(first posted 7/27/2011) Do you ever step out of a store, stumble into the parking lot, and absentmindedly head for a car that you owned in the past? Even twenty five years ago? It looks so familiar, you can practically feel the Nissan key in your pocket. And you know exactly how it’s going to feel, as you slide in on that mouse-fur upholstery, and slam the seat back as far as it will go. Start the little 1.6 L four, slip it into gear, and head for…oops; that’s where the imagination, memory and reality collide.
Back then, every perpetually sunny early morning I’d head for downtown Beverly Hills, and drive past the still-closed jewelers and boutiques on Rodeo Drive. A Sentra on Rodeo Drive? A fish out of water indeed. But I was headed for Coldwater Canyon Road, for a little early morning fun on the way to work in Glendale. And the Sentra did its best to supply some of that, despite its modest provenance. In the early morning, I fit right in with all the cleaning ladies and other domestic workers heading to work in the mansions up in the hills.
But I did take a different route home in the evening; did the Sentra’s Kmart image have something to do with that? I can’t remember for sure, but like most early thirty-year-olds, I was a bit image conscious. Especially on Rodeo Drive.
No, I’m not in Beverly Hills anymore, by a long shot, and quite thankfully. And I’d better stop standing there gazing at this Sentra before someone gets suspicious. My motivation in shooting an old Sentra is a bit harder to explain to folks than a vintage Cadillac.
Our collective memories tend to congeal around certain cars in the past that stand out as the best in class. The Honda Civic clearly dominates its category, during its glory decades. But the all-new for 1982 Nissan Sentra was a surprisingly strong competitor, and a huge sales success. After dawdling too long with its venerable rwd 210/Sunny (CC here), Nissan unleashed a little giant killer with its new Sentra. Of course, the timing was perfect, coming in the midst of the 1981-1982 gas price run-up.
The Sentra posted some best in-class EPA numbers, which sent the masses running into its embrace. Or is that vice versa? But it wasn’t just killer economy that made the Sentra’s appeal. It knew how to scoot right along, thanks to a brand new OHC hemi four (E-Series) that felt like it had more than the 67 or 69 horsepower rating it carried.
My memory banks has this little nugget stored away under the Sentra file: in a car magazine test I read at the time, I seem to remember them gushing over the Sentra’s zip, noting that it was the first car in its class they had ever tested that managed to break the ten second barrier in the 0-60 test. Did I dream that? I don’t think so, and that would still be a credible number today, for a low end econobox. Of course, testing standards and driving techniques vary, but the fact that the Sentra was a significantly brisker economy car than average is pretty undisputable.
And its handling was decidedly better than average too. Admittedly, the number of mornings on my commute when I could push the Sentra to its limits wasn’t exactly very often, although going against the main commuter flow meant that Coldwater Canyon was remarkably lightly trafficked, and there weren’t Prii then hypermiling downhill through the switchbacks.
The Sentra’s upholstery was just as grippy as its skinny little tires, if not more. And the visibility out of these cars was just superb; better to see the smog forming over the Valley as I crested the mountain and crossed Mulholland Drive.
The Sentra quickly soared in the sales charts, and was the number one import in 1982 (well, that’s what wiki says). And I believe it, given how common they became. And after Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee plant came on line, an almost unbroken gusher of Sentras flowed from its portals for decades. A highly efficient plant, Nissan has been able to constantly keep the volume going by keeping prices very competitive, regardless of the price of gas.
The B11 platform was replaced by the slightly longer B12 and B13 Sentras, and although I’m not an expert on them, I suspect that other than an increase in wheelbase, these successors weren’t all that different otherwise, except for the constant improvements in safety and other details. And the B13 is still rolling off the lines in Mexico, as the beloved Tsuru, as well as in certain other countries. A classic platform indeed.
