Hi ho. Silvia and away: S13, S14 and S15 tested. Three versions of Nissan’s iconic sideways superhero, the Silvia, celebrate their 30th, 25th and 20th birthdays – but which is best? Words Will Beaumont Photography Jordan Buttbut.
HEAD TO HEAD NISSAN SILVIA CELEBRATION
Three generations of Nissan’s sideways superheroes celebrate anniversaries – which is best?
GRAN TURISMO DRIFT KINGS Three generations of Nissan’s rear-drive superhero
Silvia. Either a ludicrous name for a car or actually quite adorable. Your outlook probably depends on whether you had a Great Aunt Silvia and, if you did, how much cash she put in your birthday card envelope. But even if you do have fond memories of an aged relative, adorable isn’t how you’d describe Nissan’s later Silvias. After a glamorous and exclusive start in the 1960s with the sleek CSP31, this Japanese coupe matured in a bad-mannered, Beastie Boys type way in the 1980s and 1990s. The Silvia’s later years were spent in just the way we’d all like to age (or I would at least): as the in-your-face poster child of a smoke-filled and rebellious underground club.
For the Silvia, the motto of that club was Driftus Maximus. Its rear-wheel drive layout made it perfect for just-for-fun sliding, but the Silvia’s own evolution didn’t move at the same pace as the activity in which it excelled. Drifting moved on from illicit, late-night skid sessions into the spectacle of smoke, sideways and energy drinks that it is today. Still, even though the changes from the 1980s S13 to the final S15 of 2002 were minor, the Silvia remained a brilliant drifter. Even now they compete at the highest level.
Back when drifting was simply cars sliding side-to-side up a twisting, hairpin-littered touge in the Japanese mountains – an era now preserved by grainy VHS footage found in the depths of YouTube – there were really only two cars to choose from: AE86 Toyotas, which get more than their fair share of attention, and S13 Nissans. These Nissans, both the two-door Silvia and 180SX (a Hatchback with pop-up headlights) had all the attributes a scholar of sideways needed from their car, besides a rear wheel drive configuration. That the S13 came with fully independent suspension (a MacPherson strut front end and a multi-link rear axle) and was available with an optional viscous-coupling limited-slip differential and a turbocharged engine (initially the 167bhp CA18DET and later the 202bhp SR20DET) was just an added bonus. The turbocharged version of the Silvia was the K’s, or the King’s Silvia if you will. You see, there were three trim levels, all named after the faces from a deck of playing cards: Js, Qs and Ks – Jacks, Queens and Kings. Only the top spec car came with a turbocharger and, as you’d expect, that’s the one we have here.
Parked next to its successors, the S13 Silvia is certainly more of a classic car. It’s compact and low, and once you’re sat in its cloth seats flanked by tweed-like door cards, it feels narrow. Small it may be, but thanks to a low waistline, a shallow and steeply raked dash, and relatively thin pillars, the interior is airy and bright. This car’s aftermarket Momo steering wheel sits in exactly the correct place for me, creating a perfect driving position. Add that to the excellent view and the compact footprint, and I start wriggling in the seat eager to set off. Before I do, a digitised female voice speaking in Japanese echoes from behind the dash to make it very clear that I am in an 1980s Japanese car. As if I needed reminding.
After only a few metres down the road I can sense just how purposeful the Silvia is. It feels tight and dense as if there are tensed muscles right underneath its steel panels. There’s no sloppiness in the steering or pedals and the gearshift is direct and substantial. The engine matches that brawny feel too: even at low revs the car responds instantly to every touch of the throttle, revealing the power and lightness of this Silvia.
I let the revs rise. The noise and performance builds in a typically turbocharged way. Then, as I lift off the throttle to change up, I’m treated to a big wategate puff. This really is the full turbo experience, including just a little bit of lag.
The Nismo R-tune coilovers and Volk Racing 17-inch wheels this car is fitted with will have certainly eroded some of this Silvia’s everyday usability, but they’re also likely to have added to the sharpness and aggression that’s immediately apparent. The front end responds dutifully to my inputs. I can enter a corner with fantastic confidence, even after very little time to get accustomed to the car. But it isn’t until I get on the throttle that the Silvia feels most comfortable, as soon as the rear axle is loaded up – even with the tyres totally adhered to the tarmac – a whole new window of control opens up. As I squeeze on the throttle it feels like the car wants to rotate around a point somewhere at the base of the handbrake. The totally transparent response of the chassis allows me to dedicate more attention to the engine’s not-quite-so-linear power delivery. You know, so I’m never caught out when it does come over all turbocharged.
