Nissan CA18DET – Everything You Need To Know

by Staff | Last updated 8th July, 2020 | Posted in Guides

We get under the skin of Nissan’s CA18DET, covering history, specs, reliability and tuning potential of this classic JDM inline four.

ca18det engine bay


The Nissan CA18DET, famously used in the in the early models of Nissan’s iconic drift machine; the S13 180SX and 200SX.

Before being subsequently replaced by the 2.0L SR20DET models, the CA18DET reigned supreme from 1985 through to 1994.

In this article, we will be exploring the background, development and specifications of the CA18DET.

Treat this as your ultimate guide; the only reference you’ll ever need for the key knowledge and insight into one of Nissan’s most iconic and memorable engines.

Enjoy reading about Nissan engines? You need to check out our VH45DE and RB20DET engine guides.


Background: Part of the CA family

The CA18DET was among the last in a long line of 14 engines in the CA family built from 1982 to 1991.

The displacement over the years included 1.6L, 1.8L and 2.0L models, and the unit was built with a cast-iron block with aluminum head material.

The CA was originally created as a replacement for the Z engine, among others, as a new inline-4 piston engine for the smaller cars in Nissan’s range.

There were 6 versions of the CA18, namely the CA18(i), CA18E, CA18S, CA18DE, CA18ET and the CA18DET.

The CA18DET was able to produce 166 bhp with 168 lb-ft of torque, and in more ways than one represented a significant upgrade from previous models. Some of its enhancements included:

  • A new DOHC aluminum head with 16 valves
  • An upgraded Garrett T25 turbocharger with better flow capacity
  • An intercooler preventing pre-ignition

It’s true that these engine names can look a bit like alpha-numeric soup, so below is a breakdown of the name code:

  • CA – this is the engine family, as mentioned above
  • 18 – refers to the 1.8L displacement of the engine
  • D – refers to the Dual Overhead Camshafts (DOHC)
  • E – is the multi-point fuel injection
  • T – means ‘Turbocharged’

CA18DET basic specifications

The basic details are always a good place to start when dealing with a piece of equipment like this. Below you’ll find the main engine specifications for the CA18DET:

  • Code: CA18DET
  • Cylinder Block Material: Cast Iron
  • Layout: 4-stroke Inline-4 (Straight-4)
  • Valve Arrangement: 16 valves (4 per cylinder) DOHC, belt driven
  • Fuel: Gasoline
  • Production Years: 1985-1994
  • Displacement: 1.8L (1809cm3)
  • Fuel System: Multiport Fuel Injection
  • Power Adder: Turbocharger Garrett T25
  • Max Horsepower: 158 hp (without intercooler)
    175 hp (with intercooler)
  • Max Torque: 155.7 lb-ft (without intercooler)
    166.8 lb-ft (with intercooler)

Cars that used the CA18DET

Nissan originally planned to use the CA18DET in its smaller cars. Its many upgraded and enhanced features (as mentioned above), made it a top choice for some of Nissan’s most iconic and beloved models.

Below is a full list of all the cars that were built with the CA18DET:

  • 1) Nissan Auster (T12) – from 1985 to 1990
  • 2) Nissan Stanza (T12) – from 1986 to 1990
  • 3) Nissan Bluebird (U11) – from 1985 to 1987
  • 4) Nissan Bluebird (U12) – from 1987 to 1989
  • 5) Nissan Silvia (S12) – from 1986 to 1988
  • 6) Nissan Silvia (S13) – from 1988-1991
  • 7) Nissan 180SX (S13) – from 1989-1991
  • 8) Nissan Bluebird (RNU12) SSS Attesa Limited – from 1987 to 1989

Claims to fame: CA18DET

As Nissan S13, 180SX and 240SX enthusiasts, you may think you know everything about the CA18DET engine, but do you?

Below are some more interesting facts about the engine that only the real Nissan nerds know.

First, there were actually two versions of the engine made, but only one for the Japanese market. Late-model Japanese CA18DETs had 8 port heads, with butterfly-actuated auxiliary ports in the lower intake manifold.

Second, its quick spooling turbo and good low-end tractability were possible thanks to its innovative build.

When running below 3,800rpm, only 4 long narrow ports (1 per cylinder) opened, which quickened the intake charge to the cylinder. Going over 3,800rpm opened up the shorter, wider ports (2 per cylinder), which helped high-RPM flow.

This balance was key to the engine’s prowess.

Emissions standards and taxation in Europe meant the CA18DET was the only available engine in the S13 200SX European model.

