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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.
Fresh new styling includes new taillights, grille, bumper fascias, multi-parabola headlights, and a sporty exhaust tip. Three new colors have been added and the interior cloth has been upgraded.
The styling changes are subtle, but welcome, and the 200SX remains an attractive car.
Three models are available: value-oriented 200SX, sporty SE and high-performance SE-R. They appear identical at first glance, right down to their rear spoilers. But closer inspection of the SE-R reveals subtle side sill extensions, along with unique five-spoke aluminum alloy wheels and an SE-R badge on the trunk lid.
The 200SX and 200SX SE models are equipped with a 115-horsepower 1.6-liter dual overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine with fuel economy rated at 39 mpg on the highway.
A bigger, more powerful 2.0-liter dohc engine comes on the SE-R. The 2.0-liter engine produces 140 horsepower and 132 foot-pounds (lb.-ft.) of torque. Its fuel economy, rated at 31 mpg highway, is still respectable, and it's a small price for substantially improved performance. The SE-R accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.8 seconds, almost a full second quicker than the 1.6-liter models. Last year, the SE-R was not sold in states that mandate California emissions standards, but this year it has been refined and can be found in all 50 states.
Kicking tires, or at least examining them, can tell a lot about the sporting intentions of a car. While the 1.6-liter models come with 14-inch all-season tires, the sporty SE-R is fitted with low-profile 195/55VR-15 Goodyear Eagle high-performance all-season radials mounted on five-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels.
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 (ABS) is optional for both the SE and SE-R.
The 200SX and 200SX SE compete with Honda Civic, Saturn Coupe, Mitsubishi Mirage and VW Golf. With its higher price tag and higher level of performance, the 200SX SE-R model will likely be shopped against Acura Integra, Hyundai Tiburon, VW GTI and Dodge Neon.
The 200SX SE-R was well equipped without any options. Its price allows it to compete very favorably against those other cars. The stylish Tiburon can be picked up for less, but its owner will make do with significantly less interior room.
This year's reclining front seats are more supportive than last year's and the head restraints are adjustable. Tilt steering has been added. All models now get Nissan's sporty white-faced instruments with a big speedometer and tachometer. Also, the nice seat fabric is carried through the entire model line.
The SE comes standard with nicer seats, air conditioning, cruise control, a new AM/FM/CD stereo, power windows and door locks and split fold-down rear seats. Fog lights, side sill extensions, along with a rear spoiler, give it a sporty look.
The SE-R takes the trappings of the SE and adds a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and a remote keyless entry system.
It's easy to get in and out of the 200SX, which offers more headroom than other cars in its class, something taller drivers should appreciate. The sporty seats are very comfortable, providing better than average lateral support. The 200SX offers an excellent view of the road and no distracting squeaks or rattles.
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. We've always liked the sporty black-on-white instruments that were introduced on the Maxima SE and we're glad to see them on the 200SX line; they turn into a traditional white-on-black display at night. The heating and ventilation knobs are easy to operate, and commuters will enjoy one of the best cup holders in this class.
The 200SX offers roomier back seats than most of the other cars in its class. The trunk doesn't hold as much as some, but it offers a generous cargo capacity when the 60/40 split rear seatbacks are folded down. The trunk lid lifts from the top edge of the bumper, making it easier to load groceries and other cargo.
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.
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