On an open corner I muster up a bit more confidence. Just as I’m dealing with the last section of the bend, and the turbos are fully awake, there’s enough power to breach the tyre’s grip threshold and I exit with just a quarter of a turn of lock. I might not be indulging all my Japanese fantasies – the ones about drifting, behave – but I am revelling in some classic front-engined RWD balance.
You can almost hear the chirp. 2.0 four delivered a whooshtastic 202bhp and 7-second 0-60. It’s easy to get comfortable in the supportive seats. Aftermarket Momo never looked better.
WHAT TO PAY Silvia S13
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BOUGHT ONE JAMES TYNE
‘This is not my first Silvia. I’ve owned a few before, an S14 as well as an S13 Silvia. I imported this one myself. It was easy as there are companies out there in Japan that will look over the cars for you. You send them your requirements and they find the one for you, and you don’t pay them much commission.
Full disclosure, as the Americans say. This Silvia, the S14, isn’t technically a Silvia. It’s a UK-spec 200SX. Other than the name and a few trim changes, the only difference between the Japanese Silvia and European 200SX is a slightly different turbocharger. The power is just the same. For this generation, then, the whole world got the booted two-door coupé Silvia template. As well as adopting the three-box silhouette – although now bigger, wider and rounder – the S14 took the turbocharged 2-litre engine from the S13 too, but with a few changes. The updated SR20DET, called the ‘bentcam’ because of the way the Cam cover droops down towards the back of the engine, has a larger turbo than before along with VCT (Variable Cam Timing) on the inlet side. The result of the updates is an increase in power to 217bhp.
The S14 Silvia and 200SX received a cosmetic facelift in 1996. The rounded front lights were replaced by angular, angrier headlamps, while the rear lights became tinted. This restyled model, like the one you see here, is known as the S14a. And the one you see here is exactly like a car you’d encounter in the late 1990s, because not only is this one perfectly standard – a very rare thing for a Silvia – it’s also wonderfully preserved. It’s covered fewer than 19,000 miles, but inside it feels as if it could be fewer than 19.
The interior is immaculate, the plastics are blemish free and the cream-leather seats haven’t lost a hint of their support. It’s a similar environment to the S13’s, only more modern. The dash slopes backwards in the same way, the controls are still minimal and functional, and the seating position is so easy to adjust to how I like it. There’s definitely more room around me than in the S13, but the dash and doors are a little higher, slightly reducing vision.
Twist the key and the soft chunter from the starter motor is followed by an exhaust burble that’s distinctly quieter than the modified S13’s. There also isn’t the same solid feeling as you get fromthe earlier car as you trundle down the road. What it lacks in density, this standard car makes up for in comfort; it’s so creamy and smooth, you ride along in relative silence, cosseted by plush leather seats and plump, high-profile tyres.
It might not be as overtly aggressive as the modified S13, but beyond the softness of the big tyres is a similar tautness and determination to the chassis. As the car starts to lean on its outside wheels I feel the suspension adding real support to each corner. I have to be slightly more patient with this car: the generous amounts of roll from the standard set up doesn’t encourage you to edge up to its limits quite as willingly. The more enthusiastic I am, however, the more I start to unveil some of the aggression that’s so obvious in the modified S13. Most notably, I start to feel the same sensation that the car is totally in its element when you’re powering out of a corner.
One aspect of the S14 that’s very different is its engine. Yes, there’s not the same theatre of whoops from the turbo, chirps from the wastegate, or a bassy exhaust note from this untouched motor, but it just doesn’t feel as energetic as the revs pass 4500rpm. There’s enough low down torque and power for the S14 to still feel fast, but there isn’t the same reward for staying in the lower gears like you get from the earlier car. An aftermarket exhaust and air filter, as you might find on a more typical example, might liberate a bit more energy at the top end.
It’s clear to see why Silvias are so often modified, then. This standard car is deeply satisfying to drive; it’s fast and responsive, with all the direct and communicative controls you’d expect from a well-engineered sports car, but you do have to push through a layer of softness.
I BOUGHT ONE MATTHEW BEALL
‘I’ve only had this car about a month. It’s my first Japanese car. I started looking at JDM stuff, firstly Integras and then I came across the S14. I like the drift scene. It’s quite a bit different, as it’s quite a bit older than most of the cars I’ve had, its got a lot of character.’
