Datsun's fuel-efficient cars cut own path in US market

If Nissan had nothing else going for it, its ability to develop and build cars with very high gas mileage would give it a big push in the market. But the Japanese manufacturer's cars offer more than just high mileage. That explains why the importer's Datsun had 5.5 percent of the US car market in February compared with 4 percent in the same month a year ago. Datsun is just below Toyota in US sales. Its growth in sales distresses the US automobile industry, which is trying hard to provide its own fleet of high-mileage cars to meet the rapidly growing demands of American car buyers for ways to stretch the distance between fuel stops.

The Japanese have led the auto industry in supplying high-mileage cars. Honda has long held claim to the most fuel-efficient gasoline engine. Now Nissan is moving up fast.

In April Nissan will come out with a high-mileage version of its economical 210 line, which carries an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 39 miles per gallon in the city and 51 m.p.g. on the highway. Even if the figures fall short by 10 to 20 percent -- as many motorists now find with the EPA scoreboard -- the Nissan m.p.g. "potential" is impressive.

Among the Japanese company's "larger" family sedans is the Datsun 510 four-door hatchback, a car I've been driving around for the last week or so. I give the car good marks, but with some reservations.

The 510, a notch or two below the higher-priced 810, is brand new for 1980 and comes with the company's last word in engines, the NAPS-Z, or Nissan Anti-Pollution System. The engine cuts emissions output to the bone, while giving a big boost in m.p.g., although you still need a catalytic converter and unleaded gas. With a 5-speed manual transmission (standard in the four-door hatchback), the 510 gives another 7 m.p.g. in the city (6 on the highway), compared with last year's 510 model, according to Nissan. For California- equipped cars it's slightly less.

The 510 is a peppy performer, considering the 2-liter 4-cylinder engine. It comes as a two-door sedan, four-door wagon, and four-door hatchback. Prices start at about $5,300 for the two-door sedan and go up to almost $6,000 for the wagon. With options, the prices go up fast.

On the negative side, the too-soft suspension makes the car feel a little mushy on the road. Yet it steered where I wanted it to go without any interference from the dynamics of the car.

It takes too much time to get much warmth out of the car's heater, a particular problem in a cold-weather part of the country such as New England. The fuel-injected 200SX, which also uses the NAPS-Z engine, warms up far faster than the carbureted 510.

Also, it took much too long for the rear-window defroster to melt the overnight frost, which lingered for a half hour or more before there was a clear view to the rear.

The instrument panel is well laid out with a speedometer, trip odometer, tachometer, and voltmeter, as well as fuel, temperature, and oil-pressure gauges.

I sometimes wonder why there cannot be more uniformity in the manual shift pattern in cars. The first thing I did as I drove the 510 out of the office garage with a Nissan representative in the seat beside me -- and this is no criticism of Nissan or the 510 -- was to try to put the gear shift lever into reverse when I clearly wanted to go ahead. I had just driven a Volkswagen Rabbit pickup in which the first gear is located where the 510 has its reverse. With the 510 you do not have to depress the lever to put it in reverse. With the VW Rabbit, you do.

Perhaps the auto industry should standardize the operation of the manual gearshift in all cars.

And speaking of reverse on the 510, a beeper sounds an intermittent warning when the car is in reverse, just like a school bus or a dump truck.

Despite the hatchback styling of the 510, there is a sufficient volume of storage space in the trunk; that is, under the lid that covers the storage space in the rear. Also, the rear seat backs can be dropped down, one side or both sides, to provide even more carrying space in the back.

Perhaps what surprised me the most about the Datsun 510 is the high m.p.g. I was able to reach the low 30s on a pretty consistent basis. and on a long trip on an Interstate highway, the mileage goes one way -- up.

Nissan seems to have gotten a very good idea of what the US car buyer will buy in these days of questionable fuel supplies and high and rising prices.

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