My (long and biased :P) March ST Review

This is just something I did to practice writing. I work as a copy editor so I try to keep my English skills up. However, since I hate studying, I write. Most of the stuff I write just lives on my hard drive, but I figured some of you guys might enjoy this. Just be forewarned that it's exceedingly long and has no pictures, though. Also, keep in mind that I wrote this for fun, haha.

1991 Nissan March Super Turbo

This is a car that I’d never even heard about, but knew all about the engine. How is it that one can know about a specific engine but know nothing about the car it was originally equipped in? Easy, get an engine layout diagram written entirely in Japanese! For the whole story, we have to go back to hell, or as some people like to call it, high school. I was just starting to get into cars, particularly Japanese sports cars, and in-between scouring the internet at excruciatingly slow speeds for porn, I would occasionally search for car stuff. One of the things I found was this engine diagram, written entirely in Japanese for some engine that was twin-charged. For those of you who’ve never heard of twin-charging, it’s a forced induction design that incorporates both a turbocharger and a supercharger. If one’s good, two’s better, right? It’s also exceedingly rare on production cars. Up until recently, when the new VW 1.4 Tsi engine was released (which can be found in the new Golf, Jetta, and Sirocco), just the Nissan March and the Lancia Delta S4 Stradale were the only factory produced cars to ever boast this setup. The idea of running a system like this is to allow you to run a relatively large turbo but have the supercharger provide all the low-end grunt while the turbocharger is still spooling. The result being that whenever you push the loud pedal you get instant boost throughout the whole rev range, especially useful for rally where they invent all sorts of crazy systems to do the same thing (like anti-lag, which replaces the supercharger idea with explosions, ya it’s cool too). I didn’t know all of this at the time though, all I knew is it was a cool looking diagram! That diagram, however, managed to survive more than 20 Windows re-installs, 7 motherboards and 15 hard-drives. Quiet the resilient little diagram then. Eventually I started to learn Japanese and figured out that it was a diagram of the vacuum control for the Super Turbo engine.

Now, the technical nitty gritty of the engine, because let’s face it, this car is all about the engine! The engine code is MA09ERT, which gives away all the big information right off the bat. The MA stands for the series of engine (there’s also an MA10S, MA10ET and an MA12S). The 09 denotes engine size, so this engine is 0.9 liters (930 cc to be exact). The E stands for Electronic fuel injection. The fun comes from the R and T though. These are Nissan’s designations for a supercharger, R, and a turbocharger, T (Other examples of R and T would be the VG33ER and the VG30ET). Nissan experts will notice the lack of a D in the engine code, and that’s because this engine is indeed SOHC. Going back to the engine size, it’s actually an under square engine, with the bore and stroke measuring in at 66 x 68 mm. This seems strange at first, but when you look at the MA10 engine’s bore and stroke of 68 x 68 mm you realize this is just an under-bored version of the same block. This also increased bore wall thickness slightly, helping to increase engine strength. Aside from a bigger turbo, a supercharger, larger throttle body and better fuel rail the engine is almost identical to the MA10ET, which is a 1 liter turbo only version of the MA series engines. Why would they drop down in displacement? To fit in a rally class of course. This car was built to run in the sub-1600 cc Group A rally class! Forced induction on rally cars often requires you to multiply your engine size by a pre-determined number to get the new equivalent engine size. Apparently, in the early 90s, a twin charged car had to be multiplied by 1.7!

Where this engine really starts to get interesting (read: turns into a rats nest of vacuum hoses) is in the control for the supercharger and turbocharger. The turbo comes first in the system and the charge pipe of the turbo comes out and runs into a y-pipe. One half of this y-pipe leads to the supercharger and the other half leads to the bypass valve. The bypass valve has a butterfly valve in it that opens up when the turbocharger starts rolling on boost to bypass the supercharger. The supercharger is operated by a magnetic clutch that kicks on when you go about 1/3 throttle and kicks off once you break 4000 rpm. So when I put my foot down, the supercharger clutch engages and gives me an instant 10 psi of boost. This increased exhaust pressure helps spin the turbo up. As the turbo comes on boost the bypass valve opens up letting the turbocharger send all of it’s boosted air right past the supercharger. Then when the supercharger kicks off the turbocharger is just coming on full song and boost climbs on up to 14 psi and rockets the engine up to it’s crazy redline of 6500 rpm… wait, 6500 rpm, that’s it? Right, SOHC, designed for rally grunt, 1980’s engineering...