Overtones of gen-3 Prelude from this end.
‘THERE’S ENOUGH PO E TO BREA H THE CAR’S GRIP THRESHOLD’
10bhp more – but 100kg more too. He’s listening to Feeder and Garbage on loop. Pipes on parade: very exhausting. Stock wheels on a Nissan Silvia (well, 200SX) isn’t a common sight. Legendary 217bhp four takes SX to the brink of a 6-sec 0-60 time.
WHAT TO PAY 200SX S14
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We’re back into a real life Silvia now, one with an actual Silvia badge. Next to its predecessors, the final S15 looks much more modern thanks to its neat, fuss-free lines and sculpted front lights. It’s still very clearly a Silvia though, with its trimshape and long, elegant boot.
Underneath it’s typically Silvia, too. There’s the trusty SR20DET engine for the turbocharged version, now called the Spec-R rather than the K’s. This engine was treated to some upgrades for the final Silvia: a new ECU and ignition setup that helped increase the max power output to 247bhp. Other changes for the S15were a six-speed gearbox and a new limited-slip differential – an automatic torque-basing (helical) diff rather than the old viscous coupling unit. However, the banging and thudding from the rear axle suggests that this S15’s differential may have been swapped for a much more aggressive plated, two-way limited-slip diff. That’s not the only change either. Like a lot of Silvias, this S15 benefits from a fine selection of modifications. In Japan there are many tuning garages that specialise in each marque (Nismo, Mine’s and Autech are just a few Nissan-specific ones) along with credible parts suppliers for almost every car. All are trying to satisfy a culture fixated on altering and improving cars. It’s a miracle that any Silvia has managed to remain completely standard up to now. So this car, with its SSR 17-inchwheels, CS2 coilovers, Nismo LSD, Tomei exhaust manifold, Blitz intercooler, Kakimoto exhaust system may not represent what a factory-fresh late Silvia might be like, but it’s the quintessential Japanese car culture S15.
It has a few non-performance related upgrades too, the most amusing one being a satnav that still thinks it’s in Japan. The rest of the interior is a departure from the earlier cars and looks more conventional. The sloping dash has given way to a more upright centre console and round air vents. All the controls have the same slick feel. The gearchange is solid and short, brake and throttle perfectly weighted.
Above crawling pace the plate diff quietens down, but trundling through a village the car bounces and fidgets. It’s a little on the uncomfortable side, but you can just sense that the springs and dampers are longing for some real load to cope with. Time to press the throttle down hard in third and feel the engine rev to its redline. Like the S13’s motor, this engine becomes hyperactive towards the top of its rev range, emitting a deep exhaust grumble and a crescendo of boost chatter when you let off the accelerator.
With greater speed the suspension settles and I can now concentrate on the line I want to take rather than one that avoids any bumps. All those Silvia traits I’ve experienced in the earlier cars are not only clear and evident in this more aggressively set-up car, but emphasised. First, there’s the obedient front end with crisp steering that hides nothing about what the front tyres are doing. Then there’s that same Silvia poise as soon as you load up the rear end. It’s even more noticeable in this stiffer car. Even minute throttle applications have an effect on the car’s cornering attitude. It’s more playful than the other cars: the engine punches harder from low down and can overwhelm the rear tyres more easily, but even with the rear wheels spinning gently it feels just as content and controllable as it did before the tyres exceeded their grip.
Then it rains. Just a few spots on the windscreen, but there’s enough water on the ground for the Landsail rear tyres (why lunch anything decent) to become useless. Not only do they struggle to contain the S15’s power, they can’t quite cope with lateral load either. Now it feels like a true drift car as the rear slews sideways when turning in, whether I like it or not, I have no choice but to ride the slide around the entire corner, pretending I did it on purpose. I’m glad I got to experience the Silvia in what we think of as its most natural state, in perpetual fear you might reach its lock-stops, because there’s no doubt it’s gifted at sliding. But I’ve also learnt it has a whole lot more to offer.
BOUGHT ONE LEWIS CONCANNON
‘I’ve owned my Silvia for two years. It’s my first Nissan. It’s far less comfortable than my old FN2 Civic Type-R, but has so much more character. The Nissan has proved to be more reliable. I had more issues with my Civic than I’ve had with this in the same amount of time.’
