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Project Nissan Sentra

Part IX: The Four-Year International Makeover

Henry Z. DeKuyper
Jul 20, 2006 SHARE
0608sccp_01z+nissan_sentra_b13+left_front_view Photo 1/7   |   Project Nissan Sentra

April 2005 It was another gray, drippy day in Tokyo, a land infested with power lines, radio towers, and all the scenery-choking flotsam that erupts around such a hastily built megalopolis. Tokyo is, to be blunt, a shitty place to photograph a car. But that's where the car -- a Bozz-tuned EVO VIII -- was, and we were determined to make the best of it. Creativity is the best antidote for these dull conditions, and after finding a bland line of white taxicabs in which to shoot a colorful time-attack WRX, we stumbled upon a small junkyard that we thought artfully juxtaposed the sparkling new EVO. Oh, we were so clever back then.

Like everything else on that island, Japanese junkyards are small. This one was barely the size of a standard suburban American breeding plot, but by stacking the cars precariously high, the proprietor was somehow able to eke out a living selling used parts on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

On a photoshoot like this, I'm just a caddy, grabbing gear from the camera bag, occasionally suggesting angles or lenses, but generally staying out of the way. As I was shuffling equipment up to Josh's perch on the trunk of a Mitsubishi Galant (which itself happened to be sitting on the roof of a Toyota Chaser), I noticed a familiar shape at the bottom of a particularly scary six-car stack. It was, of course, a B13 Nissan Sunny, the nearly identical twin to our Sentra. It was clearly some kind of mildly deluxe model with two-tone gray paint and some kind of cushy suede interior. But if you squinted enough to ignore the four doors and mentally blended the two shades of gray, you could see a far more aggressive-looking set of bumpers with an integrated front air dam. More importantly, like all Sunny bumpers, they were a few inches shorter than the bulbous U.S. bumpers, giving the lowly Sunny the tight, tidy proportions of a European-market E30 BMW. Or maybe I was just squinting too much.

After a brief negotiation between our Bozz hosts and the proprietor of the yard, arrangements were made to have the bumpers and grille delivered to Bozz, where they would throw them in the next container headed for San Francisco. Total cost: $40.

0608sccp_02z+nissan_sentra_b13+bumper Photo 2/7   |   The U.S. bumper is a heavy-gauge box section with a thick layer of styrofoam to cushion your ramming. The bumper cover is large enough to encircle the foam and is bolted to the bumper shell with something like 368 rusty 6mm nuts. The Japanese bumper is only a thin-gauge C-channel, and the bumper cover snaps to it without any tools.

A few months later, I stopped by Bozz Performance in Fremont, California, jammed the bumpers into the back of a Mini Cooper S (really) and dragged them 450 miles home where I immediately tossed them in the back of my garage and began the long procrastination process that precedes the painting of any body panel.

August 2005 It was another hungover morning in Acapulco, but instead of sleeping it off as I should have, I sprinted a block through a biblical pre-hurricane downpour, jumped into a borrowed lime-green Peugeot 206 Cabriolet, and headed off across town in search of Acapulco Nissan.

Mexico is a country in love with the B13 Sentra. Known there as the Tsuru, the B13 has been in continuous production in Mexico since 1991. For at least eight of those 14 years, the Tsuru was the best-selling car in Mexico. Taxis are Tsurus, cop cars are Tsurus -- hell, I was even pulled over by three Tsurus the night before after making a left turn on a green light. I don't understand either.

The Tsuru's enduring popularity comes largely from the fact that it hasn't changed substantially in 14 years, making parts and service cheap. One change Nissan Mexico has made, though, is updating the dismal headlights. While all U.S. and early-Mexican B13s had shockingly dim lights with hard-to-upgrade 9004 bulbs, the newer Tsurus have a new Hella-supplied light assembly with a lightweight plastic lens, a more modern reflector, and easily upgraded H4 bulbs. After a week of jealously eyeing every Tsuru on the road (and it's common to see as many as ten in a single glance down a side street), I could no longer resist.

0608sccp_03z+nissan_sentra_b13+frame_rail Photo 3/7   |   The U.S. framerail has this flange that interferes with the Japanese bumper. Measure carefully, then notch the bumper mounts to clear it.

After failing to find a good junkyard the day before, I resigned myself to dropping serious pesos on new headlights. Since my Spanish is at a Taco Bell level, I spent the 30-minute drive rehearsing my conversation with the parts jockey. "Buenos dias... donde esta... Tsuru... ah... headlights?"

Miraculously, when I stepped into the parts department, my headlights were right there in the display case. I just pointed and smiled. After some additional pointing and grunting to ensure I got both headlights and the separate turn signals, the parts jockey asked me a very important question. Assuming the question was, "So, you're a Tsuru fan too?" I just nodded my agreement. This was clearly the wrong answer, as it caused more words to come from his mouth. My blank stare brought a return to the pointing. Parts jockey grabbed a Tsuru parts catalog, flipped to a front view of the car, and pointed at the grille. Ah! "Non," I said confidently.

