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This Review is from Edmund's Automobile Buyer's Guides

1997 Nissan 200SX

Vehicle Tested: 1997 Nissan 200SX SE-R

Base Price of Test Vehicle: $17,219 (includes destination charge)

Options in Test Vehicle: Anti-lock Brakes, Power Sunroof, In-Dash CD Changer

Price of Vehicle as Tested: $18,836 (includes destination charge)

Serious Fun

by Christian J. Wardlaw
Photos by Greg Anderson

       Two punks driving erratically bore down on the family sedan. The first was driving a beat-to-hell Honda CRX, and he rode the Camry’s tail uncomfortably closely. The second piloted a brand-spanking-new Nissan 200SX, replete with dealer advertising tags front and rear. When the road widened to four lanes, the weaving CRX wheezed alongside my family on the right, windows down, Tupac blasting from within. Next came the new 200SX, freshly minted engine running near redline, skinny driver slouched in a gangsta’s protective position behind the B-pillar, baseball hat turned backward. He and his pal were playing a dangerous game of vehicular tag, and I quickly tired of it. With a push of the accelerator, the Camry’s V-6 engine revved up and we blew past both of them, leaving them choking on bland, non-descript sedan dust. "Ha!" I thought as the Camry slowed, "That’s what you guys get for buying girlie-mobiles with no cojones."

       A week later, a girlie-mobile showed up at the office. Painted a Halloweenish shade of orange called Autumn Sunburst, our Nissan 200SX test car was nearly identical to what our gangsta’ wannabe friend was driving, with some important differences under the sheetmetal. See, Mr. GW bought himself the SE model, which amounts to little more than a two-door Sentra. Nissan sent us the SE-R, which makes more power, handles better, and looks sharper than other 200SX models.

       At first we were skeptical. Several staffers were immediately turned off by the paint color, while others liked the way the sunlight glinted off the Nissan’s flanks just before dipping below the horizon. Styling was not cited as exciting by anyone who saw the car. Some of us found certain interior elements to be less than perfect, like the low seating position and busy climate control markings. But by the end of the week, an editor and a graphic artist were serious about buying the 200SX when its tour of duty in the press fleet was over.

       Everybody liked the 200SX SE-R. In fact, no other car we’ve tested in the past two years has met with such universal approval. My wife thought it would be a perfect car for her mom, who needs to replace her 1987 Chevrolet Nova sometime very soon. Greg Anderson, our online editor and resident photographer, had his wife drive the 200SX for a day, and she deemed the car perfect except for the paint color. Down to Colorado Springs the 200SX went where it appealed to graphic artist John Davis and his longtime companion, Dolores. Autumn Sunburst reminded her of the color that her first Volvo was painted. When Anderson and Davis found out Nissan was ready to reclaim the 200SX and send it to auction, a war started over whom would be able to purchase the car. Rock, paper, scissors solved that issue. Davis got first dibs.

       Personally, I felt the Nissan 200SX SE-R proved a theorem I’ve held since the days when my father drove a Saab 900 Turbo. Looks aren’t everything when it comes to cars. They matter quite a bit, but often the driving experience is so exceptional, so outstanding, that styling matters little. The 200SX SE-R is serious fun. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter twin-cam four cylinder engine that makes 140 horsepower. Fat Goodyear tires are mounted on attractive alloy wheels at each corner, and do an excellent job of keeping the little Nissan planted to the ground on smooth winding roads and in pockmarked urban corners. The suspension provides a firm ride, and the nicely weighted steering gives the driver all the information he needs to know about what’s happening at street-level.

