Curbside Classic: 1991-2017 Nissan Tsuru – Hasta Luego, Muchacho

24 years. That’s how far short Nissan fell of Volkswagen’s successful 49-year run of the Beetle in Mexico, where it was known as the Sédan or vocho. Still, 25 years is a very long time for a car to be sold with no meaningful changes. The 1991 third-generation Tsuru effectively replaced the venerable Volkswagen as Mexico’s most popular car and almost two million units have been produced since the car’s launch. Now, production is wrapping up. 

The first two generations of Tsuru mirrored the US and Canadian-market Sentra. The Tsuru replaced the Datsun Sédan (710/Violet) as Nissan’s core model in Mexico in 1983. Tsuru is the Japanese word for crane and it wasn’t the only new name for the Mexican Sentra derivative: the first-generation Tsuru hatchback was called the Samurai and a latter sports variant was dubbed the Ninja Turbo. Much more interesting than Sentra!

Although the current generation of Tsuru has been sold for 25 long years, the first- and second-generation Tsuru followed the same production cycle as the Sentra. The second-generation, badged Tsuru II, was introduced in 1987 and was again available in sedan and wagon guises.

A hatchback coupe, identical to the Sentra Sport Coupe, was also offered. In Mexico, this was known as the Hikari (‘light’).

Although both the first and second generation Tsuru sold well, they didn’t topple the VW Sédan. The tide was turning, however. The Mexican car market’s restrictive tariffs and barriers to entry were gradually reduced during the early 1990s and more modern competitors arrived. The Mexican government also paid more attention to the worsening problem of air quality in the country. This was a serious problem in Mexico City in particular, a sprawling metropolis home to thousands and thousands of vochos, many serving taxi duty. The government stepped in to curb the Volkswagen’s popularity, with Mexico City eventually banning their use as taxis; with only two doors, kidnappers found a VW taxi to be an effective way of trapping their prey. Although the Beetle remained on price lists until 2003, sales were in decline by the 1990s and two cars had quickly filled the vacuum.

One was the Chevrolet Chevy, a Mexican-built version of the Opel Corsa, introduced in 1994.

Even more successful was the third-generation Tsuru, launched in 1991 and identical to the Sentra sold north of the border but manufactured in Mexico.

In 1993, the Tsuru sedans were joined once again by a related wagon, badged Tsubame (“swallow” in Japanese).

A high-performance model known as the 2000 GSR was also offered, sharing the Sentra SE-R’s 140 hp 2.0 four-cylinder.

But it was the regular Tsuru sedan that proved to be the most popular variant by far, outliving the Tsubame and 2000 GSR. The third-generation Tsuru had been launched with a carbureted 1.6 four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. It gained electronic fuel injection after a couple of years, bumping horsepower up to 115 and torque up to 102 ft-lbs.

The Tsuru went through a significant round of decontenting after the 1994 Mexican economic crisis in order to keep prices low. Power also slumped to 105 hp due to a new, cheaper valve design. The low price of the Tsuru meant it became one of Mexico’s best-selling cars, taking the top spot on the charts for several years in a row despite the Tsuru receiving no changes beyond minor trim details after 1994.

Nissan’s quest to keep the Tsuru’s price low meant the Tsuru never received airbags or anti-lock brakes. Rear brakes were drums, a rear anti-roll bar was missing and the car rode on tiny 13-inch wheels. It also lacked side impact beams and passive restraints.

It was this lack of safety features that resulted in an abysmal 0-star Latin NCAP score in 2014. That organization has attributed 4,000 deaths to the Tsuru’s poor safety and has been vocal in its opposition to the Tsuru’s continued production, something which Nissan finally acknowledged last year by announcing the car’s discontinuation.

Cars sold in the Mexican market do not have to meet any specific crash safety standards, a glaring omission that the government is rectifying by the end of the decade. Mexico isn’t the only market with lax safety standards, however, as the Tsuru is exported to numerous markets abroad.

