Junkyard Gem: 1984 Nissan Sentra Hatchback Coupe XE

Nissan has been selling Sentras in the United States since 1982, when it was one of the first models (after the Stanza) to dispense entirely with Datsun branding here. The first generation of Sentra was produced through the 1986 model year, and most of the examples I’ve found in car graveyards have been stripped-down base models with nary an upgrade in the comfort, convenience and/or appearance departments. Today’s Junkyard Gem is a different kind of early Sentra: a top-trim-level coupe packed with just about every option available, found in a Northern California yard recently.

What’s extra weird about this car is that it started its career as an Avis rental. Rental fleet buyers in the United States are forced to shell out for automatic transmissions, for obvious reasons, but cheap subcompact rentals of the middle 1980s generally didn’t get extras beyond that.

The MSRP for the ’84 Sentra XE hatchback coupe with automatic transmission was $7,299, or about $22,038 in 2023 dollars. That was $150 ($453 now) more than the price of the same car with a five-speed manual, which was a great price for a slushbox during the era.

But that figure was just the beginning. The air conditioning, which this car has, added 610 bucks (1,842 of today’s bucks). Amazingly, the clock and an AM/FM radio with two speakers were standard equipment on the Sentra XE that year.

The “Sport Accent Stripes,” available only on the XE Coupe, looked sharp. If you wanted them on your new Sentra, the cost was $105 ($317 in today’s money).

The wheel trim rings and wheel lip moldings cost $155 and $55 extra, respectively ($468 and $166 now). Perhaps California Nissan dealers had some of these loaded Sentras gathering dust on their lots, due in part to the mid-1980s oil glut and resulting crash in gasoline prices and in part to the cheapskate nature of penny-pinching econobox buyers, and Avis stepped in with an offer to take them all.

The 1982-1999 Sentra was known as the Sunny in Japan. For 1984, it was available in two-door sedan, four-door sedan, wagon and two-door hatchback configurations. The base two-door sedan was cheap, with a price starting at $5,199 ($15,698 after inflation). You could find cheaper new cars that year, of course; bargain-hunting American car shoppers could save money versus the Sentra by getting the Subaru STD hatchback ($5,096), the Mazda GLC hatchback ($4,995) or the Toyota Tercel liftback ($5,098). 

It was built for the California market and it appears to have spent its entire career in the Golden State. Its birthplace was the Zama plant in Kanagawa Prefecture; Sentra production at the plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, began the following year (but just two-door sedans at first).

The highest-mile Nissan I’ve ever found in a junkyard was a second-generation Sentra with 440,299 miles, followed by a 1991 Stanza with 402,505 miles. This car didn’t get anywhere near those numbers, traversing just 131,148 miles during its driving career.

One of its early owners, probably the one who bought it from Avis, was a student at De Anza College in Cupertino. Yes, that Cupertino. This car’s final parking space is near Sacramento, about 140 miles to the northeast of De Anza College.

Perhaps that student became a physical therapy assistant later on.

The moss buildup on the body (plus the fact that a VIN search in the California smog-check history database showed nothing) says that this car got parked many years ago. I think it sat in a driveway or yard for decades before taking that final ride behind a tow truck.

That’s a shame, because it wasn’t in rough shape.

The Sentra XE for ’84 had a more powerful 1.6-liter engine than the one in the base and DLX models: 69 horsepower instead of 59. A diesel engine with 55 horses was available in the early Sentra as well, though I’ve never seen one in real life.

While the Sentra had no Datsun badges in 1984, the same could not be said for the dealerships that sold it.

Just rock down to Chocolate Avenue to buy one!

As was nearly always the case during the 1980s, home-market TV commercials for Japanese cars were far more entertaining than the ones we got here. This one even has a Sunny managing to outrun a machine-gun-armed helicopter (some suspension of disbelief required).

Sadly, the Sunny Turbo Leprix never made it across the Pacific.

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