By on June 17, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Photography courtesy Bobby Ang/Wheels Weekly

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32 Comments on “Capsule Review: Nissan Silvia “S15”...”

  • avatar

    As I understand it, Nissan only made the SR20DET available in the JDM Silvia, but in literally no other market the company sold in, because the international exchange rates at the time would’ve made it possible for a Japanese dude in Osaka or Kyoto to hop on a plane to Manila or Jakarta, buy the car there, ship it home, and even after paying all the importation duties and taxes, still save tens of thousands of yen over buying it down the street from his house.

    Can anyone confirm this, or am I way off base?

    • 0 avatar

      sr20de/det made it most RHD markets i believe

      what jack didnt say is that the SR20, although powerful with a fantastic aftermarket, is one of the worst sounding performance fours ever made

      the Nissan sixes are fine, the Toyota 3s-gte and 4a-ge is good, so is the Mitsubishi 4g63 but the Nissan fours are pretty horrible with the running joke that it sounds like a diesel

      popular here is the transplant of the Nissan RB sixes and of course, the LS1

      • 0 avatar

        Okay, so you’re saying what we got the truck engine because the exhaust wouldn’t clear the steering shaft or something?

        Yeah, the LS swap is pretty good and I love the RB – something about an indestructible straight six.

        While I do like a properly exhausted RB or JZ, there two engine notes above them to my ears – An American small block breathing through a good Borla or Magnaflow system, and the coup de grace, a jet turbine.

        Yes, I know the turbine’s not an automotive plant, but damned if that smooth, threatening hiss isn’t pure auditory sex.

        • 0 avatar

          The SR20 fits in left-hand cars. The Philippines got the SR20DET in the S14 in left-hand drive.

          Unfortunately, this limited edition was sold only with automatics. Almost every single one of which was swapped out for a manual gearbox sometime during the cars’ lives.

          • 0 avatar

            The plumbing for the PAIR/AIV valve on S13 SR20DET engines would actually hit the steering shaft on a LHD car but everyone removes that anyway. S14 and S15 engines didn’t have it. Making a LHD S15 with SR20DET would have been easy from an engineering standpoint – the dash is flat and symmetrical, the firewall stampings are almost identical to the S14.

      • 0 avatar

        Confirmed – S15 was available in Australia with only the sr20 in a choice of helical or viscous LSDs.

    • 0 avatar

      The SR20DET was available in a number of other countries. Europe (UK at least) got them in the S14, Australia got a detuned version (147kW) in their S15, many asian markets got the S14 with SR20DET (not sure about the S15), and NZ got the Japan spec cars (literallt swapped the badges at the wharf) with 184kW in manual and 168kW in auto.

    • 0 avatar

      Exchange rates weren’t that crazy at the time. By the time the S15 came out it was almost exactly 100 yen to the dollar and these cars cost about the same (in a straight currency conversion) as a 240SX.

      However cost did have a lot to do with it for the US specifically. When the S13 was first released it actually used the CA18DET carried from the S12 in Japan and non-US export markets. This engine was even more expensive to produce than the SR20 and produced only 170bhp, only a bit more than a KA24. In the land of no displacement taxes the KA made sense.

      I remember a Car & Driver review of the ’89 240SX mentioning that a “upcoming 2-liter turbocharged engine” was a done deal for the 1991 240SX. The SR was developed for world markets, to cost less to produce. It’s anybody’s guess why export S13s never got it (Europe and Asia kept the CA18DET through 1993) and why the US never got it at all.

  • avatar

    Twink: You know that real famous painting? The one of the woman who’s smiling all the time?
    Sean: The Mona Lisa.
    Twink: Right, right, right. Mona Lisa. Well, look, man, this car right here’s like the Mona Lisa of the drift world. Han rebuilt this bad boy from ground up. We talking forged pistons, bigger turbo, new rods, new crankshaft. Hey, man, Han’s labor ain’t cheap, man, you feel me?
    Han: Don’t leave town.

    God help me, I do love it so..

  • avatar

    fellow pocky-chomping, basement dwelling weeabo here

    I’m impressed. the word ‘drift’ didn’t appear once in this entire article.

    the real draw for the enthusiasts who long for the Nissan S-chassis cars is the aftermarket support that makes Mustang tuners and parts suppliers look like amateurs. it’s lightweight, RWD, has 4 seats instead of two, and it’s moderately priced. all the elements that have made the FR-S successful, which I have to believe is due in no small part to the fact that the American market was deprived of such a vehicle for so long. that, and you can reliably tune that sr20 turbo motor for a lot more power. or just drop in a turbo Skyline motor.

    I think the Toyota has demonstrated that there’s still a market for a light RWD car. so can we have an s16?

    • 0 avatar

      There’s nothing limited or amateurish about the Mustang aftermarket.

      The Silvia is Japan’s Mustang, and it should be pointed out that the Japanese don’t do anything better or crazier than Americans, just differently.

      Why are car guys now called “tuners?” Tuning is when you tweak the air-fuel ratio another tenth of a percent or dial in another quarter-degree of camber at the front end.