We know GT1 didn’t have rain effects…
WHAT TO PAY Silvia S15
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Nice mods add purpose to S15 cabin. This car thinks that it’s still pounding the mean streets of Shinjuku. Now we’re thinking RX-7. Great profile. More power and less kg than the SX.
The Modern Classics view
Take away all of the Silvia’s cult status and drifting heritage and what you’re left with is a beautifully balanced, deeply enjoyable sports car. Each car here offers up everything that its technical makeup would suggest.
The front-engined rear-wheel drive layout delivers on a promise of clear, uncorrupted steering, a direct gearchange and precise, throttle-adjustable handling. Its engine emits all the whistles and flutters that you’d expect from a turbocharged motor, but also all the performance you would hope for too, especially after a few upgrades. As this S14 proves, though, the Silvia is a joyful and sophisticated car in perfectly standard form. The typical Silva route might be to modify in order to accentuate the car’s obvious main attributes, but it also has to be said that an untouched car has a greater range of abilities, as it can combine incredible comfort with entertainment.
Ultimately, it seems a shame that drifting is so ingrained in the Silvia’s reputation because it undermines how excellent these cars are before you’ve needed to wind on any corrective lock. Even so, there’s currently very little downside to its legendary status. Unlike the Toyota AE86, the other car beloved of the drift fraternity, prices of the Silvia are still pretty reasonable – you’ll be able to find decent examples of each model for under £10,000.
The biggest challenge is choosing between them, as they broadly offer the same experience. I’d opt for the S13; it’s smaller size means it feels like the Silvia formula but distilled into a purer package, plus I think it’s the best-looking one. You see, that’s really the only way to decide: you just have to pick the one that speaks to you.
‘IT HAS ALL THE WHISTLES AND FLUTTERS, BUT ALSO ALL THE PERFORMANCE YOU’D HOPE FOR’
THANKS To the owners, the rain gods and Si’s photoshop skills.
I DRIFT ONE JAMES DEANE, CURRENT FORMULA D CHAMPION
‘I managed to win my first professional drifting event when I was 15 years old in an S14 Nissan Silvia, and it all went on from there. ‘I’ve been using an S15 for the past two years in the United States Formula D championship and I’ve managed to win that championship back-to-back against the world’s biggest drift teams.
‘I have driven completely standard Silvias, whether it’s an S13, 14 or 15, and you can get them to drift really easily. The wheelbase is nice, the width is nice, the steering is nice.
‘It’s quite flowing when you’re transitioning from side to side, and it’s all very predictable. The Nissan is just a very nicely balanced car straight from the factory. It was almost like Nissan built these cars to drift.
‘What makes them so good is that there are so many parts available off the shelf. So, if somebody wants to get into drifting, it’s really easy to research what part you need, what works, and to set up options. You can just find everything online.
‘Obviously, the car I use is very well developed. It has 1000bhp and the engine from a Toyota Supra (2JZ), plus it has nitrous. It’s extremely powerful. ‘However, you can actually buy everything that’s on my drift car right off the shelf.
‘That’s why I love them, they’re so easy in that sense and they are so are much fun to drive. I just absolutely love everything about them.’
What we’d all do with free tyres.
S110 – WHERE IT ALL KICKED OFF
The S110 is, in many respects, the first true Silvia. The first car to wear the badge, this 1960s hand-built CSP311was expensive and Exclusive whereas the dumpy S10 that followed was hardly a performance car. Itwasn’t until 1979when Nissan released the S110 that the Silvia really became an affordable, attainable and relatively practical sports car. The S110-generationwas fitted with more potent engines, including the 16-valve 147bhp FJ20Emotor and the turbocharged 133bhp Z18ET engine. Like most of Nissan’s S-chassis cars, the S110wasn’t just called a Silvia, it was named the 200SX in the US, a 180SX in Europe and a Sakura in Mexico. As well as the two-door notch-back shape there was a hatch version, often called the Gazelle.
Much of the S110’s legacy and its impression on Japanese car culture is thanks to its involvement with the Super Silhouette series in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The huge splitters, wings and arches that the race cars wore inspired a new, and very Japanese, approach to modifying road cars. Kaido Racers or Bosozoku style cars seek to emulate those original racers but with even bigger aero appendages, angular hooded fronts and exhaust stacks that would embarrass an American trucker. The S110 Silvia’s boxy shape and Super Silhouette heritage make it a very popular choice for this extreme treatment.
S12: WHO NEEDS AN AE86 ANYWAY?
Thanks to its sharp lines, wedge-like profile and pop-up headlamps, the Nissan S12 looks more than a little like the Silvia’s drift brother, the Toyota Sprinter Trueno.
Its appearance isn’t the only similarity this Silva has with Toyota’s AE86, because both are front-engined rear-wheel drive coupes with live axles and four-cylinder engines, and both come in two- and three-door shapes. With them being so alike it’s remarkable that the S12 generation of Silvia didn’t become a cult icon in parallel with the Toyota, especially as the Nissan came with the turbocharged twin-cam CA18DET engine that made it a far more serious performance car straight out of the box. The Silvia had to wait until the S13 before it would reach that sort of stature. The ultimate road-going S12 is arguably the Grand Prix Edition, a Silvia with fibreglass box arches and three-piece split-rim wheels.
Only 50 or so versions of this Model were built for the German and Swiss markets, but despite its limited run and extreme looks, both usually the hallmarks of a homologation special, the Silvia Grand Prix Edition was never used in competition. Regular narrow bodied Silvias were used on rally stages instead.
If you happen to be shopping in Sweden (well, you might…), this Desirable machine was called the 180ZX, in order to avoid any Confusion with the Queen of Sweden – an easy mistake to make in lowlight conditions.
SILVIAS IN MOTORSPORT
Nissan campaigned the Silvia in many types of motorsport. Paul Newman raced the S10 (the US 200SX) for only a year in the IMSA series, but the S110’s competition history is a lot more credible. It was a phenomenal success in the Super Silhouette championship between 1979 and 1984, the 570bhp car racing against bespoke Mazda RX-7s, Toyota Celicas and Datsun 280ZXs and laid the foundations for its sideways reputation when, in 1983, Nissan took it rallying. It didn’t do that well in Group B against the all-wheel drive, turbocharged beasts from Lancia, Peugeot and Audi taking advantage of the rules to make bespoke rally cars. Even in competition form, the 240RS had just 265bhp from its 2340cc four-cylinder engine, but it was very durable, scoring a best-ever second in the tough New Zealand rally of 1983 with Timo Salonen, endearing it to privateers. Undaunted, Nissan entered the next Silvia, the S12, into Group A rallying. Again it wasn’t a huge success but it did take second and third in the 1988 Safari Rally.
An S14 contested the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship in 1997, but its main success has been in drifting, with long domination in Britain, America and especially In Japan, where 15 of the 28 D1 Grand Prix trophies have gone to drivers using Silvias, along with a further three titles going to 180SX drivers.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UKDM AND JDM CARS?
It’s very easy to spot the difference between a Japanese S13 and a UK one because, from the outside, they are completely different cars. The two-door Silvia was never officially sold in the UK. Instead, we got the three-door sports car with pop-up headlights that in Japan was called the 180SX. Both cars use the same front-engined rear-wheel drive chassis. Initially, whether it was a Silvia or an SX, it was powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine – turbocharged for the top-spec cars. That engine was then replaced with the SR20DE and SR20DET (T for turbo) that would go on to power all the following Silvias. The European S13 was called the 200SX rather than the 180SX. To make it even more confusing, the 200SX got the older 167bhp CA18DET motor for its five-year life, from 1988 to 1993, and was never upgraded with the 2-litre like the Japanese cars.
Thankfully, the next generation car, the S14, is easier to fathom. There’s just one body style: a three-box silhouette similar to the S13’s. There are still two names, though – Silvia for Japan and 200SX for Europe – and some minor changes to the engine. The Japanese car had a ball-bearing turbocharger, but the exported 200SX had a journal-bearing turbo. Power output was the same.
The S15 is even easier. It was never available in the UK so you’re only ever likely to see JDM Silvias here. An Australian version was sold as a 200SX, but most cars in the UK have come from Japan.
SPECIFICATIONS NISSAN SILVIA K’S (S13)
Engine 1998cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 5-speed manual
Max Power 202bhp @ 6000rpm
Max Torque 203lb-ft @ 4000rpm
Top speed 132mph
NISSAN 200SX (S14)
Engine 1998cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 5-speed manual
Max Power 217bhp @ 6000rpm
Max Torque 203lb-ft @ 4800rpm
Top speed 132mph
NISSAN SILVIA SPEC-R (S15)
Engine 1998cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission RWD, 6-speed manual
Max Power 247bhp @ 6400rpm
Max Torque 203lb-ft @ 4800rpm
Top speed 165mph