I Miss Boxy, Angular Cars: 1984 Honda Accord vs 1989 Nissan Sentra

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Good morning, and welcome back to another week of cars you’d never buy, but love to make fun of. Today, we’re taking a look at two cars from a styling period that could be best defined as “my six-year-old could draw that.” But before we do, let’s check in on our trucks from Friday:

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Looks like a pretty clear win for the Chevy. I imagine the price disparity had a lot to do with that. As of this writing, the Chevy is still cheaper, but catching up: $2,575 to $5,100. Still a hell of a deal.

The longer I write this column, the more I start to figure out what cars are good choices. It’s not always about picking “good” cars; in fact, some of the best discussions we’ve had so far have been about cars that no one in their right mind would buy. (Luckily for the sellers, there are a lot of people who aren’t in their right minds.) But a lot of times, I find one car that catches my eye, and then have to go looking for a mate to it, something with some tie that binds. I’ll leave it to you to speculate on which car was the “seed crystal” for any given day’s choices.

For today’s picks, I went with a pair of Japanese sedans from the 1980s. They’re from different manufacturers, but if you told me they were designed by the same person, I’d believe you. I know a lot of people hate this rectilinear design language that permeated the car market from the late ’70s through the ’80s (my wife is one of them), but I quite like it. It looks clean and sharp to me, especially compared to today’s fussy, oddly-shaped blobs with enormous grilles and wheels and tiny windows.

1984 Honda Accord LX – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Lake Oswego, OR

Odometer reading: 181,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

You don’t see very many early Honda Accords these days, and I have first-hand experience as to why. In 1995, I bought an ’84 Accord sedan very smiliar to this, except mine was maroon and had a 5 speed manual. Eleven years old at the time, and it already had gaping rust holes in the rocker panels and jagged edges on the bottoms of the doors. Eventually the brakes went out: a steel brake line under the car rusted through. I took it to a shop to have it fixed, and it was so rusty they couldn’t put it on a lift. I reluctantly junked it. I got a year and change out of it – roughly 20,000 miles – so I got my $800 worth, but it was still frustrating. I really liked that car.

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This car features a gem of an engine, Honda’s famous CVCC design, here with 3 valves per cylinder (2 intake and 1 exhaust). In the Prelude, this engine came equipped with two side-draft carburetors, but the Accord made do with a single 3-barrel carb and a little less power. It’s not a powerhouse, but it’s smooth and reliable and willing to rev. The power steering is also noteworthy: it’s variable-assist based on engine speed, and Honda nailed the tuning of it. It’s fingertip-light when parking, but has almost no boost at all at speed, and excellent feel.

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Rust-free though this Accord may be, it’s not perfect. It has some dings and dents, but it’s still the cleanest second-generation Accord I’ve seen for sale in a while. The seller notes a problem with the HVAC controls: it’s stuck on defrost/floor for airflow. It’s a push-button control unit, and I believe it’s electrical rather than vacuum-controlled. It should be fixable, but it will mean tearing apart the dashboard. But hey, if that’s the only thing you have to fix, for $2000, that ain’t bad.

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There’s a laundry list of recently-replaced mechanical items in the ad as well. At 181,000 miles, it probably still has plenty of life left in it.

1989 Nissan Sentra – $1,400

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter inline 4, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Olympia, WA

Odometer reading: 91,000 miles, but odometer is broken

Runs/drives? Sure does

This Sentra is an example of something else I miss: two-door sedans. Not coupes; there was a Sentra coupe, and it was even more angular than this car, and had a lower roofline. This is exactly the same roofline as the four-door sedan. This was common for years and years, and even when this car was built, you could still buy two-door versions of Jettas and BMW 3 series and other cars that were clearly sedan-shaped. Nissan kept doing this throughout this and the next generation of Sentra, but it was among the last.

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Honestly, I miss interiors like this as well. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, and all made out of sturdy plastic that is unashamed of its working-class roots. Soft-touch? Not here, pal. Alcantara? Never heard of her. And just looking at this photo, I can hear Nissan’s door chime from the ’80s: “dink-donk, dink-donk,” which was an actual bell, by the way, not an electronically-produced sound.

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And if I were to wax nostalgic about plain steel thirteen-inch wheels, that would be a bridge too far, wouldn’t it?