I didn’t own this Sentra; it was an extended-term rental, my “company car” for a few months after I left my former employer to help start up a new tv station which was located on the grounds of the former Glendale Airport. The fact that I had to turn in my ’83 T-Bird Turbo Coupe when I left made leaving a bit harder. And it would be some months yet before the new station was solid enough that I would risk my job by signing a company lease on a brand new W124 300E. So in between, there was the Sentra. Thank god it was a manual, back when rental fleets still (barely) had them. For some reason that is now lost on me, the rental company made me turn in the Sentra in exchange for a Dodge Reliant. Now that sure killed the fun. I started taking other routes to work.
I always kind of liked these. Unfortunately, 1985 was in my 2 years as a yuppie phase (between a 77 New Yorker and a 66 Fury III) when I bought a black 85 GTI because I couldn’t afford the BMW 325. So the Sentra just was not on my radar. Too bad, too, because it would have been a mighty pleasant car to drive from your description.
Actually, there was something in the lines of the 2 doors that was reminiscent of the BMW 320. I really miss these easy-revving lightweight tossable little cars.
I bought a used ’82 B11 wagon in 1988 with 58K on it. Like most used cars it did not come with an owner’s manual and it was the first Japanese car I had bought. I put 97K on it in 2 years and then found out all about timing belts and ‘negative interference’ the hard way(junked it). 155K on the original(presumed) belt! The only repair was a new clutch at 90K. What a workhorse. We still fondly remember that car.
I recently lost my mind. I traded an Xterra (my 3rd Nissan consecutively) for a CTS and already calculating when I can trade it without taking a bath. (A little buyers remorse going on…perhaps I should give it more time.)
Should have went with the M37 which was also on my list, but a recent pleasant experience with the Cadillac swayed me. Now, not so much.
It’s “sport” suspension feels as though the tires are under-inflated and a prior Maxima was tighter.
My point, Nissans are good value but seem to play second fiddle to Toyonda’s. They have great 6 cyl engines and among the best steering I’ve experienced at that price point..
Live and learn.
Interesting, I had a ’93 Maxima and an ’05 CTS and didn’t think they were far off in handling ability once I got the Goodyear GT’s off the CTS. You sure it isn’t the rubber? What tires do they come with these days?
I owned a ’83 Sentra hatch back in my college years, best thing I can say about it is it saved my life when I got t-boned by a Volvo. The engine did have a bit of zip but there was a chronic vapor-lock issue which would pop up at stoplights on occasion.
I bought a new 94 Sentra Limited 4 dr with 5 speed stick back in the day and it sure was a nice driving car. The interior was so much richer than the Corolla of the day that I couldn’t resist showing it to a Toyota salesman. I had it 4 years and 90,000 miles and then traded it on a 92 Nissan long bed pickup that only had 25,000 miles on it. I loved the truck just as much as the Sentra.
I see you got the rose tints on Paul These nissan Pulsars werent a bad little bomb certainly a huge improvement over trhe Sunny but not as good as the Mazda 323 of the same era With a Holden badge fitted it became an Astra and with a Alfa motor became the truly awful Arna the joining of the worst features from both companies.The poor handling merican cars of the time may have made this seem good but having punted one of these on Tassie Targa roads I was underwhelmed by its roadholding, understeer is no longer considered a safety feature.
There’s a reason I called the 323 “Truly The Greatest Little Car Of Its Time” :https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1981-mazda-glc323-truly-the-greatest-little-car-of-its-time/
I remember the CC and the cars the Nissans werent too bad but the 323 was a great little car
Slight mix up there Bryce. Paul’s article is about the B11 Sunny / Sentra, which never sold in Australia. You are referring to the N12 Pulsar / Cherry which admittedly was on the identical floor pan as the B11. Yes lots of understeer, but only to be expected for an economy Japanese car. Better than it’s predecessors.
I had one of the B12s, an ’88 with a four speed manual. It was the first car I ever actually bought and I’d be hard pressed not to buy another if one in decent condition crossed my path. Loved that car, had some great times in it. Its only discernible fault was a habit of croaking the alternator every 50,000 miles. Perhaps I’ll attempt a CC of my own on it someday.
My sister’s 2nd car was a purple ’96 Sentra GXE, the first year of that really humpty body style with that soda straw of a tailpipe sticking out back there. Nissan was really decontenting and cheapening their cars back then. Remember the howls about the beam axle in the ’95 Maxima?
