The Most Important Enthusiast Car in the Last 20 Years

How is it that a car abused for its drifting potential is also used in professional time attack, drag racing strips, car shows, and local motor-sports projects, but yet never looks out of place in any of these? How is it that this same car is in every version of Gran Turismo AND Forza Motorsport, has cameos in The Fast and The Furious franchise, but good examples are easily found for under 5000$ on Ebay? 

Picture yourself in Osaka Prefecture, on some mountain, sometime in the mid-2000s. You can smell crisp snow and burnt rubber. If you blink, you'll miss a white flash blowing by you. Now imagine you're at a local drag strip and you can hear the rumble of an LS1, but with no GM product in sight. Next thing you know, something red is breaking into the 10s. Another day, you see a classic Datsun and remember the good ol' days before your head snaps toward the sound of a heavily turbocharged four cylinder. One day, you keep wondering why all of these video game cars with different names look  and drive the same. Just what do all of these experiences have in common?

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Yes, the answer could be a Miata. But its also the Nissan S13, S14, and S15. In a time when we lament the loss of many affordable, simple RWD sports cars the Nissan Silvia has remained rooted within enthusiast culture. To give a bit of shock to my fellow millennials:  the Nissan S13 is nearly 25 years old and next year will be entering Classic Car status. Those who drove the first S13 (1989) when it came out are now at least 40 years old.

What is particularly interesting about this car is that despite its age it often it shows up in enthusiast groups of all kinds. It is the quintessential drift car, the SR20DET is an engine often tuned for drag racing, and late model Silvia's still populate local motorsports and professional race circuits, including Scorch Racing's S15 Time Attack car, which you can see a bit more about in my lead-up to this post, here: http://oppositelock.jalopnik.com/why-the-silvia…

Cars have a soul.

This soul is a personality, a set of characteristics, that through experiences people attach themselves to fondly. To someone that loves cars, touching a vehicle, sitting in a vehicle, and especially driving a vehicle is like meeting a new friend, or enemy. But this personality is created through a lot of physical characteristics of the machine, and sometimes those characteristics persist in engineering over time. If the economics allow it, the soul of one car might be closely related, by lineage or inspiration, to the soul of another car. Let's take a minute to look at some of those mechanical factors of the Silvia. Here's some stats for you:

MSRP (2012 dollars): ~25000$ 
Engine: 4 Cylinder 2.0L Engine Direct Injection
Bore x Stroke: 86mm x 86mm
HP/TQ: 197HP / 151 ft/lbs 
Length/Width: 4240mm / 1775mm
F Suspension: MacPherson Struts
R Suspension: Double Wishbone (Torsen LSD) 
Curb Weight: ~1250-1300kg
Wheelbase: 2570mm

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I'm sorry. I lied, that's the specs of the Scion FRS.

Those of you who figured it out immediately from the Direct Injection can pat yourselves on the back. This is too a very good car, but what does it have to do with the Silvia? I'll explain why I mentioned it soon.

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Let's go back to the Nissan S13:

MSRP (2012 dollars): ~26000$
Engine: 6 Cylinder 2.8L Engine Mechanical Fuel Injection
Bore x Stroke:  86mm x 79mm
HP/TQ: 170HP/163 Ft/lbs (Gross) 136/?? (Net)
Length/Width: 4435mm/1631mm (4120mm length w/o 5MPH Crash Bumpers)
F Suspension: MacPherson Struts
R Suspenion: Chapman Struts
Curb Weight: ~1300kg
Wheelbase: 2300mm

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I lied again. This time, it was a 1978 Datsun 280Z. Notice that compared to the FRS, they have about the same weight, similar suspension configuration, very close physical dimensions, similar price, engine configuration, and they even both had relatively new forms of fuel injection for their time.

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(This one was featured by JDMChicago here: http://jdmchicago.com/wp/2012/10/chr… Take a look!) 

Let's try one more time for the 1998 S14 240SX:

MSRP (2012 dollars): ~25000$
Engine: 4 Cylinder 2.4L N/A
Bore/Stroke: 89mm x 96mm
HP/TQ: 155HP/156Ft/Lbs
Length/Width: 4498mm / 1727mm
F Suspension: MacPherson Struts
R Suspension: Multi-Link (Optional LSD)
Curb Weight: 1253kg
Wheelbase: 2525mm

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Now the 1998 SR20DET S14 Silvia:

MSRP (2012 dollars): ??? (If anyone has the Euro or JDM Price, let me know!)
Engine: 4 Cylinder 2.0L Turbocharged
Bore/Stroke: 86mm x 86mm
HP/TQ: 217HP/203Ft/Lbs 
Length/Width: 4498mm / 1727mm
F Suspension: MacPherson Struts
R Suspension: Multi-Link (Optional LSD)
Curb Weight: 1253kg 
Wheelbase: 2525mm

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My, this looks very familiar. Same MSRP as the FRS, same wheelbase, same weight, very similar suspension,  same length as the 280Z, but same width as the FRS, and most importantly, the same square bore/stroke configuration. The 280Z was one of the first affordable mechanically fuel injected cars in Japan. The FRS is one of the most affordable direct fuel injected cars in japan. The Silvia is one of the most affordable turbocharged cars from Japan.