This Sentra is said to run well, and has also had a lot of recent maintenance. It needs a couple of broken items replaced, including the passenger-side door handle and the speedometer cable (I think these were still cables in ’89). But it looks pretty sharp for being a 33 year old car. Don’t expect to get anywhere in a hurry, with only 70 horsepower and an automatic, but you should slow down and enjoy the journey more anyway. It’s good for the soul.

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One thing I never could figure out about these Sentras is that oval-shaped recess in the grille where the badge goes. What’s the point? Why an oval? Whose idea was this, and what were they trying to convey? Another mystery lost to the ages.

[Editor’s Note: Before I read the above sentences I thought to myself about how I always liked that odd ovoid depression in the grille around the badge! – JT]

You may not agree with me about this nice clean sharp-edged look and that’s fine. You’re allowed to be wrong. And I know there will be some grousing about the fact that they’re both automatics. I’ll see what I can do to find us some stickshifts tomorrow. For now, these are what we have to work with.



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57 Responses

  1. My dad had a 4 door white Nissan Sentra when I was a kid with the 5 speed manual (It was a huge thing because the next generation came with a 4-speed manual on the poverty spec and the competition had 4 speed manuals). Those were the good years from Nissan, that car never let us down. When he put it for sale, it was gone in 3 hours. Honda was not even a thing in Mexico, Nissan and VW were the kings back then.

    1. yeah, I was gonna go Sentra until I saw the auto trans. also since the Sentra was basically the replacement of the Beetle in Mexico, you can theoretically still find parts, but still that 3 speed auto has to go.

  2. I wouldn’t even call either of these cars shitboxes. They’re both garbage compared to modern cars, but the impossibly clean 1957 Bel Aires that people practically shit themselves over at car shows are also garbage compared to what was being cranked out 40 years later. These cars are survivors to me, and very unlikely ones at that.

    I’ll take the Nissan that’s almost a Datsun. 2 door economy cars need to make a comeback. Rear doors add cost and complexity that cheap little cars don’t even need. My brother and I would go through the hatch and slide over the vinyl seats in Dad’s 3 door Civic. Who needs rear doors?

      1. The problem I ran into was the size of the space itself. Even with rear doors, I couldn’t put my daughter’s convertible seat in the back of my 4 door Mazda3 without moving the front passenger seat so far up that nobody could use it. This Sentra is a single person’s car anyways. You bought a car like this to go on dates that ended with non-procreative adult fun time.

      2. My god modern car seats are massive. I know people who have had to trade in reasonably sized cars – compact SUVs and stuff – because they needed to put a car seat in there.

        But even as a man who is definitely not in danger of having children I get why 2-doors don’t really exist. Beyond the child seat, transaction prices getting so high means longer loans, so if you buy something it’s going to have to be useful for the next decade instead of a couple years until you are forced to be a grown up.

        1. Modern convertible car seats are huge. In this weird world though, it turns out that the back seat of a Nissan Xterra is smaller than a Golf. I couldn’t fit my son’s car seat other than in the middle in my Xterra. When shopping for my next car I was surprised to find the Golf bigger and able to handle the car seat, rear facing, behind the passenger with plenty of room. And that’s how I convinced my wife that a Golf R is a family car.

  3. Going for the Sentra solely because I drove past one a few days ago maybe slightly older but an old Sentra nonetheless and I was amazed it was still kicking and it hadn’t been eaten alive by the rust monster that is the northeast.

  4. I feel that 156hp is probably just enough power for most 4 seat cars to safely merge on the freeway with all the seats filled.

    These cars total that HP together! I do not miss the 80’s. (Even though a lot of today’s cars have more engine than needed. )

    The Honda is a more iconic design, so it wins by a whisker.

  5. This is a stumper.

    You even got me looking up specs on these puppies, so I could compare lb⋅ft of torque to per-lb curb weight for each (22.93 for the Honda, 25.52 for the Nissan). Overall, the ES engine in the Honda has the power advantage, despite being carbureted, so I guess there’s no replacement for displacement. In the Nissan’s favor, though, the torque comes in about 300 RPMs lower, so there’s that.

