntary import restrictions significantly hampering their ability to expand in volume, Honda’s market share had been rising as Nissan’s fell. Of the Japanese brands in the US, Nissan had long come second to Toyota in overall sales. As the 1980s pressed on, they fell to third behind Honda.
By 1986, Nissan had pruned the Stanza range – excluding the puzzlingly Stanza-badged van, known as Prairie or Multi elsewhere – down to a single, well-equipped sedan. Standard equipment included power steering, mirrors, windows and locks, AM/FM stereo with cassette player and fold-down rear seats. MSRP was $9649 ($10,179 with the automatic), undercutting the similarly equipped Camry LE by a few hundred dollars. But despite a mild facelift with composite headlamps in 1985, the Stanza – like almost everything in the segment – looked old-hat next to the dashing new 1986 Accord. The new generation of compact Honda further strengthened the company’s hold on the segment.
Had the Stanza’s sales performance been impacted by the confusion of Nissan’s corporate name change? Market research conducted in 1988 showed the Datsun brand had retained equal brand recognition to the Nissan name in the minds of consumers even several years after its phasing out.
It’s hard to identify any other reason for the Stanza’s mediocre sales performance. Performance was exceptional for the class, pricing was lineball with its key rivals and dynamics and styling were similar to the Camry.
For 1987, the Stanza shifted to the new, front-wheel-drive Maxima platform. Handling was improved but the new car weighed almost 500 pounds more than its predecessor while using the same engine. Suffice it to say, performance suffered. This second-generation model didn’t really stick around long enough for anyone to remember, being replaced by a more powerful and class-competitive third-generation Stanza in 1990.
Ultimately – or rather, Altimately – it took until 2002 for Nissan to really pose a threat to the Camry and Accord in the sales race. The third-generation Altima, the Stanza’s descendant, was the right size and the right price with sleek styling and an available, powerful V6. To this day, the Altima remains a podium finisher in the mid-size sedan sales race.
Perhaps the reason Nissan took so long to get a foot-hold in this segment was because their offerings never had a truly unique sales proposition. Imagine if Nissan had realized that in 1982 instead of in 2002. Instead, the 1982 Stanza was “good enough” and “competitive enough” except in the all-important sales race.
A very special thanks to Curbside Cohort contributors Rivera Notario in Chile, for the photographs of the blue sedan, and Bill, for the beige hatchback.