Ever since my late teens, when I had the world of Japanese car culture was opened up to me via a former work colleague, I’ve been mildly obsessed with S-chassis. In particular, I loved the S13 as the inexpensive entry to drifting and the S15 for the way its styling has stood the test of time.
However, in my late teens, despite S13 prices dropping to about £500, insurance was a no go – I could afford it, just, but I was distracted by alcohol and failing miserably to chat up girls until the early hours of each morning.
About a decade later, JDM and the drift scene have exploded, so prices for anything rear-wheel drive from Japan are getting silly. I’d all but given up hope of finding an unmodified S13, but then up popped this fine example on eBay. The price wasn’t too mad, and upon closer inspection it was free from rust, so I went for it.
Over the last 12 months I’ve loved and hated this car in equal measure – here’s what I’ve learned.
As Mr Kersten will no doubt tell you, no matter how careful you are at the time of purchase, rust can sneak up on you. Turns out there was a bit of rust in the sills of my S13, and because I intend to keep this car for a while, we decided to go in hard and fix it all rather than patch things up and let future Darren worry about the consequences.
I came out the other side about £700 lighter, but, theoretically at least, it’s good as new underneath.
Ashamed as I am to admit it, my brain is not mechanically gifted. It just doesn’t work that way. Boy, I’ve tried, helping my dad work on the family cars, and reading books and websites, but I’m just not a practical (or particularly patient) person. It all goes in one ear and out the other.
So when it was clear I had a misfire, there wasn’t a lot I could do by myself. A lot of Googling and pestering people for advice later and I had a list of parts to try to fix it, but fitting them required finding weekends when both me and my dad were free. The result is that a year later I’m sitting here with a high-flow fuel pump to be fitted this weekend, and I’ve decided if it doesn’t fix the issue I’m abandoning the car at a specialist and refusing to take it back until they’ve sorted it…
And to those of you who complain fixing a new car is too easy because you plug in a computer and it tells you what’s wrong – I only dream I could do that with mine!
Okay, so I know I just complained of a misfire, but until recently it was only intermittent, and I can drive round it by lifting off the throttle a bit.
When it’s not misfiring and the engine’s on song, it’s absolutely brilliant, and easy to see why the CA18DET unit has become so legendary. There’s little low-down torque, but when the boost comes in just above 3000rpm it surges towards the redline on a wave of fizzing energy.
The car comes alive and feels punchier than the 166bhp official rating suggests. I’m used to driving modern turbocharged engines that pack a punch but can lack character – this reminds me that turbos don’t have to suck the life from a performance car, and the challenge of keeping the turbo on song is great fun.
Modern cars, understandably, have so much design going on. There are impact regulations, bundles of technology and shared platforms that mean designers have to try to differentiate models with impactful styling.
Honestly, I have a lot of time for how these guys and girls work around so many limitations, but sometimes it’s nice to take it down to a purer level. The lines on the S13 are so slick and I adore the profile, with the long, low, sloping bonnet feeding into the teardrop cabin. The pop-up headlights are a memory of a bygone era, while no sports car today could get away with riding quite so high. I just love to look at it.
These days, stiff suspension means sporty. Few cars are so committed to being actually compliant on the road that they have a more forgiving set-up, despite the risk of customers being put off in the mistaken belief the car’s somehow not hardcore.
To paraphrase an engineer at a well-known German car manufacturer: “Eh, I know it’s stupid sometimes, but people like to feel what they’ve bought.”
Jump in the 200SX and, aided by that off-road-spec ride height and chunky tyre sidewalls, you’re greeted by a ridiculously comfortable ride. I was recently running a BMW M240i as a long-term test car – I mostly loved it, and even though you couldn’t call it a proper sports car, it would bang and crash its way along seemingly smooth roads even in ‘comfort mode’. The Nissan, on the other hand, coasts and glides over any and all surfaces.
Of course, the trade-off for that is that you don’t quite get the sharp-edged turn-in of modern cars. The Nissan isn’t helped by the standard 90s steering set-up, which I’d guess is about 14 or 15 turns to go lock to lock.
Whenever I get back in my S13 after driving something new, I find myself powering out of a roundabout with half a turn of lock, wondering why I’m spearing towards the outside of the corner. Once you’re dialled in, though, there’s endless fun to be had.
With more work to do at the wheel you do sometimes find there’s a bit of co-ordinated flailing, but when you find the rhythm it’s so much more rewarding than the point, squirt, repeat of today’s crop. (Though don’t get me wrong, I have time for both – sometimes it’s fun being at the mercy of the machine!)
I know I keep comparing it to modern cars, but it’s the juxtaposition between this and my day job that I love so much. Driving fast cars on a fast road is fun, but you’re always well within the car’s capabilities – or you should be – because you never know what’s around the next corner. It’s why I love letting loose on the track.
But the 200SX lets you explore its limits relatively safely. Sure, a Toyota GT86 can do similar, but with all the power up high you still have to be gunning it to get loose. The S13 lets you get some slip while exiting a corner, riding a surge of boost in the middle of the rev range, with the softer suspension making it break loose smoothly and controllably.
Coupled with the slow steering rack, it’s easy to see how these cars were responsible for growing the drift scene out on those late night touge runs. The quickest way down a winding road is to chuck the front end in, kick the back out just beyond its grip limits, then manage the curve with the throttle and smaller steering inputs.
It’s relatively easy to nail this exiting a roundabout, but would take hours and hours to master down a mountain pass. Remember what I said about it being rewarding? Sure, a few things have bugged me in my first year with the car, but my passion is driving, and for that, the S13 has wriggled under my skin.