    I prefer working with and trouble shooting FI systems instead of carburetors, especially one hooked up to vacuum spaghetti like the CVCC, so that’s a point for the Nissan. However, the interior of the Honda is a superior place to be in my humble opinion. Given that, and the slight power-to-weight advantage for the Big H, I think that’s what I’m going with. Since neither would likely be my dedicated DD, I could deal with the carburetor and CVCC idiosyncrasies.

    “I know a lot of people hate this rectilinear design language that permeated the car market from the late ’70s through the ’80s (my wife is one of them), but I quite like it. It looks clean and sharp to me, especially compared to today’s fussy, oddly-shaped blobs with enormous grilles and wheels and tiny windows.”

    My brother, yes.

    1. I rented a Sentra from this generation at Logan airport in a past life. For 2 weeks it was a terrifying penalty box, with seats more suited to a backyard deck and doors that felt made of aluminum foil. “Flimsy” is a compliment to this chassis. Merging in Massachusetts traffic with the anemic engine was piss-yer-pants scary around 18 wheelers – I swear I could see the grim reaper laughing in the side view mirror. And the noise….earplugs would have nice on the highway. Honda’s of this era were, well, Honda’s. No brainer – Honda all the way.

  6. The Honda is nearly identical to one my father bought new, except his was an ’82 (or ’83)? The second gen was so exciting at the time he had to win a coin toss to buy the car. Then it proceeded to bore him to death. He got sick of it pretty quickly because the coin toss meant he had to settle for one without many options. He traded it for an ’84 Subaru GL, which was like a space ship in comparison, digital dash and all. That got handed down to me as my first car.

    Neat story and all but I love those Sentras, so the Sentra gets my vote. I mean, look at those wheels!

  7. I had (essentially) both of these cars in high school, although they were both manuals. (My Accord was an 82, but I think it’s the same family as the 84).
    I really liked the Accord, but it began dying at stop lights, and it was hard to get it restarted. Bad combination, so we junked it. Dad got tired of dealing with used cars so we bought a new Sentra to replace it. It was the cheapest we could find, bare bones stripper. Didn’t have a vanity mirror under the visors, and it didn’t even have a passenger side view mirror. I think it had a radio, though, because I don’t recall adding one. That car got wrecked at repaired three times (only one was my fault) before we had enough of it.
    Between the two of them, I think I’d rather have my old 86 Civic back. So I didn’t vote for either of them.

  8. Honda because I had an ’84 Civic that I drove until the bumpers fell off – literally, a mount rusted through – and it was an absolute blast.

    The bigger Accord may not be AS fun but Honda knew how to make an entertaining, reliable car. Didn’t know how to rustproof it yet but nobody’s perfect.

  9. I picked the Nissan. Why? It sucks the least. Honda Automatics have always been known to be problematic, because only Americans bought them, and Honda decided they needed to be punished. The Nissan Auto was a direct copy of the GM TH-350 (in miniature), so it can love you long time. Problems with the Nissan are you need glasses to change the water pumps(tiny gaskets), and the rocker panels dissolve in water. The 5-speed manuals always end up without a 5th gear(weak over-dive add-on).
    Do they even sell non-utility-trailer tires in 13 inches anymore? You’re not getting laid by either of these cars, and no high-speed chase videos will ever occur, but the Nissan will get your there. Plus, I always like the molded Headlights(they were a model($) upgrade).

    1. You reminded me of one reason I sold my last old (1987) Subaru: couldn’t hardly find tires.
      And, TireRack only shows 2 in the 185/70/13 they take-and they’re both $86. It’s truly sad when you can’t shoe your trusty cheap-ass beater anymore

      Wait! There’s a cloud on my lawn!

      1. I also miss the cheaply shoed shitboxes. I LIKE the small rim tires because the tall sidewalls are so helpful on small cars. I usually went just a little bit wider and lower profile than factory original economy tires, but still ended up the same height to damp the bumps and potholes.

        Paying $40 each for brand new tires was almost a pleasure when friends were shelling out a minimum of $150 each for their low profile, hard riding skins.

  10. I really want to vote for the Sentra. My first car was the base model just like the one here, the only option was a passenger mirror. No power steering, air conditioning came from windspeed and a four speed manual, but that car was a hoot to drive. The reason I can’t vote for it is that it must’ve been made as the same material of a Doritos bag. I’d be afraid of getting hit by anything larger than a bumble bee. Death trap aside, it still brings some good memories!

