Nissan didn’t do things by halves with their smaller cars, did they? In the ‘60s, they bet the farm on flashy Italian styling and matched Toyota model for model. It worked well. In the ‘70s, they went all-in for the mini-Detroit style that Japanese carmakers all adopted, but with even more (or maybe too much) daring. It worked even better. In the ‘80s, turning the supertanker on a dime again, they went all FWD, sensible and square. And they refreshed their corporate identity in the process. Surprisingly, this yet again met with success.
The 1981-85 B11 Sunny, known in some markets as the Sentra, is a good example of how Datsun turned into Nissan, even on their home market. This new sensible Nissan led the company to incredible success, both at home and abroad, throughout the decade.
In many foreign markets, the period between 1980 and 1984 might be termed as the Great Nissanification of Datsun. The Japanese carmaker decided to ditch the Datsun name for good and impose a new corporate identity that better fit reality. In Japan, the Datsun moniker had never really stuck – the company was Nissan, as were the dealerships, the trucks and several of the cars. Only the smaller widely exported models, such as the Bluebird and the Sunny, were badged as Datsuns.
Just like Toyota, Nissan had devised an entirely plastic and anonymous corporate logo for itself and instead emphasized the identity of its products via specific emblems. The Cedric, the Skyline, the Fairlady Z – they all had their own little logo. The Sunny did too, our feature car has it on its grille. The Sunny logo disappeared for the same reason that the Datsun name was slowly being eradicated: Nissan started to assert their name as a marque. In late 1983, just as the fender mirrors switched from mandated to optional, the Sunny logo was discarded and the rather nondescript “Nissan” script replaced it.
Our feature car has a 1488cc mill behind that grille. Lower-spec JDM cars made do with a 1.3 and some foreign markets were even provided with a 1-litre, but the 1.5 sort of became the Sunny’s default engine from this point on. We had seen this movie before. The gradual growth of the Bluebird from a 1.0 to a 1.5 litre car in the ‘60s made room for the Sunny, which debuted in 1966. Similarly, the Sunny’s growth throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, culminating in the B11, made room for the March / Micra.
Besides the increase in displacement, the 1.5 litre (along with the 1.0 and the 1.3 litre) 4-cyl. was of the completely new E-Series variety. It was an OHC alloy head fitted to the older A-Series cast iron clock, basically. In Japan, the single carb 1.5 produced 74hp – in the US, the same engine only offered 67hp, but there were other variants, with dual carbs, EFI and even a turbocharger, for more cavalry. Another novelty was the inclusion of a 1.7 litre Diesel (54hp), though making a car named Sunny belch black clouds of particulates feels slightly oxymoronic.
Said engines sat transversely and powered the front wheels, for the first time in the Sunny’s existence. This was another major milestone and a sign that Nissan embraced modernity far more readily than many Japanese carmakers – Toyota, Isuzu or Mitsubishi were still very much in steeped in RWD technology at the time.
Nissan had first dabbled in FWD with the Cherry back in 1970, which had grown into the Pulsar by the end of the decade. The B11 Sunny shared the N12 Pulsar’s basic underpinnings and signaled that nameplate’s gradual integration in the Sunny family, though it did survive in Japan for a while and still bore notable differences with the Sunny at this stage. The Cherry name, still used in Europe instead of Pulsar, was also folded into the Sunny range. There were other names – Langley, Laurel Spirit and Turbo Leprix – used in Japan so that Nissan’s dealer networks could all sell sporty and/or luxurious B11 derivatives. This, along the Sentra name used in North America, made for a very confusing family tree. The cars were good but the marketing was still a mess over at Nissan (formerly Datsun)…
Body styles were equally numerous and ever so slightly headache-inducing. The Japanese market got most B11 variants of course: a four-door sedan, a 3-door hatchback Pulsar clone as distinct from the fastback coupé and a two families of wagons: the deluxe coupé-based California (with optional woodgrain, California-style) and the far more workmanlike and upright AD van (in five- or three-door guise, with or without panels), which would have a long life. The two-door notchback, though exported to several markets, was not part of the JDM lineup, for some reason. Oh, and of course, the B11 was the basis for the groundbreaking Prairie MPV, so let’s include him here. However, we’ll forego the remnants of the RWD Sunny ranges that still clung on here and there, such as the B120 pickup, otherwise some heads might explode (mine for a start).
I’m sure the interior was deemed as perfectly adequate back in the early ‘80s. The amount of passenger space, now that the transmission hump had been dispensed with, must have seemed like a revelation for those folks who had a Sunny of the previous generations. But in terms of style, I can’t say that this festival of grey plastics is very inspiring.
Just like the rest of the car, really. Nissan gave up the whacky ‘70s shapes and went for square pegs in square holes. To be fair, the previous generation sort of gave us a foretaste of the austere B11, but those still had a little touch of the old Datsun weirdness. By the time the FWD Sunny burst on the scene in late 1981, all traces of the previous decades’ excesses were eliminated.
So in a way, they very much did do things by halves at Nissan. This rational attitude on the part of Nissan’s engineers and designers did not extend to the marketing department and the executive suite. Indeed, the rot at the top was so firmly entrenched that it almost killed the company outright in the late ‘90s. The blame for that certainly cannot be laid at the feet of the Sunny, which fulfilled its job as Nissan’s sensible family car perfectly from the ‘70s onwards, but also became Nissan’s top seller in Japan in the ‘80s. For that to happen despite the company tripping over itself on so many fronts, it must have been more than halfway decent. Pity this one’s just sitting there gathering dust.