180SX Engine – Everything You Need To Know

by Staff | Last updated 6th April, 2022 | Posted in Guides

From CA18DE to SR20DET, we’re checking out the full history of the 180SX engine lineup in this guide.

sr20det nissan 240sx 200sx 180sx engines


Introduction

The Nissan Silvia S13, also known as the Nissan 180SX in Japan, 200SX in Europe, and 240SX in North America, plays a major role in the JDM influence in sportscars.

In this guide, we’re looking at the heart that made the S13 an amazing, affordable sportscar and a monster drifting machine: its engine. In the following paragraphs, we shall analyze the power units available that were available from the factory with both the 180SX and 240SX.

We’ll be covering engine specs, common faults, and their fixes, alongside tuning potential and providing tips on parts sourcing.


Nissan S13 (180SX) History

A smaller, rear-wheel drive, affordable alternative to existing sportscars on the market. This was the philosophy that pushed Nissan towards developing the S-Chassis.

At the time of the CSP311 launch, back in 1964, it is unlikely that Nissan foresaw the monumental success Silvia was about to witness.

Only 554 units were initially built, all aimed at the Japanese market. However, 50 vehicles found their way to Australia, and another batch of 10 went to international customers before production was halted in 1968.

Nissan resurrected the Silvia nameplate on a new platform in 1975. Dubbed ‘S,’ the new chassis allowed the integration of rear-wheel drive.

This was the turning point of what would become one of the best-selling and most sought-after JDM sports cars in history.

The Nissan Silvia S13 entered production in 1988. It was so well received that it won the ‘Car of the Year’ award in Japan that same year.

Unlike the S12 and previous iterations, the Silvia S13 was not exported. Instead, it was branded as the 200SX in Europe, South Africa, and New Zealand, alongside the 240SX in North America.


180SX Engines

Five engines went into the assembly line for the S13 chassis, depending on the market. These were:

  • CA18DE
  • CA18DET
  • SR20DE
  • SR20DET
  • KA24DE

Let’s look at what each power unit brought to the game.


CA18DE Specs & Details

The CA18DE was the first engine to be supplied with the S13, and the later 180SX hatchback spinoff was equipped with the CA18DET engine.

Part of the CA family, CA18DE featured a 1.8-liter displacement in a straight-4 piston configuration. Nissan produced it between 1987 and 1989.

The CA18DE came with a cast-iron block and an aluminum head (the same one as the CA18DET), with DOHC (dual overhead camshaft) and four valves per cylinder. Pistons spin a five-bearing, fully balanced crankshaft.

Here are the CA18DE engine figures:

  • Displacement: 1.8 liters (110.39 cu-in.)
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Fuel system: Multiport injection
  • Intake: Naturally Aspirated
  • Power output: 132HP @ 6,400RPM
  • Torque: 117.3 lb.-ft @ 5,200RPM

Given the specs, the CA18DE is on the lower end of the 5th generation S-Chassis powertrains. While the naturally aspirated intake allows the crankshaft to spin at high RPMs, the 132HP doesn’t offer the performance kick of its forced induction counterparts.

CA18DE – Common Faults

If you are interested in getting an S13 with the N/A CA18DE, there are some common faults you should be aware of.

In some cases, the S13 engine will exhibit random cut-outs, especially on long runs. This has been identified to be likely caused by one of the following:

  • A cracked air intake tube
  • Faulty vacuum tube
  • Faulty Air Intake Sensor
  • Lean fuel mixture causing misfiring

Another common issue with the S13 CA18DE engines is the lack of cylinder pressure. Ideally, it should be measured professionally upon buying.

Most CA18DE units came with a 9.5:1 compression ratio, with a select few featuring a 10:1 ratio.

If compression values upon testing seem to be below the norm, worn piston rings are the main culprit. Generally, they will need replacing, and cylinders may require adjustment.

CA18DE – Upgrades & Tuning

Despite the S13 continuing to prove itself as one of the most incredible drift chassis out there, even in the present day, the RWD system needs a bit more input than the mere 132HP provided by the CA18DE engine to slide around corners properly.

So, if you’re looking to make the most out of your CA18DE, here are the most common upgrades to boost power output.

Air intake upgrades will lift power output above 132HP without forced induction. Usually, the stock airflow sensor limits power and torque quite early in the intake process. Switching to 4-bar air sensors will allow the engine to cope with higher power gains.

On the same note, modifying the intake shape and flow characteristics will further boost output to the rear wheels. The good news is that the standard manifold is suitable for more than double the standard power output, so it will take a lot of upgrades before it needs replacing.

You’ll need to upgrade to a turbo for a proper power boost, but it may be cheaper to swap for the factory turbocharged CA18DET engine. However, if you plan on sticking to the classic powerplant, it’s proven to be capable of running a T28 turbo at 10psi.