  11. The Honda is the far better car, but I’d take the Nissan.

    They’ll both be dead from rust soon after I bring them home from the Pacific Northwest, but the Nissan will take a little longer to disintegrate.

    Honda vacuum lines vs fuel injection has already been mentioned, and I agree.

    I also like the shape of the Nissan better, including the little oval punt in the grille.

  12. I voted Honda for all the reasons. Nostalgia (Dad had an 80’s Accord). Engine. Slightly better auto slush box. Interior that still manages to feel like it cared. And a minimally rusted 80’s Accord is unobtanium, I know it because I read it here.

  13. At first I was thinking Honda, just from knowing how many of my friends have had such good luck with those in the past, but I had to vote for the Nissan. I also miss 2-door sedans of that nature. Plus, if you do your own wrenching, $600 extra dollars can go surprisingly far with maintenance on cars like this.

  14. That “rectilinear design language” is what put the “box” in “shitbox” or more aptly in my book, “penalty box” which is what I recall these turkeys going by colloquially when they were current. I drove one of those Accords as a courier for an architecture firm as a summer job in high school and beat the shit out of it.

    They make a statement, for sure – “I hate myself and take pleasure out of material suffering”.

  15. Given they’re both automatics, I’d take the Nissan because,

    Late 2019 I was car-shopping. Working on an old wrenching buddy’s furnace one day, I was bitching, ‘I can’t find SHIT on CL with 3 pedals: I’d take an ‘85 Sentra if it ran for 3grand!’ He cocked a thumb at the wrx and said, ‘Dude, I can’t stay outa boost in that: caught myself going over 80 (we’re in VA) THREE TIMES this week! My CDL feeds my kids-I’ll sell it to ya for 3k’. I went up his road a mile, thought the clutch a bit sketchy, otherwise tight. Never lifted the hood or looked underneath: he bought it & that was good enough. 10 days from him titling it to me doing so. True story.

    Alex, man, you’re a stand-up guy. I still owe ya a big favor!

  16. The Accord is probably more comfortable and has a better road feel. But I wouldn’t want to deal with the carburetor, this is the era where car manufacturers went nuts with a million vacuum lines that go everywhere and if one leaks somewhere, it’ll never run quite right. And there is a good chance there is a vacuum leak somewhere in cars this old.
    So I’d go with the Sentra, hopefully it’s fuel injected. According to Wikipedia, they were TBI-equipped after 1988. The 3-speed auto is probably dead simple too.

  17. I certainly never realized many hated the rectilinear styling of the 80s, while not exactly meh, I never hear people talking about it like it is polarizing love or hate it either. I think the cars look fine, but I am certainly not ever going to look lovingly at one of these cars in my garage (or avert my eyes when I see one either).

    The Sentra was seen as a bit of a penalty box even when new, Nissan upped their game with the next generation and the SE-R especially,but even the basic spec car was a lot better. I’ll take the Honda.

  18. Easy choice for me: Honda. I had three older Hondas in my history–’77 and ’78 Accords and an ’81 Civic–and they were all great. Fun and sensible, easy to maintain, perfect shitboxes that stayed respectable even when they entered shitbox status.

    I delivered pizza for Pizza Hut in my college years, and I had a coworker, a petite blonde whose name escapes me, who drove that exact same Sentra, right down to the color. She got in a minor wreck at some point, mostly uninjured, but she got her head stuck in that steering wheel and it needed to be cut off her.

    I have looked with suspicion at that car ever since, with its skull-eating steering wheel.

  19. Wow this actually a tough call.. the Sentra is cheaper and doesn’t have an AC issue to resolve but it’s so much cheaper looking than that Honda. A manual transmission in either would have easily swayed my decision but as it stands, if I have to choose one, I’ll take the nicer Honda and pray that the AC fix is easy and doesn’t need some hard to find part.

  20. I chose the Nissan for pure nostalgia. My Dad had an 86 and it the car I took my drivers license test in. My sister had an 88. Those cars were dead simple to work on, and virtually indestructible. The Accord had the same reputation, and I don’t think you could go wrong either way.

