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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.
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.
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.