A polished blend of mild and wild.
Nature abhors a vacuum. That's what the 1993 demise of the NX sport coupes created in Nissan's lineup vacancy that was only partially filled by the Sentra SE-R coupe. And that, too, has disappeared. When the new, redesigned 1995 Sentra lineup was announced in late 1994, there was no longer a coupe version.
But not for long. In place of the defunct Sentra coupe is a new family of Nissan coupes, separated in name from the new Sentra sedans, though they're the same size and share most of the same mechanical components.
A spunky competitor of the Honda Civic, Plymouth Neon and Saturn coupes, the Nissan 200SX is a smooth addition to the reasonably priced fun-car market and may even replace the pricier 240SX before long.
There are three different models: the base level 200SX, the well-equipped 200SX SE and the sporty 200SX SE-R. The base 200SX is a no-frills car with 13-inch wheels; the 200SX SE is the mid-grade model with 14-inch alloy wheels; and the 200SX SE-R is racier, with handsome 15-inch aluminum wheels and a little wing on the back. The latter was our test model, which was priced just over $15,500 complete with a peppy 2.0-liter engine, anti-lock brakes (ABS), air conditioning and cruise control.
Like the new Sentra sedan, the 200SX has a much more organic shape than the previous Sentra coupe collection of soft curves and rounded corners that has dash without resorting to flashiness.
Similarity to the Sentra isn't surprising because the two cars are the same from the windshield forward, with a gently sloping hoodline that slides down to flush headlights, a body-colored bumper and a spoiler just beneath.
From the windshield back, though, the skin is unique to the 200SX, culminating in a slightly elevated rear end that gives the car a hint of the wedge shape associated with contemporary sport coupes.
The 200SX is a fraction of an inch shorter than the old Sentra coupe, but its wheelbase is four inches longer. Nissan engineers say this is due, in part, to a new rear suspension system, which is more compact in design and also less costly to produce. Nissan first introduced the system on the Maxima in mid-1994, and it's also used in the '95 Sentra sedan.
The base 200SX and the SE have the same engine as the '95 Sentra: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that's been re-engineered for a little more power. The 200SX SE-R uses the same 2.0-liter engine that was offered in the Sentra SE-R coupe. With 140 hp, it's one of the most powerful engines available in this class. Only the Chevrolet Cavalier Z24, Pontiac Sunfire GT and Neon coupe have more zip.
All 200SX models come with a 5-speed manual transmission as standard equipment, and all offer the option of a four-speed automatic.
The Inside Story
Like its sleek exterior, the interior of our 200SX SE-R test car conveyed a sense of quality and careful construction. The bucket seats, upholstered in cloth with an attractive herringbone pattern, were comfortable and cozy without being excessively snug.
The dashboard makes a clean sweep across the car, punctuated by a curved hood that shelters instruments and warning lights. Instruments are clean and easy to see through the large four-spoke steering wheel.
Nissan has joined the trend of simple rotary switches for heating and ventilation controls, and in the 200SX they're positioned above the audio controls in the center of the dashboard.
There aren't many criticisms to make of this new dashboard design. The sound system's push buttons could be larger; adjustments while the car was moving took too much of our attention away from driving. We also found that the cupholders, which pop out of the dashboard just below the sound system, crowded the shift lever.
Some drivers may find the interior color scheme a little bit dull and dreary due to the fact that it's pretty much devoid of color. The dashboard is all black and the upholstery, though attractive and high in quality, is always charcoal gray, regardless of model or exterior paint color.
The base 200SX has remote-adjustable side mirrors, but is otherwise relatively spartan. You have to add civilizing options such as air conditioning and a radio. And there are even some features, power windows and door locks, for example that can't be added to the base car. The SE model includes a much more comprehensive collection of features, generally the same list that goes with the SE-R.
All three models share the same open, airy feeling and offer a little more rear-seat roominess than many coupes in this size class. That's another advantage of the new rear suspension design: it has allowed Nissan engineers to provide a backseat that's actually usable, if only for short distances, as well as a good-sized trunk that's easy to access for loading and unloading cargo.
This car's safety features are good, including dual airbags and side-impact door beams on all models. However, ABS is available only as an extra-cost option on both the SE and SE-R, and it isn't available at all on the base 200SX. This doesn't compare very favorably with some domestic competitors; the new Cavalier and Sunfire coupes, for example, provide ABS as standard equipment on all models.
Ride & Drive
Our SE-R tester proved to be a delightful blend of mild and wild. The steering was light but positive, the ride was firm but far from choppy, and the response in abrupt maneuvers was quick and decisive.
Nissan wanted to make its new coupes comfortable without compromising their sporty reflexes, and we think that engineering goal has been achieved. The 200SX provides sports-car feel and driver confidence in equal measures.
We also liked the performance of the SE-R engine, a sizzling little powerhouse that's capable of zooming from 0 to 60 mph in less than eight seconds. As an added bonus, it goes about its business quietly thanks to extra attention in noise-suppression, and it has an excellent record for durability.
The shifting of the manual transmission may be the best of any small car going, and we found the action of the clutch to be exceptionally smooth. The SE-R engine has enough power to provide satisfying performance even with an automatic transmission, but we would imagine the action of the five-speed manual is so cooperative that anyone even a stick-shift novice will feel very comfortable with it. It's a key element that helps make this car so much fun to drive.
However, we should also note that Nissan has restricted the SE-R's ultimate performance as a concession to insurance rates. The old Sentra SE-R coupe was capable of more than 125 mph; the 200SX SE-R has a governing device that limits top speed to 109 mph. As a result, this makes the SE's 1.6-liter engine a bit more attractive by comparison. Its performance is lively; you have to push the SE-R to its limits to produce an appreciable difference, and the SE costs less.
The new Nissan 200SX may be considered expensive, especially when compared with competing domestic coupes such as the Cavalier, Sunfire, Neon, Saturn and Ford Escort. And this is one of the Nissans that's assembled in the United States.
Nevertheless, it's a very appealing car. The styling is smooth and sexy, the quality is high and it's relatively practical. The SE-R version offers a little more performance and a slightly sportier appearance, but we think the SE is the best bet. It's well-equipped, plenty of fun and it'll save you somewhere around $2000 over the SE.
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