Before the taxicab stigma, the Nissan B13 Sentra was a desired car even among enthusiasts
After 27 years of production, Nissan has announced that it will finally put the “B13” Sentra—aka Sunny or Tsuru—out to pasture. The last “taxi edition” Tsuru to leave Nissan’s Mexican factory will be of little interest to young enthusiasts spoiled by modern “compacts” with nearly twice the horsepower and space. But for a generation weaned on loud mufflers, “tuner” magazines and JDM fever, the original car was something special indeed.
The ’90s was the golden age of Japanese automobilia. Thanks to a surplus of cash from the economic boom of the ’80s, they were producing computerized sports cars that could run rings round the Europeans, and luxury cars that could last a million kilometers or more. But nowhere was this renaissance more evident than in the compact-car market, where few nations could compete with the mighty Japanese.
The B13 Sentra was a poster child of the era. It featured a high-tech dual overhead cam engine with a timing chain instead of the traditional belt, electronic ignition control, and a sophisticated independent rear suspension. It even had airbags and ABS. In a time when Corollas still had carburetors, and Civics came with the safety equipment of a shoebox, the Sentra was the thinking man’s choice. If nothing else, the acronyms DOHC, SRS, ABS and ECCS meant you’d win any game of “Super Trumps” against your Corolla-driving neighbor.
Beyond that, it was fun to drive. The torquey 1.6-liter engine loved to rev, and the chassis was fantastic. In the United States and Japan, the legendary all-aluminum SR20 was available, granting the Sentra sports-car-like performance in a humble bodyshell. While it had a penchant for eating gear synchronizers, it gave the car the legs to thrash Civic SiRs. Sadly, this combination was only available locally to those with surplus cash, a surplus Japanese motor to swap in, and a complete lack of common sense.
An entire generation of enthusiasts and motoring journalists cut their teeth on the Sentra. It was light, nimble, powerful and quite willing to go sideways with a little tug of the handbrake. Magazines like Sport Compact Car and Import Tuner regularly had it on their covers, on those rare occasions they couldn’t find yet another Civic to feature. But nowadays, most people remember these spunky Nissans as taxicabs. What happened?
As the ’90s came to a close, Nissan fell on hard times. Each new Sentra was merely a more decontented version of the last. Production moved from Japan to Taiwan. The cars lost their independent rear suspensions and sleek lines in favor of something more, um, squarish.
The Sentra’s last hurrah came with Nissan Yulon’s “Exalta” series, loaded with everything but the kitchen sink. While buyers lapped it up, those Taiwan-sourced toys suffered from electrical gremlins right off the dealer lots. And the once-powerful 1.6-liter motor could barely get the overstuffed rolling armchair moving. The Sentra was eventually replaced by a bigger, more thoroughly boring car. The only reminders of the B13’s legacy would be thousands of “LEC” taxi editions, which retained the classic body wrapped around much simpler mechanicals. In the end, these cheap editions served as the only lasting memory of this once-great car.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, however. I renewed my acquaintance with the B13 a little while back, only to come away from the drive slightly deflated. The interior was tighter than a Samsonite suitcase—and arguably less safe—and the thing wandered on the highway like a drunken sailor. Exactly as I remember it from my first drive of 25 years ago. But the sparkling personality was still there. The revvy engine, the sprightly handling and the classic lines undiminished by age. But while I dearly wanted to take this orphan in, I thought that there must be a thousand better ways to spend my money than to purchase the rusting shell of a once-proud automobile.
Maybe it’s time to go looking again. See, while car restoration may be woefully expensive, daydreaming is absolutely free.