Her ’96 Sentra looked cheap, and truth be told it felt VERY cheap, but at least the cheap bits were glued together well. She beat that car through 2 years of high school and 4 years of college and it survived, though just barely. Only thing we had to fix is when I put a clutch in it at about 130k.
And although it was what I consider to be underpowered, it was smooth, and you could rev the piss out of it and it felt *just* strong enough to feel perky.
Maybe it didn’t feel so cheap after all…
I haven’t been in a B11 Sentra, but the B13 is very much an evolution of the B12. I had a ’91 (B13) SE-R, which my roommate was impressed enough with that his next car was a used B12. Sitting behind the wheel of his car, I felt right at home – all the guages and controls were laid out exactly the same, right down to the stick shift being in *exactly* the right place when you dropped your right hand from the wheel.
The picture of the B11 dash doesn’t look all that much different.
Wow, that brought back memories…! A mate had a 1984 Sunny (as they were badged here in NZ) back in 1991. Identical to the silver one in the photos above except for much smaller NZ/Japan-spec bumpers. We decided to do a top speed run on it one day on a steep downhill straight. It did 160ish km/h (100mph) at the redline in 5th gear. And then, like all teenagers, we switched the engine off (!) to see if it’d go any faster… It had reached 185km/h coasting down towards the end of the straight, when we suddenly realised the power brakes wouldn’t work properly with the engine off…I don’t think I’ve ever re-started a car so quickly! We drove home very very slowly after that. I can’t believe how insane that was – and no, I’ve never done anything so stupid again!
Down the Pohuehue viaduct hill used to be the place to wind cars up when I was a Kid, full out then shift into Maori overdrive many an old bomb went past its designed top speed there. But one of the local hoons in a 3.3 Vauxhall was the first to go up the viaduct at better than 100mph.
My fiance (now wife) and bought a new sentra in 1985, red two door with the grey vinyl upholstery, manual tranny, no AC, roll up windows. I guess in retrospect it was a stripper but at the time on our lowly incomes it was a real step into adulthood. It was peppy but in the DC summers that interior was hot as hell. I had to take our (her) cat cross town through DC traffic to the vet one summer day and by the time I got there the cat was nearly comatose from overheating, had to be put on a block of ice to cool down before the vet would do anything. Needless to say the vet was very unhappy with me but what could i do, it was a stripper Sentra?
Ha – my wife – then girlfriend – had an identical Sentra to the one you describe, except that we were (are) in San Diego. Oh, and hers had AC, which you really don’t need out here. 🙂
It was a very reliable car, but very prone to break-ins as the sheet metal in and around the locks was pretty thin. At the time we used to participate in 5k runs, and San Diego had a nighttime one, with flashlights, for “Light the Night Against Crime”. Ironically, during the event her car was broken in to and had to be towed home since they mangled the ignition switch.
I always thought these were tin cans – even a former co-worker who bought a two-door uttered that phrase. From someone who drove K-Cars, I wonder which one was more “tinny”? Turns out, the co-worker had a 100-mile R/T commute like I’m about to have. I think I remember his Sentra did just fine.
I had only grudging respect for Japanese cars at the time, but always looked carefully at fuel economy and had loads of respect for that!
Yes, the gas price run-up from 1979 – 1982, plus a nasty recession that began in 1981 I’m sure, put these in a new light – and at the right time, too!
Rodeo Drive? Coldwater Canyon road? Yes and yes – many times, and probably again in September.
My old man bought an ’84 that looked just like this but for the headlights and a sunroof. His was badged Datsun on one side of the trunk and Nissan on the other. He traded in his 1979 Mustang.
It was a perfect little car for our family of four.
A few years later we picked up a 1988 1/2 B12. It had vinyl in place of mouse fur but it was similar. I learned to drive on it and it was remarkably quick.
I do remember these cars as having somewhat delicate clutches and a nasty tendency for the engines to grenade at 100K. That aside, that first little ’84 turned my parents into life-long Nissan buyers.