A low list price has long enticed buyers of new Tsurus. The base price is just under 150,000 pesos, or $USD7500. That’s very cheap, but not as cheap as you would think. This ancient compact costs roughly the same as low-end models of the Chevrolet Spark, Hyundai Grand i10 and Volkswagen Up. Granted, most of those also lack airbags and ABS. However, eminently more modern sedans like the Renault Logan, Volkswagen Gol and Ford Figo offer these safety features and cost only around 10,000 pesos more. It’s apparent, then, why the Tsuru’s sales have been on the decline. Not all of those newer machines are safer, though: the Chevrolet Aveo, a Mexican-built edition of our Sonic’s predecessor, received a 0-star score from Latin NCAP as well. ¡Que malo!

Nissan hasn’t relied solely on the Tsuru for volume. Newer generations of the Sentra have been offered concurrently with the dated Tsuru, as has the Versa.

From 2002 until 2010, Nissan sold the Platina in Mexico, a fruit of the Renault-Nissan alliance that was effectively a sedan version of the Renault Clio. This was badged in other markets as the Renault Symbol, however Nissan stuck its own badges on it due to the enormous popularity of the Nissan brand in Mexico. Despite this, Platina sales decreased each year it was on sale.

Even less successful was the Aprio, a rebadged Dacia Logan built in Brazil and sold between 2007 and 2010. Considering the glut of subcompacts and compacts sold by Nissan de México at any one time, Renault-Nissan eventually decided to sell Renaults and Dacias under the Renault name. This left Nissan with the B-segment March (Micra), Tsuru, Versa and Sentra. At present, Nissan is selling all of those models; both the current generation and the previous generation of Versa are sold in Mexico, the latter badged ‘Tiida’.

The Tsuru won’t be replaced directly, leaving those other compacts – plus increasingly popular crossovers like the Nissan Kicks – to pick up the slack. The Tsuru’s finale is being commemorated with a special Buen Camino limited edition, named after a commonly-used farewell. All models will feature a unique metallic blue paint – Azúl Orion – as well as unique wheelcovers and an aftermarket stereo.

Although the Tsuru still sells well, it has not been Mexico’s best-selling car for several years. Still, Nissan remains one of the dominant players in the Mexican market, along with GM and Volkswagen, even though the Mexican market is host to a wider variety of brands than the US.

Anybody who has been to Mexico in the past 25 years will have ridden in a Tsuru taxi, generally driven aggressively and with no seat belt available to secure one’s self. These cars are extraordinarily popular with taxi drivers because of their fuel economy, reliability and ease and affordability of repair.

Many vocho owners held onto their cars as, despite their high emissions and old technology, they had become a rather beloved fixture of Mexican society. It’s possible many Tsuru owners will feel the same.

When Beetle sales declined considerably during the 1990s, two cars – one from GM, one from Nissan – took its place at the very top of the sales charts. The same scenario has played out with the Tsuru’s decline and demise, as the Chevrolet Aveo and Nissan Versa have become Mexico’s best-selling cars.

I wonder if I’ll be writing a similar retrospective on the Versa’s 25 years of service, or if the Mexican car market will continue to look more and more like the US and other Western markets. Perhaps multi-decade model runs will become a thing of the past. Venerable vehicles like the Tsuru and India’s Hindustan Ambassador are brimming with charm and history but a 0-star NCAP safety rating is something no new car should have, regardless of what market it’s sold in. And that’s why Nissan is bidding the Tsuru buen camino.

Related Reading:

CC Global: The Mexican Carscape In 2016 – Part I, The Newer Metal

CC Global: The Mexican Carscape In 2016 – Part II, The Older Metal

CC Global: The Cars And Facades Of Colonia Obrera, Mexico City

Curbside Classic: 1985 Nissan Sentra (B11) – A Fish Out Of Rodeo Drive