Test Drive - Brash's 180SX PDF Print E-mail
Test Drive
Written by Colin Brassington (aka Brash)   
Thursday, 17 August 2017 18:08

You all know that I drive my 180SX everywhere, but what's it like to live with? Well I started this story last year just after I completed the suspension and brake upgrade; but decided I would focus more on the works than the finished product.


Now, with the car having been sold, I thought I'd finish this (read: edit it) to remind me what I loved about it in the first place. Enjoy!

This will be fun. You are about to take my Nissan for a test drive. Lucky you! Not many have driven this car, a KPS13 chassis 180SX powered by the legendary SR20DET and backed by a 5 speed manual transmission. This example is slightly warmed over but not massively so, retaining the stock turbo, ECU and boost levels. The focus of the build has been suspension and brakes first, power later. So what are you waiting for? Beep the damn thing unlocked and open the door!

The ambers flash all around the car, reflecting off the walls around. The door lock clicks open with a mechanical flunk, and you grab the door handle - a traditional top-swinging one - and pull open the door. The door creaks as it moves around its arc, the door hinges having sagged just a little bit in the 25 or so years the car has been on the road.

Left leg in first, swing the bum over then right leg in. It's not a difficult car to get into, but it's very low so it's kinda awkward. Thankfully the long doors give plenty of open space for entry and exit, though tight car parks can certainly be a challenge. Today the standard reclinable Nissan seat is fitted; the fixed back Sparco that resides in the car for track days is on the shelf in the garage, but the fitted seats - from the top spec 180SX Type X are comfortable and supportive enough. Well, they were when new...the base cushioning could do with a freshen up.

Look forward over the steering wheel, again a standard Nissan item rather than an aftermarket item, and beyond to the instrument binnacle. The dash houses what was probably a fair amount of information when this was built, with a full sized speedo and tacho, with smaller fuel and water temp gauges on either side. Instrumentation is supplemented with a boost gauge on the A-pillar. There's plenty of forward vision, but the bonnet curves down aggressively at the leading edge rendering the very front of the car out of view, unless you flip up the headlights that is.

Quickly now, turn the key before the immobiliser comes back on.


Turn the key straight to the second position, but hesitate just for a moment. You hear the fuel pump - an oversized replacement part of course - whir into life and start supplying the standard Nissan injectors with the 98RON mixture that they need. Turn the key one more position, and the starter motor instantly begins to turn the engine over, while the fuel pump changes sound. It's now audibly under the strain of starting the car...either that or struggling to with the reduced current flow while the starter is engaged. Despite not having been warmed up the engine fires right up and the fuel pump noise returns to its happy whirring, and you momentarily relax safe in the knowledge that you beat the pesky red light on the dash.

Now comes the fun part. You thumb the alloy handbrake button and push the clutch in. It's softer than you were expecting - not quite standard carolla soft but not what you were expecting knowing this car has a heavy duty clutch fitted - push the gear shifter over to the left and up. You give the engine a quick rev so that there's some RPM on board before you start to let the clutch out. Slowly you begin to move your left foot away from the firewall...

You stalled it, didn't you?

Clutch back in, turn the key again. This time straight to position three, the fuel rail has plenty of juice now. The engine fires right up again, and again you give the accelerator pedal another quick stab. From inside, the exhaust noise isn't as loud as it seems it would be on the outside, and at anything over idle drowns out the fuel pump noise. This time, watching the tacho to make sure there are enough revs on board, start to let the clutch out, and the car lurches forward. Carefully, you turn the car out of the driveway and on to the street.

Clutch in, second gear, clutch out. The machined gearknob fees nice in the left hand, well shaped and weighted, it's a subtle inclusion in the mostly standard-Nissan interior. Ok, now slow down; you need to be careful of this spoon drain at the end of the street. Drive it over to the right, then come back across and drive over it at a very shallow angle. This thing is really too low, but it looks great so whatever.

Out of the side streets and cruising in fourth gear at 60km/h, the exhaust has quietened way down. Changing gear on the fly is a simple process and there is ample vision out of the car in every direction. When Nissan built this car they were going bankrupt, and it kind of shows. The only colour inside comes from the red and black chequered floor mats, everything else is grey and not particularly well fitted. Not so terrible that you're putting the plastic bits back on mid drive, but they all creak and squeak as you wind your way over Adelaide's patchwork roads.

Power delivery is a bit doughy when you're off boost, and if you're trying to get anywhere even slightly briskly you find yourself flooring the throttle from very low revs, and backing off by the time you get to about 3000rpm. Either that or change back a gear and pull away from over 2500rpm. It's not that there is a huge amount of turbo lag - there isn't. But the doughy off-boost response is nonetheless present and noticeable. Although it must be said that if you're content to merely cruise around the suburbs at low revs then you may well not notice this.


What you do notice though is the clutch. How many times have you stalled it so far this drive? Three? Or is it four? Plus that time you only just saved it.

It's difficult to get used to; the bite point is about half way up the pedal's travel, and the slip zone is very narrow. When you're not paying attention it's very easy to not get the revs up high enough, or bring the clutch out too quickly. Often you find yourself bringing the revs up close to 2000rpm before starting to let the clutch out, in an attempt to not stall the car again.

