Tuning Test: Datsun Stanza Sport

Bill Blydenstein's watchword is "driveability". Over the many years he has been tuning cars; concentrating on Vauxhall GM and latterly Datsun Nissan), he has developed a philosophy of "usable performance" — tuned engines which tend to emphasise torque rather than brake horsepower, no that the driver can exploit the car's potential without having to keep one eye glued to the tachometer. Better fuel consumption figures can often be realised this way too, as the engine is allowed to run at optimum efficiency during far more of the time. To illustrate the point, Blydenstein, an enthusiastic Dutch-Norwegian, produces an impressive array of test results, efficiency charts and road test reprints, all of which seem to put his conversions at the top of any efficiency league. It might seem like high-pressure salesmanship — except that the facts bear him out.

Our test car, lent by Frank Holland Motors of Cambridge, was in Blydenstein's words a "shop window", in that it had been fitted with every item from the range of Stanza conversion parts. The little Nissan is a very ordinary sort of hatchback when it arrives on these shores — smart, but not eye-catching, willing, but not especially rapid, while criticism has been levelled at the handling, particularly the behaviour of the back end. Once the Shepreth workforce have done their bit, however, what results is a rapid, stable little package which draws attention to itself in a most unseemly manner.

What onlookers see is a very deep front bumper / airdam, restyled grille, and an extraordinary ridged block of a tail spoiler which gives the car the rear aspect oi a tiny Quattro. What they don't know about until the lights change is the "A" pack cylinder head, which for an outlay of only £250 plus VAT confers an extra 10-12 bhp, a good value gain that makes all the difference to driving pleasure. Not that it is going make a GTi or GTE look silly — it is still only a 1600 — but it will surprise many a rival.

Also fitted were Stage 2 springs and Koni dampers, total cost £324 plus VAT, and a set of Pirelli +1 wheels with P6 tyres. These are not part of the kit, wheels being left to individual choice. Blydenstein also has a "tweak" for the rear suspension about which he is a little coy, for fear of upsetting Nissan management, but overall the Stanza Sport behaves in enjoyable fashion, understeering of course, but with much improved steering response and reduced roll. Steering action itself is disappointing, even though it is a rack-and-pinion unit, being a little vague and slow, and not helped by the relatively large and "plasticky" wheel, but in compensation the gearchange is above average for a transverse-engined front-wheeldrive car. Internal appointments, as is usual on products from the Far East, are generous if rather overstyled, with neat touches such as a pair of levers between the seats which operate the hinged rear windows by cable, very useful for demisting on a wet night.

If my stopwatch finger is accurate, then the 0-60 mph time has dropped from the standard car's 12.5 sec to 9.9 sec, proving the effectiveness of the new cylinder head, which utilises the original carburetter. More significant to Blydenstein's way of thinking is the 30-70 mph time, since rolling acceleration is more often required of a car than a standing start, and the figure we obtained in fourth gear on a damp road was 23.9 sec, a reduction of a fifth over standard. Power drops off rapidly after 5,000 rpm, demonstrating the engine's humble origins, but the fatter torque curve compensates for this; in fact, such is the flexibility that an unknowing driver might well give the credit to Nissan, without realising any tuning had been done.

At motorway speeds, there is little pulling power available in fifth, but with the easy gearchange and light clutch, the intermediate gears will quickly do what is necessary, and once back in fifth, 100 mph is available without strain, while a comfortable cruising speed of 90-plus will consume many miles of motorway in those countries with less restrictive speed limits. Even at these speeds, this is quite a. quiet car, with wind noise at a lower level than suspension noise. Stability is good at high speeds, no doubt helped by the airdam, although the rear spoiler obscures the lower part of the rear screen, which makes parking pure guesswork. I found the most sucessful plan for reversing was to peer over the spoiler and move back until I was sure an insurance claim was imminent, and then cross my fingers and continue another three feet. It worked every time, which was just as well, since the unusual styling attracted onlookers every time it came to a halt, and a profusion of witnesses would have been embarrassing.

The standard of finish was very good: high-quality mouldings accurately fitted (save that the tail spoiler chattered against its matching side panel) and two shades of silver-grey lacquer were set off by red pin-striping and badges. The drawback of such striking bodywork is the temptation to prove that the chassis can keep up with its image, and this resulted in the fuel-consumption dropping to 25.3 mpg during our short test. It would not, however, be difficult to improve on this with restraint. For those who are content with the Stanza's showroom figures, the cost of the body panels alone is £352 + VAT, while fitting and painting could add £640 to that.

Perhaps the Stanza Sport's appearance promises more than is actually delivered at this stage of development, but given the relatively low price of the base car (£.5,819), the conversion undoubtedly makes for a good value package. And who knows — there may be more to come from the Hertfordshire village of Shepreth, — G.C.