The European tax model for cars was based largely on displacement, which when coupled with the expense of emissions testing meant that drivers of the S13 200SX (non-JDM model) only had a single engine choice, the CA18DET.

None other was available until the arrival of the S14 in 1994.


Tuning potential of the CA18DET

While many in the tuning and drifting scene may claim that the subsequent SR20DET has better potential for tuning than the CA18DET, you should never take that to mean the latter has no tuning prowess at all.

There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that a well built CA18DET is capable of impressive power tuning up to heights of 690hp or more (700+PS).

Broadly speaking, CA18DET tuning can be split into two types – Engine Tuning and Intake/Exhaust Tuning – which we will explore in some more detail below:

Engine tuning

Before you start tuning your CA18DET, you should think carefully about how far exactly you want to go. If you’re using the car on the road, for example, then you won’t want to explore up to the “Stage 3” mods, which doesn’t make for good regular road driving.

Highly stressed engines and grabby clutches that are required for big hp builds do not make great companions when just cruising the highway.

If, on the other hand, you are modding your car for track activity like circuits or drifting, then you’ll want to go as far as possible, all the way up to “Stage 3” mods.

We’ve divided all common modifications to a car like the 180SX into the three stages below so you can get a better idea of what kinds of mods you might make to your own CA18DET

Stage 1: Panel air filter, sports exhaust, remap, lighter flywheel

Stage 2: High-flow fuel injectors, fast road camshafts, ported and polished head, fuel pump upgrades, sport clutch, upgraded intercooler

Stage 3: Larger turbocharger, competition camshafts, engine balancing, internal engine upgrades (forged pistons/head/valves), stronger gearbox (r33 Skyline, 350z etc)

When tuning the CA18DET, your main goals should include:

  • A nice flat torque curve (don’t worry about horsepower)
  • Cool engine water temperatures
  • Plenty of fuel to prevent detonation or “Knocking” (e.g. by using higher-octane fuel, and/or upgrading the fuel pumps)

Intake/Exhaust tuning

You can make significant power gains, even when working on the base model of the CA18DET without going too crazy.

Even without strengthening mods (rebuilding the engine with forged components), some claim that the standard block can handle as much power gain as 250bhp, but that can also increase if you’re willing to perform some strengthening mods to the block itself.

This is anecdotal but a friend of mine ran his CA18DET with a forged bottom end at 420 bhp (flywheel) for several years with no issues.

The stock CA18DET intake and exhaust are very restrictive, this is for reduced noise and for emissions, if you want to start tuning then these are the first things to upgrade. Upgrading airflow and exhaust gas exit in your engine is the first step on your tuning path.

A sports exhaust is a good start, but not too large. Go for an exhaust with about 2.5-3 inches pipe diameter as a general rule.

Next take a look at remapping the ecu. This gives big gains and extracts the gains from your initial “breathing” mods.

Polishing and porting the head will also bring benefits to the air/fuel charge.

This is not work for a beginner-level modder, though, so you should seek some professional assistance if you feel you lack the proper know-how.

Tuning summary

If you’re driving a 180SX or another model carrying the CA18DET, there is certainly great scope for tuning.

The results may surprise you when you consider that this engine was first built and used back in the 1980s.

Mind you, we should remember that this is a Japanese-designed engine, after all, so perhaps longevity and versatility are to be expected.

The main thing to remember is that when upgrading the CA18DET, consider the knock-on effect to other systems in your car, especially the exhaust and air flow.

The mechanics of your 180SX or 200SX, like any other car, are built and tuned to work together in harmony.

Upgrading one end of the system can have a detrimental effect on other parts unless they are upgraded in sync and in a perfect world, the ECU map should be updated after any modifications are performed.


CA18DET vs SR20DET

In the 1994, newer Nissan models were built with a new engine model, the SR20DET.

This engine offered a bigger displacement of 2.0L, as well as more power, more torque and also more tuning options.

While on the surface it seemed to be the great upgrade that some were expecting, a closer look suggests that it’s not entirely the case.

Power and general specification: Slight advantage SR20DET

Right from the get-go, the SR20DET appears to offer far more in terms of power and its overall specification. With a power rating of 246hp and 220lb-ft of torque (in Silvia S15 Spec-R trim), it outstrips the CA18DET, which sits at 173hp and 166lb-ft torque.

Beyond that, the SR20DET also contains a much-updated turbo, the ball bearing T28, while the CA18DET uses the T25 as stock.

We only give a slight advantage for the SR20DET for three main reasons.

First, it was built long after the first CA18DET, so it’s natural that it should be somewhat upgraded.