Clearly the original question had actually been, "So, hangover boy, looks like you smashed into a taxi? Don't worry, it happens all the time." Refusing the grille clearly eroded my credibility. Jockey eyed me sideways, mumbled something under his breath, and proceeded to add up the total. Obviously, I had either smashed out the lights with a baseball bat, or I had smashed the grille and was planning to leave the taxi only half fixed. After delivering the impossibly large total of 2,619 pesos (about $245), it took three forms of ID to get him to take my shady, headlight-bashing credit card.

0608sccp_04z+nissan_sentra_b13+headlight_bracket Photo 4/7   |   You'll need to put in a little grinder time on these brackets to clear the new headlights. Just remember this advice: Remove your freshly painted bumpers before you start making sparks. I hate paint.

With the parts now in hand, I procrastinated another six months before finally beginning my quest to find every possible way to incorrectly install Japanese and Mexican parts on an American Sentra. What not to do: I had moved three times since shipping the Sunny bumpers halfway across the planet, and each time the flicker of motivation I got after seeing the bumpers was extinguished as soon as I considered the prospect of getting them painted. Getting something painted means relying on someone else to do something right, and that's never a good idea, in my experience.

The headlights finally inspired me to try my luck with body shops. I found a local shop called the Bumper Medic that specialized in bumper repair. The constant stream of BMWs and Mercedes from the local dealerships lent it an air of credibility, so I dropped off the bumpers and crossed my fingers. The initial estimate of $350 seemed a little steep for painting two little bumpers black, but at the time I didn't realize that price included them screwing up twice, repainting, losing parts of the factory rear valance, two shouting matches, and a string of personal insults about both myself and my piece-of-shit car. For all that work, they informed me, $350 was quite a deal.

* Lesson #1: Car dealers can't possibly lend an air of credibility to anything.

Sunny bumpers aren't just smaller than the North American bumpers, they're much lighter. The front bumper shaves 16 pounds off the car and the rear saves 20. Knocking 36 pounds off any part of a car is a major feat, but knocking it off the extreme ends should pay big handling dividends. The savings do come at a cost, however. Aside from the shipping, the shouting, the money, and the installation hassles you'll soon learn about, there's the fact that the big, heavy bumpers actually did something.

The Sunny bumpers aren't made for bumping. The sheetmetal is only thick enough to hold up the plastic bumper caps, and it clearly will do almost nothing for you in an impact. Saving weight by removing bumpers is nearly as smart as saving weight by removing the seatbelts, but I comfort myself by realizing that Japan still has a very large population, so the small-bumpered Sunnys couldn't have killed too many people.

Less obvious than their impact-absorbing function, though, is the bumpers' effect on chassis rigidity. By tying together the framerails, the bumpers have a huge impact on torsional rigidity. After all the effort that's been poured into custom chassis braces for this car, installing weaker bumpers seems counterproductive. But seriously, 36 pounds!

0608sccp_05z+nissan_sentra_b13+grill Photo 5/7   |   Project Nissan Sentra

Installing Sunny bumpers is almost easy. Both the North American and Japanese bumpers bolt into the front framerails, but while the old bumpers filled the framerail and were attached with long bolts that passed all the way through the rail, the Japanese bumpers bolt only to the bottom of the rail with short bolts. Finding shorter bolts is only the beginning though. The U.S. framerail has a unique flange somewhere in the darkness along the bottom of the rail. You'll have to measure carefully and notch the bumper mounting brackets.

* Lesson #2: Measure twice, cut once. Trust me on that one.

Rear bumper installation is more straightforward, but be prepared to remove the muffler to access the mounting bolts. While you have it off, cut a few inches off the tailpipe so it doesn't stick out like your puppy's lipstick.

* Lesson #3: Shorter bumpers are shorter.

Now for the headlights. This looked easy, but installing the headlights took weeks of half-hearted effort. Read carefully and this can be a simple swap. First, don't go to Mexico to get the lights. Mossy Nissan in Oceanside, California, is less than 100 miles from Mexico, and they stock the Mexican lights at a better price than Acapulco Nissan. They also speak English and sell everything you need to do the conversion in one handy kit. That includes some trim pieces I had to find in an American junkyard, the hideously ugly Mexican grille I didn't get in Mexico, and the new electrical connectors for the updated headlights and turn signals that I finally got from Mossy.

* Lesson #4: Buy Mexican parts in California.

This conversion is relatively easy if you have a 1993-94 SE-R. I have a '91. 1991-92 Sentras had a single metal trim piece stretching below both headlights and the grille. The 1993-2007 cars had separate plastic trim pieces below each headlight, with the grille trim integrated into the bottom of the grille.

0608sccp_06z+nissan_sentra_b13+headlight Photo 6/7   |   The aluminum angle brackets look simple, but note that the bracket is threaded to accept a bolt holding the grille and uses a nut and bolt to attach to the headlight. The tab on the headlight also had to be drilled to accept this arrangement. The brackets holding the bottom of the grille were made with hardwood for a simple reason. There is no easy way to get a straight shot from the lower mounting holes into the bracket. Wood doesn't care about being straight though, so a wood screw could be jammed in at a 30-degree angle. Oh so elegant.

