If you’re into 1990s Nissans like the 240SX or the Sentra, you’re probably a fan of the SR20. Just like other Nissan engines and pretty much every other JDM engine for that matter, the SR20 came in a few different variations.
Two popular versions of this engine are the SR20DET and the SR20VE. Naturally, a popular discussion is which version of the SR20 is the best. So let’s dive in and look at some differences.
Before we get into the differences, I want to clarify that we’re going to be talking about the SR20DET and the SR20VE. We’re not going to discuss the SR20DE or the SR20VET.
Starting with the basics, both engines appear pretty similar on paper. They both a 2.0L displacement, aluminum block, aluminum, and DOHC 4-Valve head. The big obvious difference between these two engines is the fact that one of them is turbocharged, while the other naturally aspirated.
Strangely enough, neither of these engines were used in a very wide range of different applications. Where the SR20DE was used in a bunch of different vehicles, the SR20DET was in the S13, S14, S15, Pulsar GTI-R, Sunny GTI-R, Bluebird, Liberty, and Avenir which is a station wagon type thing. The SR20VE was only used in the Primera, Bluebird, and Wingroad.
As far as potential power outputs, it’s not too surprising that the DET was available with more power than the VE. Power output for the DET ranged from 200 horsepower up to 266 horsepower, while the VE ranges from 187 horsepower to 201 horsepower.
Something which surprised me when researching this, is how much peak power the VE made. Peak power between these two engines is surprisingly close since the VE makes up to 100hp per liter naturally aspirated.
Of course, peak power only tells a very small portion of the story and while the VE makes a lot of power for a naturally aspirated engine, it suffers compared to the DET when it comes to torque, where the DET makes an extra 50lb-ft.
The Power of VVL
The big reason the VE can make so much power while being naturally aspirated is its superior cylinder head. The big thing that makes the head so much better is the NEO VVL system, which was essentially an answer to Honda’s VTEC system.
For the most part, the NEO VVL system functions exactly like Honda’s VTEC system, which uses multiple cam lobes to provide a low rpm cam ideal for torque and a high rpm cam optimized for hp. The only difference in the Nissan system is that the intake and exhaust cams are triggered independently for a flatter, more consistent power band.
The VE’s NEO VVL system is quite a bit different than anything you’ll find on a DET head. Depending on which SR20DET you’re talking about, it either had no VVT/ VVL or it came with Nissan’s VTC system. Red top and blacktop (also referred to as “flat-top”) don’t use any kind of VVT or VVL system and the notch top is the engine which uses VTC.
The non-VTC DET’s came with a “High Port” cylinder head which offered excellent airflow from the factory, making them desirable as a performance option that did not require heavy port work. On the other hand, the VTC DET’s came with “Low Port” cylinder which features a redesigned intake manifold with slightly smaller ports for increased intake velocity.
When paired with the VTC on the intake camshaft, the low port head offered improved response while delivering greater peak power compared to the previous SR20 engines.
To put it simply, the NEO VVL system and improved port design, the VE head is arguably better than any DET head. That being said, you can make a DET head flow a lot of more than it does from the factory with some port work.
Cylinder Block Differences
Moving from the cylinder head down to the blocks, there are some notable differences. Since the VE was used in front-wheel-drive cars and the DET was used in rear-wheel-drive cars, there are a lot of small changes for each different configuration, but those differences aren’t incredibly important.
The big thing is that they both use a closed deck design, which really strong and is great for making big power. One very nice thing on the DET block is that features piston oil squirter which sprays oil at bottom of the piston dome to help keep the piston. This is a nice feature to have in a boosted application, but it’s not necessary.
It’s also important to note that the VE block has different oil passages which are needed to get high-pressure oil to the NEO VVL system. This is important to note because if you build a Frankenstein engine, you may or may not need to block off those oil passages.
Other Engine Internals
Looking at the pistons there’s a pretty clearance difference, since the VE uses a 10.3:1 compression ratio while the DET uses an 8.5:1 compression ratio. The higher compression ratio helps the VE make as much power as possible
Up to this point, it’s clear that the DET was designed around the use of forced induction. With the VE head being better, it begs the question if you can put a VE head on your DET, and the answer is yes. If you wanted to build one of these Frankenstein engines, there are some important changes you have to make.
The oil pump from the DE/DET engine is not ideal to use with the VE head as each of these particular oil pumps don’t provide enough consistent high oil pressure, which the VE engine requires to activate both VVL solenoids.
Other small things like using a VE front cover and dealing with mismatched timing marks make the DET with VE head a little difficult, but it’s doable.
Which One is Better?
Back to the original question of which one is better, it depends on what you want out of your engine, and truthfully it’s not exactly fair to compare these engines since one is turbocharged and one is naturally aspirated.
If you want to build an N/A engine, the VE is going to be the better choice. If you want a boosted engine, the DET is going to be better. If you want the best of both worlds, you can build a DET with a VE head on it or opt for a VET.