Secondly, the CA18DET is still a great performance engine with upgrade potential, which taking into account its age and longevity still makes it a great player in the Nissan field.

Thirdly, SR20DET’s cost you a premium on the used market because of their desirability, CA18DET’s while performing at a lessor level, as much more affordable and offer great potential for making reliable power if built correctly.

Exhaust sound: Advantage CA18DET

For clarity and fairness here, we are using the sounds of tuned CA18DET and SR20DET engines as the comparison point.

While the SR20DET initially sounds gruffer and more powerful than the CA18DET, there is a world of difference in the sound when the turbo kicks in and the speed begins.

The CA18 maintains a tough, aggressive and powerful sound while the SR20DET tends to create a flat note that leaves some with a slight cringe. Some SR20’s have been nicknamed “wet farts” when on boost.

That contrast in the SR20DET is what really makes the difference here. The CA18DET may be older, but they’ve nailed that consistency in the sound when the juice gets tuned up.

Tuning potential: Slight advantage SR20DET

In the end, the age difference means that the CA18, while having great tuning potential itself (see above), just can’t really compare in full to the SR20DET.

The latter’s significant upgrades allow it more scope for greater power. The main effect is that SR20DET is able to handle more change and more power more easily than its older counterpart.

Basic power mods with correct fueling will push an SR20DET over 300 bhp, with an upgraded turbocharger and all the supporting mods in place and a healthy engine, 400 bhp is possible.

With forged components the moon is the limit, some 2.2 stroked engines make in excess of 1,000 bhp.

Once again, it’s only a “slight” advantage in our view, since it wouldn’t be right to say that the CA18DET has little tuning potential, even when compared to its younger successor.

CA18DET vs SR20DET – Summary

The differences described above have led many in the past to consider and action a swap in the engine, upgrading from CA18DET to SR20DET.

It’s an understandable move, but one interesting thing is that unlike so many other engine upgrades, the CA18DET is not being replaced because it is either obsolete or insufficient.

The CA18DET, even now after all these years, still stands proud as a powerful, dynamic and superlatively constructed piece of engineering.

Sure, it’s not able to fully compete with the SR20DET in some respects, but neither is it obsolete junkyard fodder.

The beauty of it is that Nissan enthusiasts can still have a choice of viable engines with different displacements and power ratings and expect great performance from either one.

The CA18 has plenty of life left in it, if you treat it properly. So, don’t be put off if you new S13 houses a CA instead of an SR.


Repairs and maintenance to the CA18DET

Finally, it’s important for users or prospective buyers to be aware of some of the important maintenance requirements on the CA18DET.

Three key factors come into play when it comes to keeping your CA18DET in good repair.

1) Ensuring that a previous owner maintained it regularly / keeping up with regular basic maintenance yourself (especially regular, good quality oil changes)

2) Staying aware of the big-end bearings, which can be “eaten” by the bottom end should maintenance not have been carried out. Repairs to these parts may be complex and are unfortunately rather common. This has led to the CA18DET’s getting a poor reputation for reliability in the tuning world.

3) Generally speaking, replacement parts are available from big suppliers, so you should be able to restore an engine or perform large-scale repairs if needed.

Regular maintenance like oil changes, filter changes etc. are essential for the general health of the engine.

The CA18DET can and will fall into desperate disrepair if you don’t keep up with these regular tasks. Some buyers have reported significant damage inflicted because of a lack of care on the part of the engine’s previous owner.

Extra attention is needed on the big-end bearings, which are often reported as damaged or “eaten” by the bottom end. This is one of the more serious consequences of the first factor not being followed through by CA18DET users.

Replacement parts, while harder to find than back in the late 90s and early 2000s, are still available from certain suppliers. If you’re in the US, then Enjuku Racing is a good place to look.

If you’re in Asia, then Nengun still has stocks, as does JDM Garage in the UK. If you are to receive an engine in some state of disrepair, don’t lose hope.

A dwindled supply doesn’t mean you can’t still find what you need.


Wrapping up – The CA18DET

The story of the CA18DET is certainly one of endurance and durability.

It’s hard for some to imagine that an engine first manufactured back in the 1980s or early 1990s could still be operational in 2020 and beyond.

Much or all of the mechanics and technology of that time has been so eagerly replaced by auto companies, just as other forms of technology have by their respective developers.

It’s refreshing, therefore, to learn about the CA18DET and remember when engines were built and engineered to last.

We hope that this comprehensive guide to the CA18DET has helped you understand in more detail the heritage and legacy of this important Japanese automotive creation.