We had these as company cars in the mid 80’s. I was a courier for my company and we drove the crap out of these, drove them like rental cars, they were very strudy fun cars to drive in So. Cal.
Great little car with lots of memories. I was in grade school during the 80’s, and I grew up in this car. My father bought it brand new as an ’85and1/2 ( I think the 1/2 added composite headlamps and contempo plastic wheel covers) to replace our 76 Subaru DL sedan( talk about rust) -My father appreciated the value in quirky Asian sedans.
The Sentra was driven as our econo family sedan until 1994, at which point it had accumulated 187k miles. Silver inside and out, great modern-looking instrument cluster, and a stereo with orange digital readout(that impressed me as a 2nd grader). The aluminum controls(gentle spring-loaded push knobs that had great tactile feel) on the stereo worked flawlessly and looked great. My father added a trunk-mounted luggage rack for our numerous camping trips during the summer. I remember we packed that Sentra to the max, but it took it all in stride. Luckily, we lived in Toledo, where the roads are as flat as they come. Rust-belt winters were harsh, but he had it undercoated which helped immensely. And the summers in that car were HOT. My father skimped on the AC, which he said was an expensive option and power hungry for that little 1.6 4cl. He did opt for the 3 sp auto. We took it across the eastern US on several family vacations, and it never once left us on the roadside. We did all the regular maintenance ourselves, even the timing-chain was replaced by my father, not an easy job…
The car was easy to drive, with great brakes, steering and seat comfort. I passed my driving test at 16 in that little Sentra with flying colors.
Thanks for posting this entry CC. Lots of fond memories of this little car!
I have had a long-runnning love affair with these 1980’s Sentras since I bought a 1984 Sentra XE hatchback coupe new in ’84. It was a replacement for my B210, which was stolen. That car was a devoted friend, daily driver, gas sipper and tough little road warrior until retired in the late 1990s, when I bought a 1985 Sentra SE sport coupe silver and black hatchback. I had all sorts of adventures with this one, including pulling a race car on a trailer all the way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. It was crazy, and I’d never do it again, but the Sentra performed and survived. I still have “Rathacar” today, and at 250,000+ miles, she is my husband’s commuter, running 180 miles per day, delivering 36 mpg and standing up to all sorts of abuse (I love my hubby, but he can be murder on cars, and this was the only one he couldn’t kill.)
I am actually going to buy another 1985 Sentra SE, an identical car, as a backup for him and to get mine back long enough to cherry her up a bit. Sometimes the only substitute for a tough old Sentra is another tough old Sentra.
See Rathacar : http://www.cardomain.com/ride/3008836/1984-nissan-sentra
You know, the Internet has a site for everything… even one where folks can emote about base model Nissans. I miss my old Sentra. My parents bought me a blue 1985 Nissan Sentra sedan in the fall of 1990. It had a 5-speed, no power steering and was not equipped with A/C. This was the perfect car for central Florida. It was in great shape. It had the composite headlamps, and some sort of cheeseball factory cassette player that was not pushbutton. I drove this car everywhere. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t fix on it. The only irritation were the factory heat shields on the exhaust (they rattled) – so I took them off. Great handling, good looks, terrific mileage. Of all the cars I’ve ever owned, this ranks in the top three. Years later, I was at a job interview right out of college, and I met the original owner who had traded it in at the Cadillac dealer from which I bought it. He was the one interviewing me for the job. I think we both had a few laughs talking about the little car. And, we both knew the job wasn’t for me. I haven’t seen an ’85 in years, but I’ll always remember how decent that little car was.
I bet he regretted buying a horrible Cadillac!!!
My godmother got a new (in 1984) Sentra Sta Wagon with front click quite similar to the Sentra in the photo above after ditching her 1977 gas guzzling Olds Vista Cruiser. That Sentra was reliable but underpowered if mated with the 3 speed auto trans.
I just disposed of a Sentra 93 twin cam 1500 motor with 5 speed sold via facebook the guy came round looked at it heard it run and gave the $300 asking price 356,000kms on the dial it went like new no noise no smoke still not as much fun as a 323 but at town speeds a fun little bomb to thrash around in nowhere near as agile as my Citroen but a step up from my Hillman.
