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Pre-Owned Performance - Nissan Bluebird (Altima) 4WD Turbo

An alternative to the local influx of WRXs - and at around half the price of a new Subaru...

By Michael Knowling, Pix by Michael Knowling & Julian Edgar

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In Australia, Nissan's mid-sized sedan for the late 80s/early 90s was the U12 Pintara FWD. This car was released in Japan with a CA18DET-powered 4WD version which might have arrived at the dawn of the Australian 4WD-turbo craze had it ever been imported. However, the locally produced bread-and-butter Pintara didn't sell particularly well, and it was replaced with the curvaceous U13 Bluebird.

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Once again, Australia missed out on the turbo 4WD "SSS Limited ATTESA" version of the U13, but it did see a 2.4 litre KA24DE-powered FWD SSS, which was widely regarded as the best car in its class. But the 4WD turbo "gun model" would have really lifted Nissan's image in Oz, with its SR20DET (Aust-spec 200SX) engine!


The car is relatively narrow when compared to other cars in its class, but it does offer exceptional amounts of passenger headroom with the car's relatively high roofline. Underneath, much of the floorplan is different to the local FWD cars. To accommodate the 4WD, the centre tunnel seems to be more obtrusive and the fuel tank shape is quite a different to give the necessary room for the rear diff and axles.

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The rear suspension appears to have good adjustability built in, using a complex MacPherson strut/multi-link set up which still possesses the traditional Nissan squat under acceleration! The front suspension uses MacPherson struts and a front swaybar in the same format as the FWD Bluebirds. The primary design goal of the Bluebird's 4WD system was to manage snow conditions in Japan and in some states of America where the car was sold - not for sports car handling. Well-sized vented disc brakes at the front with two-piston calipers work well with the solid rear discs, while the 4-channel ABS maximises vehicle control when it's needed.

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The body is the same as Australian Bluebird SSSs except for a different front bumper that locates large driving lights and a large cutout to enable air to pass through to the intercooler, which is mounted dead centre across the front of the car. The Bluebird's styling is viewed doubtfully by most people, with the colour of the car largely responsible for how bulbous it looks. It has good aerodynamics though, with a nice flowing rear glass and boot angle, and flush-fitting doorframes.

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Inside is well laid out instrumentation, soft but supportive seats, power windows and mirrors and a climate control system as standard. However - like other similar-age Nissans - the climate control can be a bit confusing to use.

Overall weight is around 1380kg.


The SR20DET is a magnificently flexible engine with a fat torque curve and smooth idle. Essentially the same as the engine fitted to local 200SXs, we'd imagine the Bluebird's motor would have a slightly de-tuned turbocharger to offer maximum response rather than outright performance.

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With a capacity of 2-litres, twin-cams, 16 valves and multi-point EFI (with a single throttle body), the turbocharged and air-to-air intercooled motor produces 155kW - on Japanese grade fuel. And with 274Nm of torque available at 4000rpm, there is plenty of go right up to the 7200rpm limit. With a compression ratio of 8.5:1 and a well-sized turbo, throttle response and bottom end torque is better than that of the Subaru turbos of the same year (later model Soobies have a high CR and roller bearing turbo).

Even with enthusiastic driving, expect the SSS to return about 12 litres per 100km in the fuel consumption stakes.


In a straight line, the Bluebird offers all the acceleration you'd expect from a traction-packed 155kW mid-sized sedan.

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The auto version that we tested unfortunately had a badly slipping trans, but from seat-of-the-pants experience we'd suggest the car to normally be a mid-8 second 0-100km/h car. However, its performance times have been quoted as 7.4 seconds for the 0-100 and 15.4 seconds over the quarter. Without the fluid coupling, the manual versions cut these times to highly respectable 6.2 and 14.5 seconds respectively (remember that's on Japanese grade fuel).

The ABS four wheel discs work well, although they do allow for a succession of momentary lock ups. However, combined with the car's 4WD system (which helps prevent big one-wheel lock-ups), braking feels very secure at all times. Pedal pressure was quite light. The power assisted rack and pinion steering feels nicely weighted and is quite direct for this type of conventional car.

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As with all viscous-coupled constant 4WD cars, the car is basically an understeerer. However, its handling limits are quite high and it is very predictable. The car we tested had only 195-width tyres (not standard 205s) which wouldn't have helped front-end adhesion, but the car had quite good turn-in when compared to similar vehicles.


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Nissan's SR20DET responds extremely well to traditional turbo power-up modifications. The car's factory 2-inch exhaust should be replaced with a 3-inch system (space permitting) to give the car around 10-15% more power as well as improved throttle response and fuel efficiency. With plenty of vacant space behind the grill, we'd install a much larger intercooler - there is just about enough room to fit in a Skyline GT-R core! With this in place, we'd increase boost pressure to around 15 psi and expect to have reached nearly 280hp while maintaining excellent reliability.

Suspension wise, we'd suggest installing firmer rate springs and dampers and a larger rear bar to dial out some of the understeer. Soft, high performance tyres would also lessen some of the car's understeer.

Buyers' Guide

The prices of Japanese imports in Australia are falling all the time, but expect to pay between A$17,000-22,000 for one of these cars. This price is comparable to the locally-delivered 2.4 litre normally aspirated FWD SSSs. It is likely most of these cars will have fairly low kilometers, but they may well have been subjected to mechanical or body repairs once they have arrived on our shores. It's a good idea to check this out, as some vehicles have had major "reconstructions".

The Bluebirds all have similar levels of refinement, with factory options limited to a CD player, rear spoiler, sunroof and two-tone interior. The cars also have retractable side mirrors.

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The local SSS Bluebirds have proven extremely reliable with their KA24DE engines, so there don't appear to be any common body/suspension problems. However, our test car had a slipping auto trans which flared at anything over half throttle and was reluctant (to say the least) to change under these high-load conditions.

This is where some of the import Japanese cars show their downfalls - where would you get replacement SR20DET 4WD auto trans? Good question, it's just fortunate we have such a strong Japanese wrecker market that might be able to help... Having said this, some parts may be interchangeable with the local trans parts, so it might be a straightforward fix.

As with all low-volume imports, check out insurance coverage and costs before buying.

Performance of Intended Role

As a family-based car with stealth performance the 4WD turbo Bluebird is virtually unbeatable. It features a cavernous boot, an inoffensive interior design and NVH levels that are in keeping with any other mid-sized sedan. It is extremely safe with excellent stability, ABS brakes, an abundance of useful power, and it also returns good fuel consumption.


While it was designed primarily as a family car (it's not a car famous for its motorsport history!), it obviously suits this role. However, that not to say it's only for a family person. On the contrary, many people wanting an outright performance car along with foolproof handling and everyday practicality would find this car ideal.

We feel it would be reliable with up to around 300hp, and it would make an excellent conversation piece once you've just blown off that throbbing V8 that was alongside! Its value in the future is anyone's guess, but right now it is a good buy.

Car supplied by:

Adelaide Jap Dismantlers
+61 8 8369 1156

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