It’s hard for me to be impartial about the Nissan Silvia: my first car was a 1983 200SX five-speed. I thought it was the coolest car ever. Unfortunately, I totaled it the very first time I drove it without adult supervision. (The story of that mishap, and its aftermath, can be read here.) I still think the 200SX and its successors are pretty cool cars. Nissan stuck with the rear-wheel-drive compact coupe formula for a full nineteen years after Toyota compromised on the Celica.
Nissan’s reputation with the Silvia in America was marred by two unhappy decisions. The first was to saddle the S13 and S14 generations of the car with the truck engine from the Nissan Pathfinder instead of the superb turbocharged variant of the SR20DE engine from the Infiniti G20 and the Nissan SE-R. As a result, the “240SX” never really got full credit for sporting intentions in a world where the Celica offered a turbo and the Prelude offered a series of sublime, high-revving, short-stroke engines. The second decision was to keep the sleek S15 at home. The final Silvia, with its “blacktop” SR20DET, lives with the R34 Skyline GT-R in the imaginations of Pocky-chomping weeaboo basement-dwellers everywhere.
Sadly, your humble author is a bit of a Pocky-chomping weeaboo basement-dweller when it comes to home-market Japanese cars, so when I happened to see a tuned-up S15 during my recent trip to the Sepang International Circuit, I threw an authentically American temper tantrum until they let me drive the thing.
The Silvia was there to promote the new Champiro SX2 tire from GT Radial, which is an Indonesian-based tire company primarily known in the United States for inexpensive truck tires. In Southeast Asia, however, the company fields a full slate of products including the aforementioned Champiro SX2, which is best described as a cross between an Eagle F1 Asymmetric and a Michelin PS2 sold for half the price of either. The GT Radial folks had set up a pair of slaloms, one wet and one dry, and connected them with a wide-radius left-hander. It was on this little course that I’d be running the S15.
As you’d expect from a turn-of-the-millennium Japanese coupe, the Silvia’s interior is a featureless expanse of blackish plastic and silverish accents, but there’s a trio of eyeball vents above the center stack to liven things up. It’s the kind of dash that could be easily used for both right-and-left-hand-drive applications, but in fact the S15 was never sold as anything other than a right-hand-drive car.
I don’t have a lot of experience driving RHD cars — this Nissan was only the third stick-shift car I’d ever driven with the wheel on the Imperial side — so it was a relief to find that the six-speed manual was easy and precise to operate. With 250 horsepower to push about 2900 pounds, the Silvia launches with respectable but not overwhelming force. The gearing’s short so I’m able to grab second before the first gate in the slalom. This car was never sold side-by-side with the 350Z, but it wouldn’t have threatened the more expensive coupe in any measure of straight-line performance.
Where the S15 scores over the Z is in the relatively low, wide hoodline and outstanding visibility. The Z33 always betrayed its sedan roots to me in the sheer height and mass of its dashboard/firewall assembly, which combined with the mail-slot windows to make the car a little claustrophobic. The Silvia, on the other hand, is pleasant and sporty-feeling. It’s a small car by modern standards, but it feels even smaller to drive, something like an E36 coupe. It hustles through the relatively narrow gates with aplomb and reveals precise, quick steering.
The aftermarket suspension fitted to this car flatters it a bit, but the fundamentals of the platform are absolutely sound. It’s a shame to think of all the S15s that are being chopped up to donate their blacktop engines to American 240SXes, but the Japanese don’t like to keep their old cars around anyway. Double shame, really, because the closest thing we have in either the United States or Japan to the Silvia is the FR-S. The FR-S is a more intimate and direct experience than the Silvia, but the two-liter boxer in the Toyobaru isn’t a patch on the SR20DET. In fact, the easiest thing Toyota could to do improve the FR-S would be to buy all remaining stock of the Nissan turbo engine and put in said FR-S, regardless of how gauche of a hood bulge would be required to make it fit.
Although my time with the Nissan was limited to about fifteen fast minutes, I’m thoroughly convinced that it would have been at least a moderate success in the United States. It’s spacious enough, fast enough, attractive enough. It would have made a great Infiniti, the same way the Skyline sedan and coupe that followed it into the market made great Infinitis. It was a casualty of the sedan-centric Nissan marketing philosophy that significantly damaged the company’s enthusiast following in the United States. A shame, really.
The S15’s lack of availability on these shores helped buff its reputation in some circles beyond anything the actual car could possibly match in the metal. In truth, the Silvia is simply a very pleasant Japanese coupe that would have found it slightly difficult to keep up with a New Edge Mustang in most situations. Pleasant Japanese coupes have been in short supply in the past fifteen years, however, so you’ll excuse me for waxing a bit nostalgic about this one. Given the choice between this and a Z, I’d choose the Silvia without hesitation. I’d just have to make sure I didn’t crash it!
Photography courtesy Bobby Ang/Wheels Weekly