Interesting how much this looks like a first generation Hyundai Excel.
I’ve only logged seat time in my at the time girlfriend’s B13, which I quickly named Baby Maxima. It was a well optioned 5 speed, had power windows, great a/c and upgraded seats with more manual adjustments and the best velour I can remember. I had an 87 Integra at the time, the B13 had a vastly better torque curve, and the shifter was nearly as good. The Intergra would be faster only with severe clutch abuse. She was tuned soft, and couldn’t go corner carving, but she was so much better on the interstate. Far less noise and no crashing over potholes. I loved the Integra, but you would get tinnitus and a sore back after a long drive. We stayed friends after our break-up, it was going strong at 200k, her Dad insisted on replacing it. I was so p—–ed, I would have bought it, and he just traded it.
I bought my daughter a 1994 Nissan Sentra 2dr in 1996 as her first car. It was a 5 speed. Very good little car.
In late 1981, I bought a 1982 Datsun 310 and these early Sentras were just hitting the lot right beside them. My first thought was that the 310 was the better looking car… not saying much.
Oddly, the very earliest Stanzas, in 3-door guise, was a relatively clean design by comparison.
Often Paul and I agree on cars; but not this one.
The 5 speed manual must have made a H U G E difference in that generation Sentra?
A girlfriend of mine had one of this generation, cheapest, base model possible, the only options were A/C and automatic transmission. I can’t even recall if there was a one speaker radio in this car.
That slushbox automatic tranny zapped any & all life & excitement out of the engine, IMO.
My jaws were sore from yawning every time we took her car somewhere.
What, no mention of the optional diesel engine?
When I was stationed at a very small Navy base in the mid 80s my boss had a yellow 2 door (like the one pictured) but with the diesel engine (all of 55 horsepower). The model that followed this one, the 87-90, is incredibly blah…it’s like the designers made EVERY curve into a straight line.
I did rent a 94 Limited Edition and thought it was the equal of my 89 Civic DX, but it still managed to have 1 or 2 Nissan quirks. For example: the fuel filler door release works different from Honda’s…even though they look like they should work the same way.
Nissan “lost it”, as far as I am concerned, in the late 90s. Strangely, the only new model Nissan I want is a Sentra.
I really never liked the looks of any Japanese cars, with the exception of the mid ’70s Honda Civic and the 1970-1977 Datsun Z-cars. The Japanese started building lackluster transportation appliances long before American manufacturers did.
The Americans always built substandard, lackluster, transportation. It was the Japanese who built cars and trucks with simple, yet good looks. Cars like the ’60s Toyota GT, the original Celica, the original Datsun Z, the Mazda RX-3 and RX-7, the original Honda Accord, etc, all rivaled the American makes in style, comfort, innovation, quality, reliability and efficiency. Is it any wonder why most people nowadays shy away from American made automobiles?
My bought-new 1982 Sentra was the MPG edition. True stripper (no radio, no floormats, no AC) and geared really tall. Paid under $6k. I got as high as 62 mpg, and usually 50+ (mostly highway driving). 130k trouble-free miles until someone stole and totaled it.
I miss the economy specific trim models that they used to have back in the day, with their skinflint names, MPG, Miser, Scooter, etc.
Plymouth’s “Feather Duster” has to be the best of them.
Don’t quote me on this… but I believe Karlie Kloss owned one of these, or owns one – not sure which.
I’ve seen at least 2 here in WA, one in Aberdeen looks decent for its age, and hasn’t been given the rice burner treatment as much as some cars that were of similar size.
These Sentras were a sparkling delight to drive. It was always my preferred car to rent. They were leaps and bounds better than anything that the Americans were pooping out in the day. Compare a Sentra to say a Cavalier. Need I say more? It’s cars like the Sentra that pretty much crushed GM, Ford and Chrysler. I remember the Sentra being quieter and having way better driving dynamics than a ’87 Ford Taurus than I drove as a company car. I’ve owned Infinitis since ’99 and currently own a 2010 q35 that is perfection beyond perfection.