      Yanking and rebuilding the powerplant from the block up is not tuning. Stripping a transaxle to install carbon blocker rings is not tuning. Ripping out the factory brakes, lines included, for Brembos is not tuning.

      That’s hot rodding.

      To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger, “IT’S NOT A TUNER!”

      • 0 avatar

        I’d argue that any shop or company that sells and/or tunes the flash ECU for the Mustang or any other car is, in fact, a tuner. I even purchased one of those devices and had a shop dyno ‘tune’ it on the Mustang that I owned. there are a number of companies that sell a wide array of plug in, standalone, and flash tuning computer systems for these japanese cars. which allow for, yes, tuning of the a/f ratios, spark, fuel, etc. often user adjustable on-board via LCD screen (used to comedic effect in the first F&F movie).

        I’d also argue that testing/adjusting other components on a car, like suspension, aero, and other engine parts is also tuning. it was a slight exaggeration but it wasn’t an empirically false thing to say.

  • avatar

    I always had a weakness for these cars as well. I remember Sport Compact Car magazine back in the day running a “Bring over the S15” campaign, with petitions etc. I think I actually signed it too, back in the day when we thought that would accomplish anything.

    As for the easy and precise to operate gearbox, you might have had some help acclimating to shifting with your other hand due to familiarity. The same Aisin 6 speed is used in the S15 Silvia, Honda S2000 and Mazda RX-8.

    • 0 avatar

      I think I actually signed it too, back in the day when we thought that would accomplish anything.

      Hey man I got in on Hot Rod magazines letter writing campaign to get GM to build a V8 W-body Monte Carlo! Ummmmmmm just you know GM managed to eff that up by making it FWD and giving it a transmission that couldn’t handle the sheer awesomeness of the engine.

      My point? Never let your youthful exuberance embarrass you.

  • avatar

    This is a nice car in GT5. :P Glad it matches up IRL. What the US needs of course is smaller RWD cars with manual transmissions. This is generally an awesome combination that’s been eliminated for generic FWD CVT bore mobiles..

    I’d love to see more domestic car companies get on board because Nissan outside of the Z isn’t really making cars like this anymore here – and either is Honda.

    The new Mustang with the turbo 4 might qualify and the Caddy platform for the ATS is worth watching.. (maybe we see a cheaper version of that).

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, it seems that if you want a rear wheel drive coupe, you have to buy a BMW, Benz, or a pony car. Well I can’t say I want any of those, unless the Camaro gets bigger windows and loses a few hundred pounds. Which isn’t going to happen.

      • 0 avatar

        Or a Hyundai Genesis, a Toyobaru, a 370Z, and, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of “coupe,” a Miata PRHT. All of these cars have been praised for their handling and are available for reasonable prices.

        Sporty cars and travelling have at least one thing in common: everyone says they want it, but when presented with the opportunity, the majority come up with excuses not to do it.

        • 0 avatar

          I would agree with you those are coupes, but with the exception of Genesis they are all small roadsters which some might find less functional. I think what NoGoYo is getting at is a better selection of midsize RWD coupes such as the Silvia.

          • 0 avatar

            Plus, I’m not gonna lie, I have NEVER liked the 350Z and 370Z’s designs. And I think the Toyobaru FRSZ is overpriced. As for the Genesis…uh…I never really see people driving them, so they must either be expensive or damned by being a Hyundai.

    • 0 avatar

      The BR-Z/FR-S is the modern day version of the S15. Or an RX-8. If only had they had fitted a turbo to those choices. Oh well I went the used Z route. Most 200SX you see are modified to death which I guess is improving them given the engine was underpowered here in the states. And your right the visibility in the Z is pretty bad, but its doesn’t feel as constricted as my ’97 Eclipse GS-T.

      Domestics haven’t made anything like this since the original “pony” car (the Mustang). Everything else is just a huge boat with gas sucking V8 in the front. Honda’s had the right idea with S2000 but like the Miata its in a different class to me. I’ve often wondered what a Prelude with an S2000 drive train would be like. I can guess we can all just assume it would have been like the S15.

  • avatar

    “It’s hard for me to be impartial about the Nissan Silvia: my first car was a 1983 200SX five-speed.”

    Wow! My first car was a black 1982 200SX hatchback five-speed. I paid $450 for it in the fall of 1993. It had 211k on it at the time, and definitely qualified as a rustbucket. But boy did I love it. I learned a lot keeping that car going for the year and a half that I owned it. I sold it in the spring of 1995 for $400, with 225k on the clock. I had gotten a great deal on a 1988 Accord hatchback five-speed from a coworker of my father’s, so it was bye bye Datsun. About a month later a friend of mine called me from the local pick-and-pull. He had found my car. I went down there and there she sat, the odometer reading 229k and change. I don’t know what happened, but I sold it to a young kid so who knows. I got the shifter knob and the plastic nameplate (“Datsun 200SX by Nissan”) off of it, and still have them.