All of this technowizardry gives the little 930 cc engine an impressive 110 horsepower. My trusty calculator tells me that that is 118 hp per liter, which is quite impressive considering that the fabled SR20DET only managed 103 hp per liter in 1991.

So it’s a technological masterpiece of the 80’s. So was the Walkman. But before you go knocking it for it’s age, the Walkman revolutionized the portable player world. I mean sure, Andreas Pavel invented it in 1972, but Sony implemented the design so well that it became an instant hit. I mean I vividly remember borrowing my father’s Walkman when I was a kid. I used to pop my Vanilla Ice tape in there and jam out to Ice Ice Baby. Then to make sure I stayed hip, I’d swap the tape for my M.C. Hammer tape and do my best Hammer dance impression. Wait… what was I talking about again? Right, the car, so how is it to drive this homologated piece of awesome from the 80s? Well, before I proceed, it should be noted that I’ve only driven this car on the streets of Japan, which are narrow, smooth and have either evil gutters or aggressive curbs just waiting for you to misstep. As such, the conditions under which I drove this car are real world conditions, no track racing shenanigans or empty runways for me to act like a fool on, just normal roads. Also, this is my personal car, so naturally, I’m a little biased towards the love side.

Alright, so first things first, it’s a Nissan March, so it’s extremely light weight, tipping the scales at a paltry 775 kilograms (that’s 1700 lbs. to those of us that grew up learning archaic measurements). To put this in contrast, a new Lotus Elise (well, the Elise before Danny Bahar turned it into a fat pig) weighs 900 kg (a Burger King whopping 1,980 lbs.)! So you can go around telling people that your Nissan is more than 100 kilograms lighter than an Elise. You can feel that lightness too. You toss it into a corner and the cheap, worn and mismatched tires (used cars always have great surprises don’t they) just claw for grip. If you were to put on a proper set of sports tires, like the Dunlop Direzzas, it would just grab the road with endless grip. The lightness also means that body roll is kept to a minimum, even with factory suspension. It’s quite surprising how much grip and composure the little March has when you toss it into a corner. Push it harder and the tires start to groan and squeal but the car never steps out of line, or at least I haven’t gotten it to yet. The suspension seems rather well sorted for a street car. During everyday driving it’s slightly stiffer than you would expect and when pushing hard it’s not as stiff as you would hope, but this was the time before active magneto-helix synchro activated explamo fancy dampers that cost more than all five of my cars combined.

Speaking of cornering, there is no power steering, due to the fact that the supercharger now occupies the only available space for a power steering pump (ya, it’s that tight in the engine bay). Call me old fashioned, but I like it better that way. In low speed corners or when parking though, you better have some upper body strength. It gets especially hard to quickly and precisely point the car where you want around really sharp corners on narrow roads or hairpins (at safe speeds at least). You may be wondering why the steering is so heavy at low speeds in spite of the car’s lightness. Well, the car itself weighs nothing, all the weight is in the engine, supercharger, turbocharger and transmission, and that all happens to be right in front. Get the car moving though, and the steering feels great. It’s a pretty quick rack, but the weight of steering keeps you from dialing in too much lock and throwing the car into an understeering fit. I’ve found it extremely easy to drive this car spiritedly. The car always goes where I point it and never seems to complain about it. You get the feeling that if you pushed the car to its limits it would push and maybe not be quite as fun, but I don’t have the balls to push a car to it’s limits on the public roads.

