(first posted 7/12/2014) If you pay much attention to pop culture, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that a certain vision of nerdiness is passed off as sexy. In a typical example, the profoundly unattractive protagonists of Big Bang Theory manage to keep their traditionally attractive neighbor handy at all times. But this is disingenuous when describing a social experience defined by rejection and the charm of nerdiness is lost given too many attempts to redeem it using sex appeal. Much better to go full-on dork or full-on sexpot, in my opinion, and Nissan must have felt the same throughout much of the 1980s. Hence a car lineup defined at one end by the Z-car and, at the other end, by the Stanza and Sentra.
That Subaru lurking in the background begs the question: is there a difference between nerdiness and other kinds of rejection? In the automotive landscape of the 1980s and early ’90s, Subarus were falling out of favor next to the sort of understated, top-drawer chicness epitomized by the average Honda of the era, but they had a dedicated cult following and have emerged over the past decade as the default hip choice. I’ve actually begun to find them to be a very annoying cultural signifier, despite my deep respect for their engineering. The Stanza, on the other hand, had no real reputation to speak of and made no attempt to stake out an identity, despite being extremely competent and, for that, I’ve always loved them.
If the early ’80s car market were a high school, that Subaru would be the hip, young literature teacher while this Stanza would conduct the orchestra in whichever closet the school district provided. Success, unfortunately, requires self-promotion and cars like this did Nissan absolutely zero favors in the US market.
Why pursue such dowdy product design in an image-driven market? Well, we’ve dabbled in analyzing Nissan’s highs and lows in the US market a bit recently, and perhaps the most important take-away is that, as Japan’s erstwhile number-two automaker, tremendously popular at home and other East Asian capitalist markets (like Taiwan), conservative style was the order of the day.
Real embodiment of Nissan’s city-slicker chic in home markets was promoted by selling gizmo-laden, high-zoot variants of cars like these. Out here, though, adapting these designs to sell in a market where Datsun was primarily known for economy meant peddling the ultimate in appliances (aside from halo models like the Z). Hence, dowdy cars like this Stanza and the Sentra.
All Japanese manufacturers operated in this manner, but some much less than others. Honda, for instance, never had the sort of home market presence as Nissan and was a much less marketing-driven firm (until the mid ’90s rolled around). So their approach–to rely less on the home market and focus on class-leading compacts–meant that their more modestly outfitted North American specials had style and substance which made them more popular, respectable and profitable. They also enjoyed somewhat more prestige in Europe.
Nissan was by no means unique in its priorities; a lot of the dowdiness which characterized Toyota’s mainstream models was rooted in the same Japanese home market preference for conservatively styled cars with lots of gadgets. But unlike Nissan, some attention was given to making cars like the Corolla and Camry palatable to Americans (consider that we never got the front-drive Corona, for instance, or that the Camry and Corolla were given some rounded edges and sixteen-valve engines around the same time this Stanza’s successor was given a neo-gothic makeover).
This interior of this low trim level Stanza is case in point of how the company operated. Someone bought this because it was a well-built car that was close enough to the class-leading Accord. Nevermind that dealers didn’t make similar profits or move as many units, the Yen was cheap and any number sold brought some money to headquarters in Yokohama.
To a lesser extent, one could have said the same about cars like the first-generation Camry, and for both Nissan and Toyota, with such a large variety of more expensive models (like the Supra, 810, Cressida, 280Z, etc.) which Honda did not have, there were other paths to big profits, even if it meant not having the most sensational compact cars. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the home market name for one variant of the Stanza was Auster, because austere is exactly what these cars were.
But the sad thing is, these weren’t bad cars, just unfashionable. This generation Stanza was fully competitive, even if the following generation was somewhat underpowered (moving to a rebodied version of the heavier Bluebird chassis, the extended-nosed, V6-powered version of which we got as the 1985 Maxima; Nissan genealogy is a tad complicated) and over decorated.
The final version of the nameplate we saw between 1989 and 1992 was actually sporty in its manners, even if it was dull to look at. But the same Asia-Pacific focus remained, making the nameplate increasingly irrelevant. Who was the last person you know who owned a Stanza, and do you remember them feeling any passion toward it?
It was a shock to many casual observers when Nissan went bankrupt in 1998, but the fact of the matter was that cars like this eventually did the company in in the US market. Once the Yen rose and the bottom fell out of the sports car market, there were few paths to profit for Yokohama’s finest in the US. But for fans of the brand, even these dowdiest of Nissans have a pocket-protector charm which is hard to deny.