This car was a huge departure from the previous vehicles I've owned or still own--and there's 17 of them, all European makes like Saab, Porsche, Volvo, BMW and Audi. The B13 SE-R possesses attributes I love and those I loathe but none I didn't expect.
I obtained the car in a trade for a Volvo 760 turbo I found for an unbeatable price. It was the first automatic I had ever owned (and hated), and, just as my father always warned about Volvos, it was slow and handled horridly. After the trade only a few days later for this '91 SE-R, which my Japanese-make-enthusiast friend advised me to buy (and complained he hadn't seen it first), I knew immediately I'd made the right choice.
The car handles excellently for a 17-year-old car that in all likelihood contains mostly parts installed at the factory, including dampers. The Japanese philosophy that less is often better pays off here--the car is light, around 2500 pounds, and in place of any electronic aides (which weren't mainstream in this class at the time anyways) has what I consider the best option a maker could install--a limited-slip differential. I even read it's a Torsen.
For skilled drivers and racers, an LSD is about the most invaluable thing and also great of day-to-day scenarios. In the snow this car has well-above-average traction off the line. With snow tires it's definitely the best car I've had in the snow, inviting wanton flick- and ebrake-induced drifting.
The only complaint about handling is the over-boosted power steering. It isn't necessarily vague, but just assists too much.
The powerplant is what you'd expect in a car like this. Yeah, it's an SR20DE, which all the tuners go nuts over, and in all fairness the engine is stout, powerful (everything's relative) and opens the doors for big power increases from the expansive aftermarket and JDM factory turbo powerplant availability.
Since this is a daily driver that keeps me mobile while my 944 Turbo figures out how to break in another expensive and time-consuming way, the power remains stock. It's enough, but as almost all my other cars have been turbocharged, it leaves a lot to be desired when the road is open and speed limits are higher. Interestingly, cars with less power sometimes require more planning, i.e. when you're making a judgment about passing, and that (along with the appreciable absence of ABS) demands more generally advantageous driver attention. Gas mileage is also very good: about 30 mpg with a heavy right foot.
The transmission is definitely the weak link in this car and hard to come by, so if you're a prospective buyer this should be a priority on your checklist. Even though my transmission is relatively fault-free, with just a mildly worn 1-2 syncro, I'll heel-toe rev-match double clutch almost any time I approach a corner to take the load off the wear parts and balance the downshift.
Space is at a premium, but this is a subcompact notchback, not a Maybach. The seats are pretty nice, with decent bolsters making the car's sporting intentions clear. Mine has manual windows and locks, and though I understand the weight and production economics coupled with build era, I would really like these items to be power on daily driven car.
Since the B13 SE-R is both Japanese and manages its 140 horsepower engine with a computer, it's reliable. Defend them all you like, but older European cars, even if they are better to drive, require much more attention. Barring alignments and tire mounting, I perform all repairs and upgrades myself and appreciate, for the first time ever, parts that are cheap and obtainable without delay.
Altogether it's a great little car. I can see why it will be viewed as a classic in years to come, and I sometimes regret having to drive this one through harsh Wisconsin winters. Then again, you'll always feel that way in a car that puts a smile on your face.