More power may become available with an adjustable fuel pressure regulator.


CA18DET Specs & Details

The last 180SX engine from the CA family was the CA18DET.

A turbocharged version of the previous CA18DE, the CA18DET was the last S13 engine from the CA (Clean Air) family. It was produced between 1985 and 1994.

The S13 and 180SX CA18DET shared the same 4-pot, 4-stroke, 1,8-liter architecture as their naturally aspirated counterpart while providing higher power and torque output.

  • Displacement: 1.8 liters (110.39 cu-in.)
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Fuel system: Multiport injection
  • Intake: Garrett T25
  • Power output: 158HP @ 6,400RPM
  • Torque: 155.7 lb.-ft @ 4,000RPM

While structurally similar to the CA18DE, the addition of the turbocharger makes the CA18DET surprisingly powerful for an engine built in the late 80s. Torque figures are also up to spec with the power output.

CA18DET – Common Faults

Given the similarity with the CA18DE, the turbocharged 1.8-liter shares most of the potential faults. Check the above paragraph on CA18DE common faults for items to check when acquiring a Nissan 180SX or S13 with this engine.

Specific to the CA18DET, one should look for issues in connecting rod bearings. Known as the “big end problem,” repairs usually replace the bearings and rebalance the crankshaft.

CA18DET – Upgrades & Tuning

Right off the bat, there’s plenty of good news.

Based on tuner testimonials, the standard CA18DET can withstand up to 300hp on stock internals.

Furthermore, with properly forged internals, a new head, and an upgraded turbo, the CA18DET can reach up to 500hp. Now that’s a proper drifting setup!

A lower-impact upgrade is replacing the OEM camshaft with a racing camshaft. This will increase power on the top RPM band but incur some rougher idling. Cam profile plays a big part in the engine’s output.

Alongside cam profiles, ECU map modding and fuel injection timing will also boost power.

Forged internals are usually necessary to transform the CA into performance and competitive drift-spec territory.

Depending on the brand, you can generally find CA18DET rebuild kits with forged pistons and heavy-duty bearings for roughly $1,200. Ross Racing forged pistons, for example, are known to be reliable and take on plenty of punishment without cracking.

The 180SX is highly modular. You may choose to swap the CA18DET for another unit, such as the SR20DET, or the larger-displacement USDM KA24DE. Both engines are a fairly convenient swap, and we’ll be discussing both in more detail below.


SR20DE Specs & Details

Nissan Motors introduced the SR20DE on its S13-based chassis to replace the CA engine family. The 2-liter straight-four came with an aluminum block and head compared to its predecessor.

The engine was not limited to the S13 spinoffs (such as the 180SX engine) but was also used in 15 Nissan models from 1989 to 2002.

Alongside a larger displacement, this naturally aspirated unit provided higher power output than the earlier CA18DE engine.

  • Displacement: 2 liters (121.92 cu-in.)
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Fuel system: Multiport injection
  • Compression ratio: 10.0:1
  • Intake: Naturally Aspirated
  • Power output: 145HP @ 6,400RPM
  • Torque: 132 lb.-ft @ 4,800RPM

With the latest 180SX engine in the lineup, Nissan ditched the timing belt for a chain. It drove the two camshafts and the multipoint fuel injection system.

Before the year 2000, SR20DE engines featured a 9.5:1 compression ratio (Red Top and Black Top), then a 10.0:1 ratio (Roller Rocker).

Known as ‘Red Top,’ or ‘High port,’ the red valve cover SR20DE had 248-degrees of intake valve duration and 204-degrees of exhaust valve duration.

The ‘Black Top,’ or ‘Low Port’ was introduced in 1994. It came with revised cylinder heads, inlet ports, and a different cam profile.

The ‘Roller Rocker’ brought more changes to the SR20DE in the year 2000.

New camshafts with 232-degrees on the intake and 240-degrees on the exhaust were fitted, alongside revised intake and exhaust valves.

Pistons are made of lightweight aluminum and the crankshaft is lighter compared to previous iterations.


SR20DET Specs & Details

In terms of JDM fanatic choice, the SR20 engine series has stood the test of time as (arguably) the most impressive of the 180SX engines. The quality and performance of the SR20 series stem from its design.

Unlike most of the cars where the SR20DET was installed transversally, the RWD Nissan Silvia featured a longitudinal mounting.

The Silvia is also the model to run the SR20DET the longest, up until 2002, in the final model of the s-chassis family to roll out of the Nissan factory – the Nissan Silvia S15.

