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Nissan (formerly Datsun) adds three Stanzas to its motorcar epic

And now there are two - two front-wheel-drive cars from Japan's No. 2 carmaker, Nissan: the older 310 and the brand-new '82 Stanza, an exciting and revolutionary successor to the rear-drive 510.

Lighter than the 8-month-old General Motors J-car and slightly smaller in size, the Nissan Stanza (Nissan is phasing out the Datsun nameplate) comes in three body styles - a 4-door sedan, 3-door sporty hatchback, and 5-door hatch.

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With four-wheel independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering for flawless control on the road, the Stanza has the largest interior room of any car sold by Nissan in the US since it began selling cars here in 1958.

Too, it's the first of the Japanese carmaker's ''world cars.'' Every carmaker today, it seems, has to sell a world car or approximation thereof - whatever that means. In effect, a world car is designed to be sourced, built, and sold in many diverse markets of the globe.

Will the Stanza be built in the US sometime after Nissan launches its light-truck assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., in 1983?

The new Stanza is good news at the gas pump. Indeed, equipped with the 2 -liter, 4-cylinder NAPS-Z low-emission engine and 5-speed overdrive transmission , the Stanza gets an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 46 miles per gallon on the highway and 32 in the city - mighty good for a gasoline-fueled engine these days. NAPS-Z translates into Nissan Anti-Pollution System.

Helping its economy is its aerodynamic design. The 280-ZX Nissan-built sports car has a coefficient of drag of 0.36 while the Stanza checks out at 0.38. Most cars have a figure well above 0.40.

Expectedly, road performance is good - solid, sporty - with swift pickup when required. The car, in fact, has a tendency to ignore speed-limit signs so it's advisable to keep a tight rein on the wheel and soft touch on the fuel pedal, plus a frequent eye on the speedometer.

Indeed, a cruise-control system would make a lot of sense on the Stanza, despite the added cost. Perhaps it's already coming down the pike.

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Almost a Japanese trademark, the Stanza comes with a plethora of storage spaces inside - nice little spots in which to tuck maps or anything else you may want to take along with you when you get behind the wheel, including coins for the toll booth - something the US manufacturers could learn from the imports.

Too, it has a dome light that doesn't just go out when the door is shut. Rather, it dims by degrees till it's no longer there - a feature I cannot quite see the need to have. A gimmick, perhaps? I think that cars with an inside light that delays after the doors are shut, and then goes out, makes more sense.

Visibility of the road is high; however, the view of the instrument panel was somewhat blocked by the rim of the steering wheel - a negative feature in my case.

Also, the fifth gear was sometimes hard to set if the stickshift is moved too far to the right. But, like many things, you ultimately can get used to it.

And while the overall quality is of top-drawer standard, in most cases, the inside rubber windshield gasket was below the expected Nissan quality. More than likely, it is only a blip.

Rear-seat room is quite good, even with the front seats well back on the rails. The rear seat backs are easy to lower for more cargo room behind. Just pull the tabs on the top of the seat backs. Simple.

The outside rear-view mirrors are a problem, at least in this car. The passenger-side mirror particularly was impossible to adjust.

All in all, though, the new Stanza, base-priced in its 2-door configuration at $6,799 - while the sports luxury hatchback coupe top-lists for $9,389 - is positioned in an area that should make the nights even longer for Detroit automakers.

Nissan also is fielding a better-equipped Datsun 210 at the base of the line, a front-drive 310, more powerful 200-SX, the grand-touring Maxima, and the sporty 280-ZX.

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