It's been a long time since I have driven a Nissan product that I would say delivered good value for the money. In the past couple of years I've seen my share of $20,000 Altimas, $30,000 Pathfinders and $40,000 300ZXs. And I've looked away. I've wondered: Where's the Nissan for the person who scrapes by on an average salary? I'm not wondering anymore. I've just spent a week behind the wheel of a dark purple 200SX SE-R, a roomy, performance-oriented compact that comes with just about every accessory you could want as well as a very agreeable price. The 200 has a few minor interior shortcomings - chintzy cupholders, a tight cargo area - but they are easy to live with in light of what you get for your money. If you are in the market for a sporty two-door coupe under $17,000, take a close look at the 200SX SE-R. PERFORMANCE Nissan offers three 200SX models. The 200SX and the 200SX SE are propelled by a 1.6-liter, double-overhead cam, 16-valve engine that makes 115 horsepower. The 200SX SE-R comes with a 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder. This engine also features double overhead cams and 16 valves. Buyers can choose either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual in all three models. Our 200SX SE-R came with a five-speed manual, an easy-to-shift gearbox that made driving the car a blast. The engine makes a nifty growl as the tachometer needle climbs past 5,500 rpm. Unless you manually shift an automatic, chances are the transmission will shift long before you can rev the engine that high. Shifting the gears yourself is what makes a small sporty car like the 200SX SE-R so much fun to drive, because the stick shift gives you more control over the engine. Our test car could dart away from stoplights and shoot past slower traffic with ease. I ran the car hard for long periods and never saw the temperature needle budge from its perch at slightly less than halfway up the gauge. Nissan's 2.0-liter engine is generally a smooth, quiet and economical power plant, but our test car had a slight problem. When the engine was cold, the car bucked and jerked violently when cruising at a slow, steady speed - say 10 mph - in first gear. Fuel economy, though, is excellent. Even driven hard, the car used only a gallon of unleaded every 26 miles in the city. On the road, the SE-R returned 32 mpg. HANDLING The 200SX SE-R is outfitted with a four-wheel independent suspension system, four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. Anti-lock brakes are optional, but our test car didn't have them. Looking at the car from the side, you can't help but notice how tightly the 15-inch tires fill up the wheel wells. And when you drive the car, you can't help but notice how well those tires keep the car on the road. The large tires contribute to the 200's excellent handling abilities as well as give the car a soli d appearance. The steering has no free play; the car responds quickly to a slight movement of your wrist, which is just about all it takes to change lanes. When you take a corner fast with the SE-R, it complies instantly and with ease. The body stays straight, even in the sharpest corners. The suspension system is a bit on the firm side, but it's not punishing. The SE-R won't shake, rattle and roll as you drive over rough bumps. The steering wheel remains straight under hard acceleration; there is no trace of torque steer. I would rank the SE-R's handling, steering and braking as being among the best in its class. The car has a nimble, easy-to-drive demeanor, and it feels very solid and stable. FIT AND FINISH The SE-R's interior is a no-nonsense affair that offers a modicum of style, a pleasing and contemporary layout, plenty of room, along list of equipment and exceptional comfort. One of the first things I noticed while testing the 2 0SX SE-R is that Nissan has upgraded the quality of materials it is using in its small cars. I remember testing a 240SX a couple years ago and being repulsed by what felt like burlap on the seat covers, and a one-piece headliner stamped out of sort of nasty-looking plastic material. Our test car had none of that. The bucket seats were covered with an attractive two-tone cloth and the headliner was made from a soft, high-quality cloth. Sitting in the driver's seat, you get the impression that you are situated a bit lower than in most other cars. You can see the edges of the hood where they meet the fenders at the corners of the windshield. Still, the view is not a bad one. You get a clean and unobstructed look at the road. The analog instruments are fairly basic - white numbers on a black background. Our test car came with a full array of features, including a power sunroof, cruise control, power windows, door locks and mirrors, a tilt steering wheel and an ear-piercingly powerful stereo. The layout and placement of the switches breaks no new ground. However, the controls are easy to locate and use. For instance, three rotary knobs in the center of the dash operate the air conditioner. The cruise control buttons are on the hub of the steering wheel. On the down side, it's a bit tough to get into the rear seats. As on most compact coupes, you have to twist and contort a bit to climb in. Once seated, average-sized passengers will find a tolerable amount of foot and leg room in the rear, though head room probably will be a bit tight. The rear seats are firm - almost stiff - but comfortable. The rear seats fold forward, but not completely flat. Also, the pass-through to the trunk is rather small. However, the truck lid opens wide and high. If anything, the dash-mounted pop-out cup holders could stand an improvement. They don't hold large drinks and, when used, block access to the radio. Pretty minor stuff. It's my feeling that the 200SX SE-R is one of the most pleasing and inexpensive cars that Nissan has built in years. Truett's tip: Nissan's 200SX SE-R is quick, agile, fun to drive and built well. The sporty coupe delivers a solid bang for the buck.
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