The early trim piece is slightly taller than the later one, and the late Mexican headlights are narrower than early U.S. ones, so the 1991-1992 trim panel won't work with the new lights.

I made do with 1993-1994 U.S. trim from B&R Auto Wrecking way up in Oregon. Of course, I painted the bumper before realizing I needed new trim, so I had to paint the trim pieces separately.

* Lesson #5: Test-fit first, paint second.

Next problem: The back of the Mexican headlights hit the early lights' mounting brackets. The brackets, naturally, are welded in place. Be prepared to cut and/or grind to make room.

* Lesson #6: Sparks are bad for brand-new bumper paint.

Neither the early or late U.S. grilles fit with the Mexican headlights. Two Mexican grilles are available, but both look incredibly stupid. The Sunny grille that came with my bumpers, however, looks quite dashing with its mysterious, Marvelesque stylized "S"-badge, so I decided to make it work.

Whether or not it actually worked is open to debate, but it still looks far less bad than anything sold in Mexico. Filling the gap below the grille meant cutting the '91 trim panel to the approximate height of the corresponding part I didn't get from Japan and narrowing it to fit between the junkyard parts from Oregon. The grille was designed to snap in place at five points, none of which exist on this car. Instead, I fabricated two simple aluminum angle brackets for the top of the grille and two hardwood brackets (cut from the handle of my favorite wire brush) for the bottom. This left only the large, irregular gaps between the grille and headlights to fill.

Weeks passed as I tried to figure out how to bridge the gap without reducing airflow. The final solution, it turns out, was sitting right there between the duct tape and the zip ties: flat black spray paint. Painting the sides of the headlights turned the glaring gap into a cleverly shaped cooling duct. Magic in a can.

* Lesson #7: Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea.

Done with the cosmetics, it was time for more weight savings. Thirty-six pounds was a nice start, but like more power, less weight is addictive.

The 16x7-inch Black Racing N1 wheels we installed last century (1997) were reasonably light for cast wheels at 15 pounds each, but years of abuse had turned them square. It was time for a change.

0608sccp_07z+nissan_sentra_b13+bumper Photo 7/7   |   The '91 lower grille trim is both too wide and too tall for this grille and headlight combination. Cutting the ends off is easy, but cutting a straight line down the length of this piece requires something more precise than an air-powered body saw and my sloppy hands. Actual skill might work. This is another piece that should have been completed before painting the bumpers so the freshly mangled sheetmetal can be made shiny. The gap between the grille and headlights looked much worse before I applied Krylon's black magic to the sides of the headlights.

Visually, 16s are the right size for an SE-R, but the selection of 16-inch tires is pathetic. 17s look like dubs on a B13, so we went down to the land of lightweight and abundant race rubber. The land of 15s.

Every good tire is available in 205/50-15, and 15x6.5 and 15x7-inch wheels are abundant in the bolt pattern (4x100mm) and offset (+35mm) the SE-R requires. Despite the myriad choices, the decision was not hard. Motegi Racing's Traklite has the perfect balance of reasonable cost, forged strength, and almost unbelievable lightness. At 10.5 pounds, they knock 4.5 pounds of unsprung weight off each corner compared to our already light 16s. They also have enough brake clearance to clear the popular Fastbrakes SE-R front brake kit that mates Wilwood four-pot calipers and 11-inch Corrado rotors. Oh, and they're already flat black, so I don't have to get my spray can.

Wrapping the Motegis in R-compound Nitto NT-01s dropped another 2.5 pounds from each corner compared to our old, discontinued 215/45-16 Falken Azenis Sports. That brings us to a total savings of 28 pounds of unsprung weight and 36 pounds of high-polar-moment bumper weight.

We first sampled the NT-01 in a much larger 245/40-18 on an RX-8. In that application, at least, they were brilliant, offering massive grip, easy breakaway, comfortable behavior when sliding, and perfectly reasonable track wear. Their good grip at high slip angles makes them particularly suitable to my personal 11/10ths driving style. The NT-01s' only vice on the RX-8 was the monster-truck howl they made when cruising on the street. They might not be the best daily-driver tire, but they're certainly civilized enough to drive to and from the track.

We're still not sure how the smaller size behaves on the SE-R though. We'll learn that soon when our longest-running project car meets its younger cousin, the B15 SE-R Spec-V, at the track next time. We're just a few little suspension tweaks away from actually wrapping up a project.

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Sources

Energy Suspension
San Clemente, 92673
888-913-6374
http://www.energysuspension.com
Nitto Tire
Cypress, CA 90630
877-565-8448
www.nittotire.com
Jim Wolf Technology
El Cajon, CA 92020
619-442-0680
http://www.jimwolftechnology.com
Unorthodox Racing
Copiague, NY 11726
631-586-9525
http://www.unorthodoxracing.com
MagnaFlow
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688
800-824-8664
www.magnaflow.com
KONI North America
Hebron, KY 41048
859-586-4100
www.koni-na.com
Ground Control
(530) 677-8600
www.ground-control-store.com
By Henry Z. DeKuyper
312 Articles

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