On the topic of narrow roads, I once borrowed an Imprezza WRX STI Spec C from a friend. This car was the fastest factory Imprezza you could buy and would make the sprint form 0 to 100 km/h in something like 5 seconds. It was terrifyingly quick. So, naturally, the first chance I got, I crashed it into a guardrail. A new headlight, front bumper cover and fender fixed her up right as rain, but my pride never recovered. I’ve learned that a car that fast demands huge amounts of self-control on the public roads, something I’ve never been that good at. I’m sure on a nice wide dirt road or a racetrack it’d be a riot, but if driven in a lively manner on the street it was so much of a handful that I never spent my time enjoying the actual drive. It was only after I had successfully arrived at my destination still alive that I would start to giggle. And that’s where the little Jack Russell March one-ups the German Sheparoo. The March is always up for an energetic blast around the block, with the supercharger howling and the tires roaring, all the while never breaking the speed limit. That’s not to say that it’s slow, if you drive it right, it’ll pull itself to 100 km/h in 7.5 seconds-ish (although I’m fairly certain I’m not fast enough on the shift lever to manage that). Speaking of shifting, the transmission feels like a rally transmission. If you shift at 6,000 rpm like I do, you’re in third before you reach the 100 km/h mark. Incredibly close ratios. This is a good thing though, it means on tight twisty roads you can always find the perfect gear. It’s not often you’re stuck in a gear with the revs too low because downshifting would put the revs too high. This brings me back to the 7.5 second 0 to 100 km/h time. The car wasn’t designed to put nice numbers on marketing papers, the car was designed to blast down dirt roads, and it shows when you drive it. The 0 to 100 km/h time sounds slow, but you get in the car and start to hoof it along and it feels fast.

The brakes on the other hand, don’t live up to the rest of the car. Discs up front with drums in the back is begging for poor braking ability followed up by potential handbrake idiocy. The brakes, near as I can tell, weren’t changed at all from the normal March, which made considerably less power. Even if they are bigger and better than the normal March’s they’re still pretty small for the car. With this much oomph on tap, it would be nice to have something that could reign it back in just as fast. How much of my crappy brakes can be chalked up to 20 years of abuse and crappy pads, quite a bit, but they’re still pretty inadequate. Good news is, the ginormous brakes from a Pulsar Gti-R can fit on with a little effort.

Now, about that engine. We talked about the cold science aspect of it, but what’s it like to drive? When driving around normally, it drives exactly like you would expect a March to drive, uneventful, tractable, predictable and slow. Then you start to push that pedal, you know which one I’m talking about, the one that’s long and skinny. That’s when things get interesting. You hear a faint click as the supercharger clutch engages and a little blue light lights up on the 3-gauge center cluster. You can modulate the boost the supercharger puts out extremely easily, dialing in hill climbing power or tire shredding power. The first thing you notice is the whine, it’s not high-pitched like normal superchargers, but much lower and more liveable. The next thing you notice is the torque curve. It’s so flat that when on boost you’d think you were driving a much bigger six-cylinder. If you plant your foot in first gear you get two interesting bouts of torque steer. The first happens when the supercharger gives you tons of boost right off the bat, by the time you’ve got that sorted the turbo comes on full song, bumping boost up from 10 psi to 14 psi and you get another small tug on the steering wheel. It’s never unmanageable, but it is quite hilarious and keeps you on your toes. This is the first front driver with power I’ve properly driven, so some things like rolling onto the power mid turn and not having to call the tow truck to pull you out of the ditch is something new to me, as is the tugging on the steering wheel when hitting boost around a turn in any gear. I guess what’s most important about the engine in this car is, it’s just gobs and gobs of hilarity. Every time I hear the whine of the supercharger with a backup chorus of turbocharger it puts a huge smile on my face. The fact that I can touch the throttle at any rpm and get instant fun just makes the smile get bigger and bigger.

All in all, I love driving this car. The mixture of something unique with an extremely light and toss-able body gives an experience that I fear will never find its way back into car manufacturing again. Tighter safety regulations and stricter emissions rules are forcing cars to become washing machines, even the ones that call themselves fun. In my opinion though, this is what fun is truly about, raw simplicity powered by a dash of lunacy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.



What a great review, and after going out in Ed's multiple times when it was running, I can agree with everything you've said!

It leaves you feeling like this: