With the prices of the most popular models entering unattainable status for a lot of younger JNCers, we felt it necessary to highlight some painfully overlooked — often for no good reason at all — yet still affordable (for now) nostalgics. Welcome to another Consider the Following installment, in which we ponder the Nissan Stanza Wagon.
Following the trend of things Japan did first but didn’t get credit for (like the Kurogane compact 4WD), the Stanza Wagon is, for all intents and purposes, the first production minivan. The Stanza Wagon — or Nissan Prairie or Nissan Multi in some markets — beat the Dodge Caravan to market by two years, but was classified as a wagon, as the term minivan had not been invented yet. Still, it had a transversely mounted, front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout with conventionally hinged front doors, sliding rear doors, and a top-hinged rear door.
Simply put, it was too far out of left field for most people. People looking for a wagon would stop by the Nissan dealership then they would see this 8-bit interpretation of an automobile with sliding doors and 4WD, and unless they encountered a shrewd salesman they’d carry on.
The reception from journalists at the time can be best described as “confusion,” as seen in Motorweek’s review. To be honest, I don’t envy them either; to describe this car in laymans terms when the term minivan had not been invented was an arduous task at best.
One of the most surprising things about this strange little box on wheels is that it has been touched by the combined genius of Giorgetto Giugiaro and Naganori Ito. The Stanza Wagon was originally conceptualized as the Lancia Megagamma by Giugairo, the father of cars such as the DMC DeLorean and the Lotus Esprit, and given life by Ito, the man that would be responsible for raising Godzilla back from the sea and naming him GT-R. While the Megagamma was never put into production, Nissan did take inspiration from it, then made some major changes when creating the Stanza Wagon (as opposed to just writing Nissan on the bootlid and calling it a day).
What we saw was the beginning of a whole new class of vehicle. The archaic, wagon-style third row of sideways- or rear-facing seats in the cargo area were now oriented forward. The pillarless sides open up to a giant portal for a completely uninterrupted ingress experience. While there are many modern vehicles like pickups, FJ Cruisers and Honda Elements with suicide doors, these doors are better. They don’t lock into each other, instead latching to the chassis so they can be opened independently.
Looking at the original Lancia design, it was to be powered by a 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder putting a triumphant 140 horsepower, quite well for the era. It would be a different story on the show floor though. The production Stanza Wagon was powered by a much more conventional CA20 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine variants that put out 97 horsepower in top trim.
An automatic or 5-speed transmission could be mated to a 2WD or 4WD drivetrain. A torsion beam rear suspension was utilized to keep a flat floor in the rear. However, this lead to less-than-optimal suspension characteristics including understeer and snap oversteer during braking. One positive performance trait of the Stanza Wagon was that after you spent your afternoon getting to speed, the brakes were surprisingly quick to stop, provided you kept the car pointed straight.
While a Stanza Wagon won’t win any races, what it does excel in is its intended purpose as a people mover. In fact, this moves people quite well, and with a low entry cost, could be quite a fun JNC cruiser for taking the crew around town.
Despite it’s tragic performance figures from the factory, all is not lost. To the enterprising owner, the CA-series engine means that a CA18DET should be swappable. As far as lowering it goes, the torsion beam in the rear won’t be an issue and can be simply adjusted downward. For the front however, there is a rumor about U30 Presage, or possibly even S13, coilovers fitting. As we’ve seen, it is in fact possible to plummet the ride height on these vans with relative ease.
Aesthetically, the Stanza Wagon is exactly what you imagine when you think “1980s family hauler.” It’s the sort of car you find on a synthwave album cover. While it’s a boxy, tall, slightly awkward looking vehicle, the shape somehow works. There are no random character lines attempting to mask what it is. It is the antithesis of what we see today, just honest styling to serve an honest function. What lines that do exist are strong and bold, drawing your eye to features like the subtle chrome trim along the headlights.
Cars like the Stanza Wagon are some of my favorites, personally. Most have never heard of it, its price range is about what I have in my pocket at the moment, and by sheer force of parts bin engineering there are options for some level of performance beyond what came stock. For those who like to tinker, it could be a load of good times. Could this car be an automotive Van Gogh? Probably not, but it’s the canvas he would have purchased.