What a great car 1985 Sentra was. My dad bought it brand new, and I just loved driving in it. It was that cool, sky blue color, that I never forget. First car I ever drove by my self after getting my drivers license. Drove it several times from Los angeles, to San francisco, to Michigan, and it was as cool as a cucumber. This will sound absolutely crazy, but I wouldn’t mind having one restored to its original condition, just the way it was back in summer of 85′.
i just bought a 1985 nissan sentra for 500 bucks with 160k cruz ac defrost every thing works pics to prove i cant say how many times in the 80s i ended up in a sentra my mother had a show room floor 280 zx all of my buddys parents had toy or nissan
still got one 1983 in great shape ….i realy like that everything is easy to fix on this car ….its a down to earth car no extra just the bar minimum not even have powerstering ….i like the way people look at me not shure if im a hipster or no money….sometime wen i talk or show my car people tell me its ok you will be able to get a better one they dont understand and the tv adds tell them to buy new caused new is better….its so smal but so big …. feel more like a dune bugey or a go cart …..i never feel like hi can survive a car crach lol but im a extra good driver even wen im texting …it was a nigthmare here in canada at winter took up to 20 minutes and a booster pack to start it every electronic sensor that help the carburatore do is job are gone bad but the carburatore kind of work on default setting ….but anyway i dont used it anymor its sleep in a garage all winter…got mysel a audi 90 quattro 1988 for my winter car and a lot of challenge wite the clowok mecanic it got (everything is overcomplicated in this car lol)
I have almost no point of reference for personal experience with these outside or riding in a few as taxis, but this write-up has made me genuinely like them. So, bravo.
This car has a special place in my personal history. In 1993 my then-girlfriend and I had moved from Ireland to the US. We bought a Sentra in Oneonta, NY and planned to drive around the US (DC, Florida, SoCal and ending in Seattle). The car made it to S Carolina after a sojourn in DC. In the morning it belched out white smoke and died. After a compression test it was declared dead and so we retreated to DC where I remained for 18 months. That was awful too.
Geez Paul, after turning in the T-Bird, I thought you would have gone back to the Econoline van :),
I absolutely loathe this car and all of it’s horrible hair shirt predecessors and successors. Ma bought a silver 2 door new in 1986 after a succession of generally awful $2000 used cars. Even in the early 80’s, $2000 didn’t buy very much, or what it bought was a used 70s car which was not all that great to begin with. I hate these cars with a burning passion because she in her hair shirt mentality picked the bottom line, nasty, cheaper out stripper model (as a couple of people at the beginning mentioned.) No radio, no air, no clock, no carpet, no cigarette lighter, cheap vinyl seats, a cheap vinyl interior stretched thinly over cheap tinny steel. The car made absolutely no concession whatsoever to human comfort and was designed to actively punish its owner for not spending just a little more. . . If you spend just a little more, you can get air, a radio, and cloth seats, which might have been a decent little car, but this was a torture device. At least the styling had improved over the really eye searing b210. Still, there was nothing at all admirable about the car and it wasn’t charming or cheerful in the way some cheap cars can be.
This car gave me a lifelong deep seated need for the broughamtastic. A hateful, non aspirational car like that will make you develop deep in your soul an absolute need for 225 inches of buick electra with where the vinyl is on the roof where it belongs and not on your backside and there is air conditioning and stereo cassette and power windows and seats and big, loose pillow velour seats you can ride all day in and wave at hoi polloi from your majestic conveyance.
If you spend just a little more, you can get air, a radio, and cloth seats
That’s not an intrinsic car problem.
after a succession of generally awful $2000 used cars
Nissan sends their condolences.
At least cheap cars have improved since then and although the nissan versa we last had in mexico was undeniably cheap, it was tolerable as a rental transportation device. It has air, automatic, ?cloth like? Seats. . Although the hard scratchy cloth isnt very comfortable, was quite roomy, and had electric windows and locks and a radio. It merely smelt strongly of economy grade rather than stank of cheap and hatred.