Practically fun.

by Mitch McCullough

The Nissan 200SX SE-R is so much fun to drive that it's easy to overlook that it's also roomy, practical, quiet and comfortable. The sportiest model of Nissan's 200SX coupes, the SE-R competes in a world of cars that need to be sporty yet economical, fun to drive yet practical. The SE-R walks this tightrope with a balance an enthusiast on a budget can love.

The 200SX base and SE models are essentially the coupe versions of the Nissan Sentra compact sedan. This makes them nice, affordable, practical, reliable coupes with sporty overtones. Mixing the -R into this recipe adds excitement in the form of a bigger, more powerful engine, better brakes and some important tweaks to the suspension and driveline.

Walkaround

The 200SX doesn't break any new ground in the styling studio, and its conservative lines attract little attention on the road. However, it is an attractive car. And one could argue that the 200SX is in keeping with the trend away from curvy, rounded lines to flat expanses of sheet metal accented with sharp creases.

Three models are available for 1997: The base 200SX, the SE and the SE-R. The three look identical at first glance, right down to their rear spoilers. But closer inspection of the SE-R reveals subtle side sill extensions, along with its unique five-spoke aluminum alloy wheels and SE-R badge on the trunk lid.

As noted, the 200SX and 200SX SE models have a lot in common with the Sentra compact sedan. That includes the 115-horsepower 1.6-liter dual overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine, which delivers an EPA-estimated 39 mpg on the highway, 30 mpg in the city with the standard five-speed gearbox, and 36/27 with the optional four-speed automatic.

The faster SE-R comes with a more powerful 2.0-liter dohc engine. The 2.0-liter engine produces 140 horsepower and a respectable 132 pounds-feet of torque, the force that helps the SE-R get a jump on other cars at stoplights. Quick getaways are tempered with a drop in fuel economy to 23/31 city/highway with either transmission. That's a far cry from the SE's miserly 39 mpg, but it's a relatively small price for the improved performance--almost a full second quicker from 0 to 60 mph. The SE-R, with its bigger engine, is not sold in states that mandate California emissions standards.

Kicking tires, or at least examining them, can tell a lot about the sporting intentions of a car. The inexpensive 200SX base model comes with inexpensive 13-inch tires and steel wheels, while the well-appointed SE runs on competent 14-inch all-season tires mounted on attractive six-spoke alloy wheels. The sporty SE-R goes for handling performance with low-profile 195/55VR-15 Goodyear Eagle high-performance all-season radials mounted on way-cool five-spoke 15-inch alloys.

Other signs of the SE-R's sports car leanings: A thicker front anti-roll bar reduces body roll in corners. A viscous limited-slip differential reduces front wheelspin by transferring power to the tire with the best traction. Four-wheel disc brakes improve braking performance over the standard disc/drum brakes. An antilock braking system is a $499 option for the SE and SE-R.

The 200SX base model and the SE, which starts at close to $16,000, including destination charges, compete with the Honda Civic, Saturn Coupe, Mitsubishi Mirage and VW Golf. With its higher level of performance and $17,220 pricetag, the 200SX SE-R model also takes on the Acura Integra, Hyundai Tiburon, VW GTI and Chrysler Neons.

The 200SX SE-R we tested was loaded with everything on Nissan's short option list except the $800 automatic transmission: ABS and a $450 power glass moonroof with sunshade brought the total with destination charges to $18,167. That puts it under most of its similarly equipped competition. A stylish Tiburon can be picked up for less, but its owner will sacrifice a significant amount of interior roominess.

The Inside Story

The base model has a revised interior this year. The SE is still more comfortable, though, because it comes with nicer seats, air conditioning, a four-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo, power windows, power locks and cruise control. And it looks better with fog lights and alloy wheels.

The SE-R takes the trappings of the SE and adds a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. And its sporty owners can enjoy the convenience of remote keyless entry.

It's easy to get in and out of the 200SX. This is partly due to the headroom advantage it enjoys over other cars in its class, something taller drivers should appreciate. The sporty seats are very comfortable, providing better than average lateral support.

The instrument panel is straightforward, with a large tachometer and gauges that are easy to read. The dash is attractive and functional, almost like a German car with its straightforward approach. The heating and ventilation knobs are easy to operate, and commuters will enjoy one of the best cup holders in this class.

For those with friends and family, the 200SX offers roomier back seats than most other cars in its class. The trunk doesn't hold as much as some, but the 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold down to offer a generous cargo capacity. The trunk lid lifts from the top edge of the bumper, making it easier to load groceries and other cargo.

Ride & Drive

This car is a willing and pleasant companion. The driver is seated comfortably with an excellent view of the terrain ahead and no distracting squeaks or rattles. The 200SX is stable at high speeds and offers predictable handling in slippery conditions, inspiring confidence in the driver. Its rigid chassis and well-tuned suspension help it corner better than the competition, yet they do a superb job of damping jolts from potholes and rough roads.

The 200SX offers excellent transient response, maintaining its composure in abrupt maneuvers. All of these traits help make it fun to drive on a winding road. The SE-R has an edge over the SE and base model in the handling department with its aggressive tires, thicker front anti-roll bar and limited-slip differential.

That edge is broadened by the SE-R's more powerful 2.0-liter engine that revs freely to 7100 rpm. This engine is silky smooth and works in concert with a smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox for a great back road driving experience. The SE-R's engine produces slightly more torque and nearly the same horsepower as the smaller 1.8-liter engine in the $19,000 Acura Integra LS, and delivers excellent throttle response, particularly in fifth gear. The limited-slip front differential puts the SE-R's power to best use by limiting wheelspin when powering around a corner.

The 200SX SE-R more than holds its own on the race track. It scored two class victories and finished second overall, with a member of the New Car Test Drive test staff among its driving crew, at last year's Longest Day 24-hour road race at the Nelson Ledges road course in Southington, Ohio.

Final Word

A compact sport coupe should be affordable, practical and fun to drive. The term "fun to drive" can mean many things to many people, but we feel one of the defining characteristics is handling.

It's fun to drive the 200SX SE-R because it can be hustled through a corner with little fear. It provides good grip and, important, responds predictably. One or two other cars in this class may offer quicker acceleration and trendier styling, but the 200SX SE-R boasts more interior space, a quieter cabin and very good handling. And, best of all, it costs less. It's a great combination.

The SE model is affordable, practical and comfortable, but is short on the power and suspension tweaks that make the SE-R so entertaining. The basic 200SX is even more affordable, but is relatively spartan.

The real test for a compact sports coupe is whether it can keep its owner smiling for several years. We think the SE-R's unique blend of virtues will do just that.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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