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:
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
Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter inline 4, 4 speed automatic, FWD
Location: Lake Oswego, OR
Odometer reading: 181,000 miles
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
My vote goes to the Accord. It’s a much nicer car than the Sentra… and has a better automatic.
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”.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.