       Applied to spirited driving, the 200SX SE-R is a hoot, albeit a refined one. The main source of refinement is the engine, which revs happily, not raucously, to redline. Zooming along I-25 at 85 mph one afternoon, I realized after several miles that I’d been traveling in fourth gear, tach needle pegged up near the 5,000 rpm mark. There was no excessive noise or vibration coming from beyond the firewall, just instantaneous bursts of power as demanded. At rest, this sophisticated four banger transmitted no vibration through the steering column, and the hood provided mirror-like images at idle. Furthermore, the 200SX we drove was equipped with Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. On other cars we’ve found these Eagles to be substandard in terms of handling, but on the SE-R, they gripped the pavement tenaciously, and emitted little protest when pushed hard. This is a car that could threaten your driver’s license.

       The in-dash disc changer had eaten my new Janet Jackson CD (thanks to my idiocy, not an ergonomic flaw with the car), and I’d been attempting to extract it from the dashboard slot. As I looked up at the road, a Crown Vic with a light bar passed on the left, while I passed a Dodge Caravan on the right. A glance at the speedometer confirmed the bad news. I pulled over before the Douglas Country sheriff could get the Crown Vic turned around.

       "Can I see your license and registration, please?"

       I handed the officer my license and the form Nissan had me sign when I took possession of the car. From the glovebox I fished out a California proof of insurance.

       "I clocked you at 54 mph in a 40 mph zone, while passing on the right."

       Ayuh. But see, I was trying to get my CD out of the disc changer and I wasn’t paying attention to my speed. I live right here in the neighborhood, and know the speed limit is 40 mph.

       "Well, I’ll let you off with a warning this time, but if I catch you speeding again, I’ll give you a ticket."

       So, if you admit you know what the speed limit is, and you confess that you weren’t paying attention to your driving, you actually get out of it? Wow, that’s almost scary. Hopefully, the gangsta’ wannabe in the nearly identical girlie-mobile 200SX SE got nailed later in the week, because he actually deserved a ticket.

       In short, we all loved to drive the 200SX SE-R. Otherwise, the car was rather dull and unexceptional. Exterior styling is contemporary, but devoid of character. Inside, muted black and gray tones were the rule, and all the gauges and controls were logically placed for easy use. Unfortunately, the markings on the climate controls and the stereo were fussy and sized too small. The seats, while comfortable, did not offer a height adjuster to raise them from their position at floor level. The gearshift was unusually tall for a sporting car, and throws between ratios were precise but long. The sunroof on our test car was quite noisy when open, and the stereo’s sound quality was mediocre at best.

       At least the 200SX is equipped with useable interior space and a sizable trunk. My wife and I had no trouble toting baby Sarah around in her rear-facing car seat, thanks to the easy-entry feature on the front passenger seat and an unobtrusive dashboard forward of the front passenger. There was also plenty of room in the trunk for the assorted detritus that accompanies all travel with infants. We found the split-folding rear seat to be quite handy, though we would have preferred a true hatchback to the current coupe configuration. But then we’d have to give up some structural rigidity, and the car we drove was tight and rattle-free at 20,000 miles. As the end of our week with the 200SX SE-R approached, we had decided we didn’t want to give it back.

       "So, are you guys coming to pick up the Nissan today?"

       No, we aren’t. We wanted to get you the 1998 Blazer, but Billy Bob (name changed to protect the innocent) has decided he doesn’t want to give it back just yet. The Volvo wagon isn’t in from Utah until tomorrow, and then it goes to service. Can you guys sit tight with the Nissan a few more days?

       "No problem. We love this car. In fact, we’ve got a couple of guys on staff who want to buy it."

       In the end, we drove the SE-R for nearly another week, but nobody on staff bought it. Davis decided to get something less expensive, and Anderson’s wife couldn’t live with the Autumn Sunburst paint job. To date, this is one of the few test cars we’ve all universally enjoyed, and it’s only the second one any of us has considered buying from a press fleet (I considered the 1997 Miata M-Edition for awhile a few months back). That says something about the fun-to-drive nature of the 200SX SE-R and our confidence in its ability to withstand many miles of hard use. If you’re shopping any sporty coupe in this class, you owe it to yourself to drive the SE-R.

(c) 1997 Edmund Publications Corporation