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Numbers don't always tell the whole story. One car can look great on paper, but lack soul on the road. Another doesn't offer thrilling performance statistics, but can be a lot of fun to drive.
The Nissan 200SX SE-R falls into the latter category. It's a lot of fun to drive. It's 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.
For 1998, Nissan has updated the styling on the 200SX model line, yet the price of the sporty SE-R model has remained the same and it's available in all 50 states.
Nissan's 200SX is essentially the coupe version of its Sentra compact sedan. The base and SE models are nice, affordable, practical, reliable coupes with sporty overtones. The SE-R, however, comes with a bigger, more powerful engine, better brakes and performance upgrades to the suspension and driveline. All three models are fun to drive, but enthusiasts will gravitate to the SE-R.
The 200SX SE-R is a lot of fun to drive on winding roads. It offers predictable handling in slippery conditions, inspiring confidence in the driver and it is stable at high speeds. Its rigid chassis and well-tuned suspension help it corner better than the competition, yet jolts from potholes and rough roads are well damped.
It maintains its composure in abrupt maneuvers and transient response (left, then right, then left) is excellent. Aggressive tires, the stiffer front anti-roll bar and the limited-slip differential give the SE-R an edge over the other two models In the handling department.
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.
A compact sport coupe should be affordable, practical and fun to drive. The term "fun to drive" can mean different things to different people, but we think handling is one of the defining characteristics.
Nissan's 200SX SE-R is fun to drive because it can be hustled through corners with confidence. It provides good grip and, even more important, responds in a predictable fashion. 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 crisp handling. Best of all, it costs less. That's a great combination.
The SE model is affordable, practical and comfortable, but doesn't offer the bigger engine and the 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. With its nice blend of virtues, we think enthusiasts will find happiness in the Nissan 200SX SE-R.