I’m almost ashamed to say it: I had no idea the Stagea existed. My knowledge of cars becomes pretty scattered around the 1990 mark, especially for non-European models. I know the cars I grew up with and I’ve kept a few tabs on the American stuff, but a lot of the Korean, Australian, South American and JDM cars can still baffle me, especially the more recent ones.
So when I saw this wagon a few days ago, I was well and truly baffled. The foglamps-in-the-grille face, the weirdo double-unicorn emblem, the aura of power and poise of the beast – I liked it, but had no idea what this was. I know, it’s sad. For some of you, a mere partial glimpse of this car’s taillight would have been enough for a full rundown of the history, specs and relative merits of the Nissan Stagea. It’s been on CC already. A little before I started reading the site, but still – this should be a no-brainer. Well, not for me. This one got past me, for some reason.
Being surrounded by JDM cars is like discovering a completely new universe. In this brave new frontier, there are microscopic machines with unlikely names, a whole ecosystem of small vans and pickup trucks that I never knew existed and a plethora of bigger saloons and wagons that I only dimly observed through the prism of the Eurocentric literature I grew up reading. Oh, we knew of some. The Skylines, the Imprezas, the RX7s, the Celicas and other Legends of the deep – these were renowned, even in snobbish Europe, though not necessarily common. But many gems were kept from us.
Before I came to Asia, I never knew of Mitsuoka or of the Toyota Century. Neither did I learn of the Nissan Gloria, the Mitsubishi Debonair or of the Toyota Chaser until I saw them in the metal. This learning curve-side classic is an ongoing process, now facilitated by my being physically situated right at the heart of the matter. So to answer my own question, which was “What’s a Stagea?” – it’s basically a long-roof Skyline.
The idea of a Skyline wagon is not new. Back when the nameplate was invented by Prince, the Skyline had a long-roof variant called Skyway, introduced back in 1959. This tradition continued with subsequent generations until the R32 Skyline arrived in 1989. Suddenly, the wagon disappeared. Two generations of Skyline would pass by without it – but it seems Nissan were aware that their high-performance coupé and saloon family was missing a key member.
Thus the Stagea was set for the wagon’s return. It took place in 1996, only this time, the Skyline name was absent. The Stagea’s underpinnings were clearly a mix of R33 Laurel and Skyline, but the front end styling was its own thing, just to make the new wagon a bit more special, I suppose. The base model made do with a relatively peaceful 2-litre straight-6 driving the rear wheels only, but there were increasingly spicier variants available, culminating with the fire-breathing 2.6 litre 280 hp Autech-modified AWD 260RS Twin Turbo pictured below.
It’s dead easy to graft an R34 Skyline nose on the Stagea, so quite a few folks have done just that. And with the original Stagea, the idea has some merit. Fortunately though, Nissan gave their big wagon a mild facelift in September 1998 and gave it a wider grille containing a distinctive pair of lights. This was not necessarily a new idea and it could have been a disaster, but it ended up looking pretty nice, in my opinion. Put it this way: it sure worked better on the Nissan that it did on the ’62 Dodge. Faint praise, I know…
Our feature car is a Stagea RS Four, which means it has the 2.5 litre RB twin cam engine and 4WD. What I don’t know is whether said six is turbocharged or not. If it is, this wagon has 250 hp. Otherwise, it’s a mere 200 – still a reasonable number, by any standard, for a 20-year-old wagon. Whatever the hp, the RS Four came with a 4-speed automatic, as did the overwhelming majority of this generation of Stageas.
The interior of this well-worn example looks as inviting as any driving machine from the turn of the century. That is to say, every pre-digital creature comfort is there, the ergonomics seem in order and the design is neither particularly inspiring, nor egregiously horrible. This is not the first time I’m seeing a ‘90s/’00s Nissan with a two-tone steering wheel. It seems this is one of those “they all do that” things. The rest of the cabin seemed to have weathered the past couple of decades pretty well, from what I could tell.
I took a few snaps and went on my way. As luck would have it, when I came back to check on the Stagea again a while later, the cars parked on either side of it were driving off, allowing me to take additional shots, including a few decent profiles. The shape of this wagon’s greenhouse is quite unique. The frameless glass of the doors makes this a hardtop wagon of sorts – not something we’re likely to see again in a hurry.
The blacked-out C-pillar gives this wagon a touch of aggressiveness and character that is not encountered all that much on this type of vehicle. The thick D-pillar, with its mock air vent, ends the car with an almost vertical drop. Dr Kamm would have been proud and it adds that much more cargo space. If you’re going to design a wagon, you might as well make it as boxy as possible – that’s kind of what it’s for.
I don’t know who came up with the double unicorn emblem, but it’s a nice touch. It is said on the Interwebs that the shape of the unicorns is supposed to resemble the “S” for Stagea. I guess it does, but then the horns don’t really help with the “S” shape, so why not go for plain horses’ heads instead? Surely that would have looked even more like the initial. “Unicorns are cool” seems to be the rationale. I cannot fail not to disagree with that contention, but I’m still dubious as to the real meaning of this emblem. Not even sure if it featured on all 1st gen Stageas – maybe only the higher trim ones, though that Autech one didn’t have it… Someone might let us know.
Our feature car could have been made anytime between late 1998 and late 2001. After that date, the new model Stagea took over, with just as much oomph under the bonnet, but a shade less class and discretion elsewhere, in my eyes. The base was still the Skyline, also known as the Infiniti G35. The rear end got Volvo-like taillights that went from the roof to the bumpers, the front end became more bulbous and lost its double unicorn. Instead, the three-slat grille was stamped with the big stupid London Underground-shaped “Nissan” badge like the rest of the range. The poor innocent doors were framed – framed, I tells ya! – and the C-pillar lost its rakishness… It was still a great car underneath, just less so on the outside.
Production of the 2nd generation stopped in 2007 and that was it for the Stagea saga. The SUV plague claimed yet another victim as the Skyline Crossover (a.k.a Infiniti EX) took the Stagea’s place. A great loss, just as the Skyline celebrated its 50th birthday. Twelve years on, things are even worse: after an infinity of stagnation, a new Skyline appeared in 2014. Get this: it has a 4-cyl. Benz engine and is only available as a four-door – the coupé is history. Not sure how that qualifies it as a Skyline, as it’s actually known as the Infiniti Q50 and even bears the Infiniti badge, but that’s another discussion.
Let us not dwell on the present. The past is a much friendlier place to be, especially given the kind of future we can expect to endure. I’m sure you’ll join me in commending the owner / driver of this fine machine, who has had the tenacity and taste to refrain from trading it in for a Leaf. Never mess with a mythical beast, even in emblem form. I’m sure unicorns eat Leafs for breakfast.
CC Outtake: Nissan Stagea re-visited – Skyline front clip version, by David Saunders
Missed the Boat: The Wagons That Never Came, by William Stopford
CC DIY: Taking the Nissan Stagea to Infiniti and Beyond, by Scott McPherson (NZ)