Nissan 200SX: zip and distinction for the budget-conscious buyer

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor. Quick in the tracks of the 300ZX, Nissan introduces the fresh, sporty, high-tech 200SX, a car to make many a motorist smile. The test-car list price of car prices over the last half dozen years.

Unlike much of its competition, the sport-coupe 200SX retains a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout to ''provide the most predictable high-speed handling,'' explains C.P. King, head of sales for Nissan.

This latest edition of the 200SX, introduced at the Chicago Automobile Show in February, comes with two body styles - a conventional notchback with formal roofline and trunk, and a hatchback.

It also comes with two trim levels, Deluxe and XE. The XE version features digital instrumentation and trip computer.

The standard 2-liter engine is normally aspirated; that is, without a turbo. The hatchback, however, offers a 1.8-liter turbo, the power plant in the test car I drove.

The standard SX offers either a 5-speed manual or automatic, yet with the turbo there is no choice. An automatic may come along later.

Disc brakes are standard all around, the engine is electronically injected, and both the front and rear wheels are independently sprung.

The first impression from behind the wheel of the turbo XE is one of sci-fi, a neat automotive package designed for the buyer who wants a pleasingly distinctive style, zippy performance, and sports-car feel - yet wants to keep an eye on the budget as well.

The turbo has an air spoiler on the back of the hatch. With a drag coefficient of 0.34, compared with 0.47 in the car it replaces, the aerodynamic styling of the 200SX is slippery and smooth.

Even so, there is a suggestion of gimmickry in the nonfunctional ''air vent'' on the hood of the turbo. In contrast, the nonturbo car leaves off the fake bulge.

While the turbo SX is unquestionably fun to drive, giving as much performance as a motorist is likely to want, back-seat riders may feel pinched, since passenger space and foot room in the rear are skimpy and the floor is uneven. The transmission and drive-line tunnel encroach significantly on the occupants, and the driver's right leg has a tendency to lean against the hump when his foot is on the gas.

Visibility, on the other hand, is good all around. Instrumentation in the test car includes an easy-to-read digital speedometer; bar-graph tachometer, fuel supply, and turbo boost; and a row of warning lights across the upper-right portion of the dash above the glove box. Warning-light visibility to the driver could perhaps be better. The lights seem so far away.

In a rainstorm, I found a tendency for water to drip on the ends of the dash when the doors were opened.

A drive computer indicates the usual things: trip distance, average speed, fuel used, distance to empty, instant miles per gallon, etc. Yet I found the digital readouts and operational buttons awkward to use because of the location of the unit on the bottom-right area of the dash. It was hard to see and operate while the vehicle was moving.

An extended-storage switch, situated atop the fuse block, shuts off the clock , seat-belt warning, light and key warning, interior light, radio, and drive computer. In the ''off'' position, it conserves the battery by stopping the clock.

Wheelbase is up slightly - from 94.2 inches in 1983 to 95.5 in '84.

While the 200SX is not a big seller for Japan's No. 2 carmaker, Nissan expects to almost double its sales, from under 35,000 in 1983 to perhaps 60,000 in the 12 months ending in December 1984. If Nissan comes close to its goal, it will have been worth the effort.

A suggestion to Nissan: Eliminate the voice warnings, which are unpleasant to the ear and sometimes a plain nuisance. At the very least I'd like to have a happier sound to ''the voice.''

I thought Nissan had planned to drop the word ''Datsun'' on all its future models, but the new 200SX has the old family name emblazoned on the lower-left rear.

In summary, while there are minor drawbacks in comfort and convenience, the Nissan 200SX is smooth, quick - 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a rough 10 seconds - and an exciting car to drive.

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