  • Displacement: 2 liters (121.92 cu-in.)
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Fuel system: Multiport injection
  • Intake: Garrett T25 (7psi stock boost)
  • Compression ratio: 10.0:1
  • Power output: 202HP @ 6,000RPM
  • Torque: 203 lb.-ft @ 4,000RPM

Later generations of the SR20DET used a T28 Garrett turbocharger, boosting performance to 220hp. The SR20DET engine is found on the later-model Nissan Silvia S14 and S15.

SR20DET – Common Faults

Overall, the SR20DET is a workhorse capable of enduring plenty of punishment. Still, some common faults should be addressed before causing more issues.

The aluminum block helps shed weight but suffers from warping – a common flaw of the 80s and 90s aluminum engines. This typically happens during extended spirited driving, and unfortunately, it will require a rebuild or replacement.

The ‘VVT rattle’ is a common issue among 180SX and 200SX owners featuring the SR20DET Black Top engine.

Generally, the issue is caused by the oil pressure in the camshaft sprocket. While it doesn´t cause any real damage, switching to a high-pressure oil pump will often fix the trouble.

Loving the rev limiter while throwing out the rear end in the corner? Sometimes rocker arms will snap on the SR20DET when pushed to its limit.

Replacing these can get expensive, so you are better off using rocker arm stoppers. They go for about $80 and will save your drift car from a lot of trouble.

Fitting stoppers is easy – however, grinding the inner cam cover is tricky.

SR20DET – Upgrades & Tuning

Swap internals, slap a bigger turbo and a high-flow fuel pump. The SR20DET can go up to 700hp with the right parts and ECU mapping.

The stock MAF sensors will work up to 300hp. Beyond this point, a better MAF (for example, the 300zx one) is needed. Bypassing 500hp will require a MAP sensor.

It is recommended to always go for the .64 A/R turbos for the 180SX SR20DET engines. They offer better low-end power and won´t require as much spool to get air flowing, making them ideal for drifting.

Alongside these upgrades, a quality boost controller is a common choice to manage airflow.


KA24DE (240SX USDM Engine) Specs & Details

When the S13 was built for the US Domestic Market, Nissan found it economically ineffective to ship with the same CA or SR family engines as they did for Europe and Japan.

Instead, the Nissan 240SX was built using the somewhat overweight and underpowered 2.4-liter N/A engine, to the disappointment of many US s-chassis fans.

  • Displacement: 2.4 liters (146.45 cu-in.)
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Fuel system: Multiport injection
  • Intake: Naturally Aspirated
  • Compression ratio: 9.5:1
  • Power output: 155HP @ 5,600RPM
  • Torque: 160 lb.-ft @ 4,400RPM

The above figures are taken from the second generation KA24DE, which featured larger inlet valves and improved pistons. The dual camshaft and knock sensors allow the engine to rev higher and produce 15hp more power.

The KA24DE was built with low-end torque in mind. Most of the US drifting scene is familiar with the model.

Those looking to get into the drifting discipline without breaking the bank, particularly in the US, generally aim for the Nissan 240SX and its KA24DE engine.

KA24DE – Common Faults

Being on the heavy side for a sports car engine, the KA24DE was highly reliable even when punished with prolonged runs at the rev limiter.

Early versions of the KA24DE are known to suffer from alternator failure. It´s recommended to replace a faulty alternator with a higher spec one, especially for race purposes.

As with its European sibling, the KA24DE suffers from a rattling timing chain. The timing chain loosens and rubs against the cover as miles pile up. Replacing the chain solves the issue instantly.

KA24DE – Upgrades & Tuning

When the drift discipline exploded throughout the US, the Nissan 240SX and its KA24DE became one of the most sought-after tuner models.

A polished head, bigger cams, and increased compression ratio will take the N/A KA24DE to 230hp.

Alternatively, taking the turbocharged route makes cheaper and more effective power gains. A custom turbocharged S13 engine is named KA24DET, following Nissan´s naming pattern.

An SR20DET turbocharger will fit on the KA24DE.

For better power figures, going for a performance Garrett GTX2867R is good for 400hp, though internals may need replacing. To maintain the low-end torque. The Borg Warner EFR turbo is the better choice.

According to various tuners, a forged rotating assembly is required to go above 350hp. A combo set of forged pistons and connecting rods matching the KA24DE will likely set you back around a thousand bucks.


Conclusion

Whether you opt for a 180SX or 240SX S13, you’re undoubtedly getting yourself an incredible chassis.

However, things can differ consderably regarding the various 180SX engine choices that are available.

There’s no doubt that the SR20DET is the favored option, but with the modern-day JDM/drift tax slapped onto the price, it’ll likely fall outside the budget of many 180SX or 240SX owners.

Thankfully, the KA24DE is turbo-friendly, making it a viable option for the 240SX owners out there.

Others looking to go to the dark side may look to swap out their 180SX engine in favor of a V8 with easily accessible power on tap, with a controversial LS swap – the choice is yours, despite what the haters may say!