Now let's have some fun. Turn left up here, then go right when you get to the round about.

Turn the indicator stalk two clicks to engage the headlights, and flick the stalk to pop them up. The next corner is an off-camber left hander that goes up hill. Then the speed limit changes.

On the brakes, back to second, turn in and squeeze the throttle.

Very quickly you accelerate past the signposted speed limit, but quickly snatch third gear anyway before backing off. When you open the taps this thing is quick to gobble up the road in front of you. A right hand sweeper, followed by a left then another right that is almost a double-apex bend, then a left sweeper before a brief straight section, another right hand bend, a bit of straight then hard on the brakes for a left hand corner. Middle pedal, clutch in and swing your foot over to blip the throttle as you move the shifter back to second, clutch out. The revs instantly climb, and the exhaust briefly pops and crackles on the overrun but you're back on the power quickly. The road turns right away from the sheer cliff wall to your left, and then a slight left and right combo that you deem not worth slowing down for. Now for the first bit of real straight road since the off-camber first turn and you can reflect a little on the drive so far.

While cruising through town the dampers felt way too stiff, with man hole covers and other random undulations crashing through the cabin enough to make you deliberately steer around them. But up here in the hills they no longer feel ridiculously over sprung. Bumps and ruts still send crashes up and down your spine, but the connection you feel with the car and between car and road is almost worth it. Perhaps the answer is the same spring rates, but softer damping in bump mode? Sadly you won't get to find out as the owner isn't replacing the coilovers anytime soon. The seating position is wonderful, and the pedals are perfectly placed for heel-toeing downshifts. Though if your legs are as long as mine, the bottom of the steering wheel rim can get in the way of your knees. But you can get around this - literally - by just getting on with it.

The steering is direct but lacks feedback. You can easily and confidently position the front of the car practically anywhere you want, but it's not like, say a last generation MX5 where you can feel the different thicknesses used to paint the lines on the road. Motoring journalists refer to cars like the DC2 Integra Type R as being so sharp they're like a scalpel. Well this is like a steak knife. One that you get at a pub. But not one of the good sharp ones that they bring you when you order your steak, this is like one of those that is in the cutlery basket in the middle of the table when you sit down.

No, the best way to point the front of the car is with the throttle.

You learn quickly that this is a very easy car to drive at seven tenths, but kicking it up another notch is quite difficult. And when you really push, you find that the car will do one of two things. If you got back on the power too early, the nose pushes wide. If you didn't, then you try to make up for that by feeding the power in quicker than you should, which makes the car oversteer.

And here is the a-huh moment, that's why people love these things!

You can make the car oversteer on a whim, and it is beautifully controllable while doing it. The back comes out, and you can easily keep it there; or you can tuck it back in and keep going. Either is acceptable. But up on a road like this, it doesn't take long to realise why people buy these cars.

Coming up to a T-intersection, you realise that the brake pedal is a bit soft.


That should concern you, but in this case there's nothing to worry about. This car has the larger brake discs and callipers from the same era Skyline, which gives a large improvement in stopping power. But while the brake upgrade as fitted works, it really needs the bigger master cylinder too, as the pedal is hardly confidence inspiring. But it still locks up all four wheels after a decent drive so the system works.

Looking left, looking right. Looking left again, pull out into traffic...you’ve stalled it again…dick head!

Quickly re-fire the engine, give it a big rev and drop the clutch as you turn out of that street. The SR20 sings as the car leaves two nice black arcs on the road. That's another reason why people buy these things :-)

Turn in and squeeze the throttle a bit much and the back comes out. It moves progressively and predictably, and controlling it is literally as easy as keeping your right foot where it is and counter steering just a bit. Want it to come out more or move around quicker? It's as simple as more throttle. It's not fast, but it's fun.

On the brakes and back to fourth gear for the crawl through quiet suburbia back to my place, and there is plenty to reflect on. The 180SX doesn't do anything fantastically - it's not really fast enough to be a weekend race car, and to make it so would result in it being almost undrivable at city speeds.

The sad fact of the matter is that as much fun as these cars are to drive, as a performance tool there are plenty of better options at similar price points. The Falcon XR6 Turbo is the perfect example here, and when fitted with the same modifications as to our beloved S-chassis, it is a great deal faster, without most of the drama associated with driving a Nissan that was designed in the late 80s and built into the late 90s while the company was facing bankruptcy.

However when you're behind the wheel of a 180SX, that doesn't matter. Because you're driving one of the poster children of the import boom.

Regular readers of these pages know that I lusted after a 180SX as a teenager playing the early Gran Turismo games on PlayStation, and swore that I'd own one. And now that I have, I'm not sure I'd do anything differently.

Turn right at the round about, keep a close eye on the speedo on the way down the hill. Flick the high beams on if you like - old Nissan headlights are terrible. Now take this left.

This is my place up here on the left. Pull up and I'll open the gates, reverse it in please.

Wait...you fucking stalled it again didn't you!?



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