The Nissan 200SX got a light touch of the stylist's brush for the 1998 season, getting new taillights, headlamps and front and rear bumper treatments. And oh, let us not forget, a new "exhaust finisher," the tubular piece of chrome that clamps on the exhaust pipe.
The changes, aside from the rear end, which now looks more like a Ford Contour's, are underwhelming. The car still looks dorky, the effect enhanced if anything by the rather overstated rear spoiler. The 200SX is, after all, derivative of the Sentra, itself not exactly a heart-pounder.
But what this car and the Sentra lack in adrenalin quotient, they make up for in honesty, value and realization. The Smyrna, Tenn., plant that assembles them both has earned a reputation for careful attention to detail, and the sample I tested was no exception.
The 200SX is offered in three levels: Base, SE and SE-R. The first two are distinguished mostly by their thriftiness; the SE-R has some potential.
The base and SE machines hobble around on 14-inch tires, pulled by a game little 1.6-liter engine. Making 115 horses and 108 foot-pounds of torque, it's a bit outmatched by a 2,400-pound platform, although the nine-second 0-60 time is respectable and the laudable EPA figures (29 mpg city, 39 highway) might be of more interest in this segment.
Shortly after introducing the first Sentra, Nissan came out with a somewhat hotted-up SE-R version, which attracted many partisans. That tradition continues this year, and is available to more people now that the brawnier engine meets the stringent California emissions specs.
The all-aluminum SE-R four-banger displaces 2 liters and makes 140 horses and 132 foot-pounds of torque, a better-than-20-percent improvement. I found 0-60 times close to 8 seconds with the standard five-speed manual transmission, which is good enough to not make you look too silly carrying that big spoiler around. A four-speed automatic is available as an option, but that would be missing the point. The five-speed shifted easily and clutch action was sure and light.
Fun comes cheap
You'll pay for your SE-R brio with increased fuel consumption, but still, EPA estimates of 23 city, 31 highway aren't too punishing. I got 25.1 flirting with the 7,100-rpm redline quite a bit. The engine supposedly accepts regular, but I fed a mid-grade in deference to the 9.5:1 compression ratio, just to be on the safe side. I didn't want the engine computer reducing power behind my back to avoid pinging.
The interior volume of 83.9 cubic feet puts the 200SX in subcompact territory, so you know going in that the rear seats, though fitted with three seatbelts, are better viewed as extensions of the rather compact (10.4-cubic-foot) trunk than as people perches. The SE and SE-R rear seats can be folded down 60/40 to achieve some meaning in life.
I did not feel unduly constrained in the driver's seat, though a telescoping steering wheel would have been welcome. That's more a problem with my structure than the car's, however. I had an adequate amount of legroom and headroom, given the presumed role of this car as a commute vehicle, not a grand tourer.
The driver's seat is mounted somewhat low, but the roofline is high enough to make entry and exit fairly easy. The seat itself is improved over last year's, with welcome side and lumbar bolstering.
The basic four instruments are outstandingly legible, Maxima-style chameleons that are black-on-white by day, white-on-charcoal at night. Placement and size were excellent.
The SE-R is worth considering not only for the bigger engine, but for the meaningful addition of a front roll bar, vehicle-speed-sensitive power steering, four-wheel disc brakes and 15-inch alloy wheels, as well as such frivolities as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear shift knob, lower body sill extensions and an optional keyless entry/security system.. (The base 200SX has puny 13-inch steel wheels, while the SE at least gets aluminum 14-inchers).
The 200SX SE-R is tightly constructed and evinces a reasonable amount of bodily rigidity, even though it is seriously lacking in the crisp feel drivers savor. I was surprised that it seemed to handle better than it felt.
Because of its rather numb steering feel, I approached the limits of its cornering ability somewhat tentatively, taking several passes at my favorite turns before I worked up to the point where the car seemed more inclined to go for a stroll in the woods than to maintain its relationship with the macadam.
The addition of the front roll bar to the SE-R series dampens the roll axis nicely, without making it seem unduly unbending.
The Goodyear RS-A tires hung in tenaciously on dry pavement, but were scary on snowy and rainy roads. While testing the brakes, I amused myself with doing some 360s in a wet parking lot, and was somewhat disconcerted at how easy they were to induce. DO get the antilock brakes, and DO try some experiments of your own in a safe place on a rainy day.
The optional antilock mechanism did a fine job of pulsing the brakes to prevent lockup, even when I mashed as quickly and hard as I could. There was little pedal thumping and the noise produced by the mechanism was more of a loud purring than anything alarming. It's a $499 option well worth having, I'd say, but do be sure to test it before you need it.
Ride quality was very good, surprising in fact given the car's g-pulling ability. Nissan did an excellent job of filtering road shock without making the suspension seem doughy. Fairly compliant springs are coupled with quick-acting shocks that showed no undue inclination to bottom on whoop-de-dos. The rear Multi-Link Beam suspension is similar to that used on the Maxima. It kept the wheels positioned fairly well even during energetic cornering on rough surfaces.
Noise level at freeway speeds was in the moderate range, unless the engine was forced to work at more than 5,000 rpm, which it did eagerly enough. Nissan's cammy engine seems to switch over to high-speed mode around 4,000 rpm, producing a noticeable bump in power.
The SE-R comes with a 60-watt AM/FM/CD stereo system, which had been upgraded to a 100-watt rig with cassette deck added in the tester. It had good sensitivity and fine overall tonality.
In owners' responses to the annual Consumer Reports survey, the Sentra platform gets very high marks for reliability, and it performed better than the average in its class in frontal government crash tests.
Base price on an SE-R is $16,749. That includes power steering and brakes, "sporty" suspension, the rear spoiler, dual power outside mirrors, alloy wheels, fog lamps, air conditioning, stereo, power locks, tilt wheel, dual "second generation" airbags and the other items mentioned above. The tester had a $999 options package consisting of more powerful stereo, power moonroof, security system and keyless remote entry (quite a good deal as packages go), the antilock brakes and $79 worth of floor mats.
Total, with freight, was $18,816. Payments on that car would be $381, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 coupons.
This is quite a good value, even though the SE-R is thousands more than its rather mundane siblings. My advice would be to go for a straight Sentra sedan if you're not into the driving thing. Otherwise, pop for the SE-R two-door.
Alan Vonderhaar welcomes email at email@example.com and snail mail c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202.