    When I moved from Western NY to North Carolina in 2000, I got nostalgic for the old Datsun, and since there was so much early ’80s rust-free Japanese iron around, I decided to look for another. I never did find another of that generation, but I did find a fine example of the following generation, the S12. I bought my 1988 200SX SE V6 in 2001, daily drive it for 8 years, and it now sits in my driveway awaiting future refurbishment and maybe some AutoX.

  • avatar

    These are very popular cars here in Okinawa. I consider it one of Japan’s sexiest coupes, up there with the RX-7.

    I also think that a good S15 chassis (buy a non-turbo automatic) + LS3 swap would set you back about as much as a new Toyota 86, but give you a car with 400+hp/tq and a better engine note.

    Figuring out how to serially produce and sell such machines is one of my dreams…

  • avatar

    The S15 is a very popular car over here in NZ, we had the S15 at NZ$40k when they were launched, which was a great price at the time.

    It’s worth noting that fundamantally it’s pretty much the same car as the S13 and S14 under the skin, the suspension is the same, even the floor is the same, so it wasn’t really that advanced, but it was just a good honest sports car.

    I was absolutely stoked the day that the sales manager at the dealership I worked at threw the keys of our manual demo at 19-year-old me and told me not to be back for at least an hour. it was awesome!

    I heard through the grapevine that Nissan were working on a successor, and things were progressing very well, a contact of mine in Japan was part of the procurement team, but the GFC came along and killed that plan, I guess what’s the point of developing a new sports car that no-one is going to buy… still, I wish they’d kept it on the back burner, perhaps there’d be a rival to the Toyo-baru now if they had….

  • avatar

    The problem with reading these articles without knowing a squat about high performance cars and driving is that it’s just weird. Jack wants a turbo? But isn’t that “truck” engine more driveable? If I have to make quick throttle inputs, wouldn’t I prefer the NA engine, assuming similar power.

    We have an excellent example right here, by the way: Hyundai Genesis 3.8L and 2.0T. I think they are even sold simultanously, and the 3.8 delivers better figures, at least in theory.

    • 0 avatar

      “If I have to make quick throttle inputs, wouldn’t I prefer the NA engine, assuming similar power.”

      That’s the problem, the KA24DE had somewhere around 110-120kW, the S15 SR2DET had around 186kW in manual form. Even the non-turbo version of the SR20DE in the S15 had about the same power as the KA24DE.

      The S15 I’d like is the Autech S15, featuring a worked-over SR20DE packing 147 naturally aspirated kilowatts…..

    • 0 avatar

      The updated 2.0T’s torque curve makes it nearly as quick as the 300 hp version of the V6. Haven’t driven the new V6… Hyundai won’t bring in the GDI due to our pisswater gasoline.

      The new Genesis feels something like you’d expect a modern S15 to feel like. Could be a bit narrower. Could be a bit lighter. But I expect if Nissan ever made an S16 or S17, they’d be close in weight and size to this.

      Only problem is the 370Z is, too.

  • avatar

    SR20DET was available in Europe in S14 chassis, left and right hand drive (Europe and UK). European spec SR was 200hp. It really is a wonderful engine. The most common tune is FMIC + 3 inch exhaust + tune. Then you will have around 270-280hp/350nm. Thats the limit for stock 370cc injectors and stock GT28 turbo. For a beginner that is plenty enough for a 1250kg rwd lsd car. The biggest bottlenecks from the factory is the exhaust (really tiny straw-like pipe) and very small intercooler. Turbocharged car needs to breathe, so custom exhaust (with custom dp) completely changes the character of the engine, makes it crazy rev-happy, so it bounces off the rev-limiter the first three gears like a maniac sending unburned fuel to the exhaust to explode :) Oh-yeah, good times :)

    • 0 avatar

      True true. Although I’d say the biggest bottle neck was the suspension on any S-chassis car over 5 years old, the S14 was particularly soft and sloppy in the rear. Loved my S14a.

  • avatar

    To be honest, the marque “Silvia” didn’t aged well I think.
    s13 was a huge hit to the public in economic hey days, created endless supply of cheap used cars that boy racer could crash as many times as they could survive.
    At the time S15 came out, ordinarily people already taking Silvia as nerdy car. Few adult bothered to buy it and went to 3series coupe which was quite affordable compare to now. Boy racers “hashiri-ya” we’re too poor under the recession.
    Nissan knows it, and that is why Skyline grew to V6 3.5 litter car with high price tag, from straight 6, 2 liter average priced car.

  • avatar

    I am certain I have seen at least 3 Silvia’s driving on public roads in my lifetime.

  • avatar

    Just to pick a small point from the article. I’m pretty sure the S15 and Z33 were VERY close in straight line performance when they were sold side-by-side here in Australia. That was when the Z33 was only 214kw.

    I can’t comment myself as I’ve never driven a standard S15, I can’t say I’ve seen a stock one for years. Everyone here has at least a cat-back and a few psi added. A car that was much nicer than the S14 due to the helical diff, smaller size and better looks.

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