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Nissan 180SX SR20DET

A turbocharged coupe that's got looks, real performance and handling and exceptional interior comfort. Not to mention immense tuning potential.

By Michael Knowling

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In the mid-1980s Australia received the 2.0-litre S12 Gazelle and then - around ten years later - came the turbocharged S14 and S15 200SX. Oddly, the in-between S13 model was never officially sold here. Today, however, second-hand Japanese examples are being privately imported in large numbers. Note that the S13 comes with two different bodies - the Silvia coupe and the 180SX hatch. Here we'll focus on the much better looking 180SX.

In the late 1980s, Nissan Japan's first S13 180SXs came powered by a 1.8 litre DOHC, 16-valve CA18 engine. This motor was available either naturally aspirated or turbocharged, and backed by a manual or automatic gearbox. The turbo version generated up to 130kW at a fairly heady 6400 rpm. Then, in 1991, Nissan superseded their CA18 motors in this fitment with the all-new SR20 - a two-litre four cylinder, whose basic design is still in service in the current S15 200SX. Like the CA18, the SR20 also came in naturally aspirated or turbocharged form and with a manual or automatic gearbox. The SR20 turbo (SR20DET) and 5-speed combo is the most potent that you can get in the S13 range - it's like candy for the performance junkie...

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So how does a SR20DET 5-speed 180SX drive?

Put simply: very impressively.

The SR20 turbo is quite a flexible engine. Off-boost, it doesn't suffer from the lack-lustre performance that can be felt in (say) an early model Subaru WRX. Strong acceleration arrives at around 3500 rpm and torque holds up well to over 6500. Note that our test car was equipped with a 3-inch aftermarket exhaust, so this may have helped the top-end breathing. In terms of outright acceleration, the 180SX SR20DET 5-speed is indeed a flyer. With the right launch, you can expect a 0 - 100 km/h sprint to be despatched in low-to-mid 6 seconds. There aren't too many 2-litre cars that can beat that! Furthermore - depending on how it's driven - it can be quite economical. During conservative urban driving you can expect to achieve around 10.5-11 litres per 100km.

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The SR20DET engine uses a square 86.0mm bore and stroke to achieve a 1998cc swept capacity, while its compression ratio is 8.5:1. Air is drawn in through an airflow meter and a Garrett-based turbocharger compresses it to around 7-8 psi. A relatively small air-to-air intercooler (fed by a forward-facing scoop) cools the intake charge before it approaches the double overhead cam 16-valve head. As mentioned, max power is 150kW (at 6000 rpm) and max torque is 275Nm (at 4000 rpm). Note that both of these figures have been derived using Japanese 100-octane fuel. The best Aussie fuel on tap is 98-octane.

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The Nissan 180SX - especially those with the SR20 turbo - are famous as drift cars. Indeed, it is possible to power the back-end out in a big way. If you want to. However, driven mindful of its power oversteer, it is possible to drive quickly and neatly from point-to-point. We'd imagine that real care would be needed while driving on a wet road, though. Under its skin, the S13 features MacPherson struts at the front, while the rear uses multi-links. Nissan's optional rear wheel steering system - HICAS - was not fitted to our test vehicle. Our test vehicle was also lacking ABS, but its large discs brakes (vented and with twin-pot calipers at the front) slow the car strongly and dependably. Steering is precise and well-weighted.

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Despite its obvious sporting pretences, the 180SX is a very liveable sort of car. Dribbling along with traffic flow, there isn't a single aspect that becomes tiresome. The seats are comfortable - though not offering much lateral support - and all controls fall to hand very well. The driving position is good (aided by an adjustable steering column), armrests are in the correct position plus the gear knob and handbrake lever are within easy reach. Unlike some other Nissans from the same era, the cabin of the 180SX is light and airy - thanks to its low waistline and the large expanse of glass. Our test vehicle was also optioned with a manually operated tilt glass sunroof. Interestingly, the factory glass sunroof gave an extra couple of centimetres of headroom. At 183cm tall, I had about 2 centimetres between the glass and my cranium. A bit squeezie - but at least my head wasn't touching the roof as it does in a factory sunroof equipped S14 200SX.

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The 180SX is driven using a grippy wheel and gear knob, while the instrumentation - a 180 km/h speedo, 7500-rpm redlined tacho and fuel and temperature gauges - is clear and simple. However, the switches for the hazard flashers, rear washer/wiper and demister are obscured by the steering wheel. Standard electronics include power mirrors, windows, air, plus a remote hatch and fuel door. Our test car also came equipped with digital climate control - which is typically that-era Nissan-stupid to operate. The air conditioning (which pumps through six dash vents) did perform very well, despite our car's black paint and its large expanse of glass.

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And now we step into the back seat. First of all, the appropriate front seat needs to be slid forward and the backrest tilted forward in two separate actions. Once aboard, knee room is minimal. If the front seat can be slid a fair way forward, it isn't q-u-i-t-e so bad - but a knees-out position is still mandatory. Headroom is also a problem in the back. Anyone taller than about 175cm tall will need to keep his or her head over at an angle. Indeed, the rear seat of the 180SX is only suitable for kids or "dimensionally-challenged" adults. Another step rearward, the cargo area of the 180SX is quite generous, given the type of car it is. A space-saver spare maintains good cargo depth, while folding the rear seat backrest forward can accommodate extra long items. The loading lip, however, is quite high.

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It's pretty near impossible to criticise the styling of the 180SX. It carries smooth bodylines all the way around, is well proportioned and has a very low-slung shape (the 'SX stands only 1290mm tall). Pop-up headlights have allowed designers to give it a sharp nose - and note that SR20 engine'd 180SXs can be identified by their rounded nosecone, with indicator lenses that taper in slightly towards the centre. At the opposite end, most SR20 turbo 180SXs carry a small rear deck spoiler that reduces aerodynamic lift - though our test car was equipped with a larger drift wing. Somewhat unusually, however, it still wore the standard 7-spoke 15 x 6.5-inch alloys.

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It's quite common for 180SXs to arrive in Australia with such items as a big exhaust, different rims and perhaps, aftermarket suspension. Be careful - many of those that have been so-equipped may have been drifted or otherwise thrashed out. There are no specific areas where the 180SX is prone to giving problems - but you can bet that a thrashed car will wear out faster than a good one. As with any turbocar, however, watch for smoke from the turbocharger - a rebuild may cost up to about $900. One of the biggest advantages of the 180SX is that - for a grey import - there are now so many of them in Australia. This gives them more parts back up than many other imports. Parts are also quite cheap - a good complete engine should cost less than $2000.

And how much are they worth? Well, a Nissan 180SX with a SR20 turbo and 5-speed 'box usually sells for between $15,000 and $20,000. Only those vehicles that are heavily modified sell for those higher figures. Potential buyers - especially those under 30 years old - will also have to allow substantial finances for insurance.

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Without a doubt, the 180SX is a fantastic car to modify. The usual 3-inch mandrel exhaust should release around 15-20 per cent more power and a high-flow cold air intake (either a modified airbox or a pod filter that's fed cold air) should give another 5 per cent. Before increasing boost pressure, it's advisable to install improved intercooling. Luckily, the 180SX's nose cone leaves plenty of space for a big front-mount core. Once one of these is fitted, it's safe to increase boost (to around 14 psi) and feel another 15-20 percent power. Over and above this there's a whole assortment of tuning parts available through Japanese companies such as Trust, HKS and more. Up to 250kW can be extracted - safely - using the standard SR20 internals.

This is certainly a fast car - one that's just waiting to be made even faster.


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Thanks to Adelaide Japanese Imports for making our test car available.

+61 8 8369 1156

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