JUNKYARD THERAPY: 1986 Nissan Stanza GXE – ’80s Crossover Maker

Posted by


Crossovers are surpassing sedans in popularity, and this Stanza formed the basis of one of the first US examples of the breed.

The car market is in another one of those swings back to trucks, thanks to relatively cheap gas and bigger buyer budgets. Meanwhile, sedan sales are tanking.


That wasn’t the case in the ’80s; sedans were the go-to vehicles for many families. At the same time, the seeds of the modern crossover were being laid with the Stanza Wagon that made its US debut the year our subject Stanza sedan was built. The Stanza Wagon combined a car chassis with a high roof, much like the crossovers we buy new today.

One difference from today’s car-based tall wagons is the Stanza Wagon strode the line between crossover and minivan with dual sliding rear doors. Here’s a pic of an all-wheel drive version as the Prairie, as it was known in some non-US markets. You’d visit Dodge or Plymouth dealers to check out a Stanza Wagon competitor, the Colt Vista.


The Stanza was Nissan’s ’80s answer for buyers looking for a compact sedan. Its ’70s predecessor was the 510, back when Nissan was calling itself Datsun in the US.

Then in the ’90s, the Stanza became the Altima, which is one of the nameplates taking a hit in the current move to trucks.

Find a Nissan Altima near you with BestRide’s local search

This Stanza is the fancier GXE, which sat above the more basic XE. Alas, we in the US missed out on the “Supremo” trim line available for the Stanza in Japan.


Stanzas were known as durable cars, so it’s surprising that this rust-free example came to its end at such low miles. Didn’t even make it to 50K.


Aside from the broken tail light and punched-out lock, this Stanza has only a bit more than a few years of wear evident in back.


Today’s headlight designs are aggressively shaped and lit with LEDs, but the Stanza’s were content to fold nondescriptly into the front end’s creases. It was still a pretty new thing in 1986 for flush headlights to be permitted in the US market.


Stanzas had only one engine, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and this put it at a distinct disadvantage against Pontiac Grand Am V6s and Dodge Lancer Turbos. The Stanza could be had with a turbo in Japan, but the US market’s version was limited to the mild performance a four would give. At least it was fuel-injected.


In 1986, Nissan made the Stanza in┬áJapan; that would change with the early-’90s Altima, which were assembled at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.


The monochrome-blue interior – who wouldn’t want a blue steering wheel? – is rigorously boxy in its shaping. It’s a snap-back reaction to the swoopy Japanese designs of the 1970s, to the point where the rectangular vents are thickly defined within a straight-lined panel.


The GXE included gimmicks like pivoting headrests.


The rear seat and its surrounding area look nearly new.


The Stanza’s door panels said quality, with low-sheen plastic framing thick fabric and an upward-facing power-window switch. The reflector is clearly tacked-on, but at least it’s there.


More remarkably light wear – the driver’s door panel still looks fresh.


Stanzas came standard with a five-speed transmission, and the EPA rates the manual at 23 mpg city. This exactly matches the contemporary Honda Accord’s rating, and it shuts out the 17-mpg Dodge Lancer Turbo mentioned above.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to directly compare a 1986 Stanza to a 2017 Altima. Altimas aren’t available with manual transmissions, so we’d line up the automatic Stanza’s ratings of 20 mpg city/24 mpg highway with the Altima 27 mpg city/39 mpg highway. From that, we see the Altima claiming an impressive 15-mpg-highway advantage. Blame the piddling three-speed automatic with which the Stanza was saddled, though the fourth overdrive speed in the 1986 Accord was good for only 26 mpg highway. Neither comes close to the efficiency of a CVT transmission like the Altima’s.


The double-DIN-sized AM/FM/cassette system occupies lots of real estate, and overflowing ashtray is another ’80s throwback.


It’s a shame this Stanza ended up in the boneyard with such little evident wear – it’s hard not to see a car here that could be usable to someone short one cash. But maybe it was run out of oil, or perhaps old age did it in – a brittle timing belt snapped, or maybe a head gasket finally cracked.

But this Stanza remains interesting because it shows how boxy car styling was when the crossover concept hooked its roots into the US market. Cars don’t look like this anymore, but they are still giving their platforms to taller wagon versions of themselves.

Find a Nissan Altima near you with BestRide’s local search.