  21. I’ll take the Honda, please. That Accord just feels like a piece of history to me in a way that the Sentra doesn’t. Also, I bet that HVAC blend door issue is way easier to fix than whatever’s going on with the speedo/odo. People overestimate the difficulty of working inside the dash of older cars, whereas if it were really just a cable on the Sentra I bet it would’ve got sorted out long ago since having a broken odometer is a huge problem for a lot of potential buyers—including me. I’m guessing one of the little plastic clips that the blend door rod fits into (I’m assuming that’s how it works—those buttons look like the “ka-chunk” kind that actually move stuff around, rather than just closing a contact) just broke. It’s probably about 30 minutes of work to get to it, and then it’s a matter of JB Weld and/or zipties from there. Or you could just live with it. A nonfunctional speedo/odo is more problematic than an HVAC system with a foot fetish.

    The CVCC engine may be complicated, but it’s also historic. It’s a very cool design with a good story associated with it. I’ll try my hand at keeping that carburetor tuned up.

    Also, I just think it’s the better looking car and will probably drive better too. If you freshened up the suspension, you might have something that actually has a bit of spirit to it. The autotragic is, well, tragic, but we don’t have a choice about that here.

  22. I wouldn’t kick either of these out of bed. I’ve owned slightly newer versions of both (’88 Accord hatch and ’92 Sentra XE), and would gladly drive either of those cars again. The Accord got me through college with nary an issue, and the speed-sensitive power steering is indeed sublime.

    The B13 Sentra is to this day among the best-handling front-drivers I’ve experienced. Even with the base 110-hp 1.6, that car was an absolute blast at 9/10 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Both my Sentra and Accord were manuals, though. Since both of these are autos, driver engagement isn’t so much of a factor, so I’ll go with the more comfortable one. Accord it is.

  23. The ’84 Accord’s HVAC is mechanoelectrical (not electromechanical.) The actual controls are mechanical. The blend door position switches are actually mechanical, and likely just stuck. No idea if they’re repairable, but decent shot of it. Even if not, the unit’s not too bad to find. (The wiring is classic Honda lunacy though. Who the fuck uses two separate 1-wire banana plugs just for lighting?) Easy repair.

    The ’89 Sentra’s repairs aren’t hard, but parts sourcing is extremely difficult. It’s far more likely the speedo/odo gear broke (33 year old plastic bathed in transmission fluid, so, yeah.) Which is why the low price, I’m sure. But none of the problems are difficult fixes. It’s just going to be a nightmare finding parts. The door handle is probably just the plastic thingy on the rod, another common problem across all makes and models. Easy to find something that’ll work for that, and maybe an hour or two of work.

    But as far as shitbox evaluation goes? This is a rare occasion where you can’t go wrong with either.
    Yep. I said that. Both are priced reasonably, both are definitely shitboxes, and both are perfectly serviceable as shitboxes with a minimum investment of time and money.

  24. Funny how time changes our perception of cars. In their era the Accord was considered the best in its class. The Sentra, not so much. As an actual car to have to drive around it’s no contest…the Accord wins.

  25. I kinda wanted to go with the Honda until I saw the AC situation. Those of us on the Gulf coast need AC blowing cold 10 months out of the year and it can’t be fogging up the windshield! So I went Nissan.

  26. “I Miss Boxy, Angular Cars”

    Me too. Went with the Honda on this one, mostly because I really like blue on cars, and really dislike red on cars. Also I have much fonder memories of my Honda than I do for my Nissan. Not particularly relevant to these two cars, but it’s the kind wonky thinking that typically goes into car purchases, so . . .

  27. Nissan gets my vote for a number of reasons:

    – two door sedan, heck yeah!
    – fuel injection
    – six hundred bucks cheaper
    – appears to have something of a tunnel under the console should one ever succumb to the urge to do something obscene like a rwd conversion

    By the way, I also love the oval detent in the grille. It’s an artful touch on an otherwise conservatively buttoned down design.

  28. Nostalgia is taking the wheel this morning. My parents had an Accord of this vintage, and loved it. My dad traded in their Civic even though it was only a year old when he saw the new Accords at the dealership during a service trip. My mom never stopped talking about it even after it was gone. I think because she hated the Caprice wagon we traded it in on. 4 kids will put you in cars you aren’t always wild about as I am finding out now!

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