4 Different Cars, made between 5 Brands, 3 Manufacturers (FRS counts for two!), 3 different markets, and 35 years difference in technology. But they share a multitude of mechanical specifics compared to other sports cars available at the same time. These are three cars with very similar souls. 

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There is a reason there are no photos of an entirely stock Nissan Silvia in this article. They're hard to find. It is a car that almost trains the driver into becoming an enthusiast, to dive into the world of personalizing a vehicle, and to form a lasting bond with their machine. 

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However and unfortunately, the last time a Silvia was sold in the United States, Google didn't exist. There is a 14 year gap between it and the FRS, and during the same time Nissan refused to introduce a new car that fit this formula. The 350Z (and its platform brother, the Infiniti G35) remained their sole sports model throughout the 2000s. However, the 2005 350Z has an adjusted MSRP of 30000$ (and MSRP increased to 31-35K for the 370z) an extra 100-200kg, and a larger wheelbase (by about 100mm). Its fans were different. Its market is different. The S13/S14, no longer produced, continued to serve its role long through the used market, and aftermarket parts kept examples on the road running. There are reasons for this:

I'll start with the engine. the SR20DET was introduced in 1989 and lasted until 2002. It has some of the largest Japanese aftermarket support. It was used in a wide variety of vehicles, from the Pulsar to the Sentra. Nissan made good design considerations manufacturing of this engine, the block actually has the same basic head and cylinder configuration (though with less tech and cylinders) of the RB block. The RB block is known for being almost identical in configuration (minus some head bolts, new tech, and improved cooling systems) to the L block in the 280z. Its an engine that has about 40 years of development behind it, sort of a Japanese Chevy Small Block.

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Such an engine was engineered to not only be used in modern cars for a significant period of time, but also to be used in a wide variety of vehicles. There was a market for manufacturing performance parts for the SR20DET, and businesses jumped on that opportunity. The result? An engine that can handle boost. Lots and lots of boost.

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(^ A Tomei Genesis SR20, a beast of a motor!) 

Next, the chassis. As demonstrated above, it had the similar wheelbase and shape of the original Z, but with the optional (and on some, standard) Limited-slip differential and multi-link Independent rear suspension. With a little work (and some more aftermarket kits) it's a chassis that has been shown to handle an LS1, RB26DETT, or 2JZ-GTE under the hood. The ability to be a platform for any dream car to start is a necessity to the sporty character of the car, and this is shared with the 280Z.  The most common of all engine swaps is the SR20DET from Japan (which, in the S15, received a healthy 250 Horsepower) to replace the more robust, but generally less favorable KA24 that the US market received. As the S chassis got older, it generally is considered to have gotten more beautiful, peaking with the Kouki S14s and the S15s. The FRS has yet to mature to this point., but it is not difficult to see such an aftermarket coming. 

(^ If you really want retro and modern, you could just get the best of both worlds.)

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Nissan's decision to not replace the S15 with a new, cheap, RWD sports car with the right proportions, weight, and an over-engineered engine with aftermarket support, left a gaping hole in the enthusiast market. It made sense at the time, but the 350z, while a wonderful car, failed to do this in the similar way that the NC Miata was simply too fat to fit in the mouse-sized hole the previous generations left. Emissions and safety regulations that kept the SR20DET and S15 out of the American market gave the car a slow death. That death is the reason it has become such a popular enthusiast car.

That slow death in the new car market is what made the Silvia last so long in the used car market. What Nissan did right in the 90s, and what they missed out on in the 2000s, put the Silvia in its extremely popular place in the last two decades for all manner of enthusiasts. 

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That hole has been filled dutifully across the world by the Silvia variations, sold down the years in the used market, and it has held onto the pedestal as one of the cheapest, most fun "driver's cars" available. Soon it will become a classic car and in not long we will get to send the model off to the great price-inflated nostalgia-filled garage in the sky called "Collectible Cars".

So then, what next?

It's a question a lot of people have been asking: Is the Toyobaru an AE86 for the new generation? I disagree. The AE86 gained recognition in its home country from Keiichi Tsuchiya, Initial D, and other media. But it was not a world car, especially not to the US market. The aftermarket out here wasn't large, and they remain relatively rare. Its performance was never quite exceptional, and as a sedan-based sport model, its soul was different than the FRS's low-slung sport car character. In all but name, the Toyobaru is merely preserving the tradition that the 240Z started back in 1969, and the Silvia has carried the torch through in the 90s and 2000s. It has the right proportions, the right engine configuration, the right weight, the right suspension, the right price, and the right driving character. It is a car that should thrive in the used market, and if it manages to get the right aftermarket support, in 5-10 years its going to start proliferating all enthusiast niches just like the Silvia did. 

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We're living in exciting times. A lot of new technology has made itself into entry-level cars that wasn't previously possible. I think its time for the Nissan Silvia to age gracefully into Classic Car territory and pass the crown onto the next generation. Whether the FRS finds itself being slid around on snowy mountain roads in Osaka Prefecture, modified into a Time Attack Car to lap Tsukuba Circuit in 52 Seconds, given a turbo the size of my head to double the power output, have its guts ripped out to become an LS1-powered grassroots track car, or lowered until it scrapes the ground on its ziptie-held body kit, I'm sure it will find its place in all forms of hoonage.

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Or maybe its already happening?

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