Many experiences still lift and stir the soul without the help of big hymns or good sipping whiskey. The sweet puff of puppy breath remains one of life's guiltless pleasures. So is the sight of a southbound whale baring its barnacles off Big Sur. Or, for anyone over 40, waking to the freedom of Saturday without hurting anywhere.

Or rollicking for several hundred miles on rural two-laners while getting passionate with a 1995 Nissan 200SX SE-R.

It's a joy to be bold in this frisky sports coupe, with its combination of performance and cost that's a better bargain than renting ar acehorse. It certainly runs faster, turns quicker, smells better, stops easier, carries more passengers, costs less to feed and is more comfortable over five furlongs in the mud than Jocko's Sir Castic.

The saucy two-door went on sale last month, completing a three-coupe roster with Nissan's other athletes: The 240SX, last of the front-engine, rear-drive Japanese funabouts, and the 300ZX, still the loveliest of the affordable sporty lot.

With a base price of about $15,000, the 200SX SE-R isn't a gigantic bargain in the field, costing more than Saturn's SC2, Honda Civic Si and Dodge Neon Sport, but less than Acura's Integra.

To satisfy insurance companies and safety snoopers, top speed is governed to 109 m.p.h. The odd number suggests that in speech and print, 110 m.p.h. just might have appeared too damned fast.

Styling of the SE-R is more conservative than Congress, with the profile a clean overlay of Neon Sport, right down to the rear spoiler. Cover the name on the steering wheel and nothing about the insides sets the car apart from a dozen cousins. And Nissan's Sentra is its obvious sire, with most dimensions and several internal organs transplanted to the 200SX.

But as with Neon, the SE-R scores as a scamp.

It's rolling proof that a smallish, inexpensive gas-sipper can be placid enough to carry four adults to weekend garage sales--then be transformed to Speed Racer, giggling and romping and skittering around back roads like a rally car.


If the numerics of 200SX sound familiar, they should. Those numbers were first used two decades ago when Nissans were selling as Datsuns.

Does SE-R ring a bell? Of course. Until recently, that meaningless code belonged to the low-buck, low-flying Nissan Sentra SE-R.

Now Nissan has decided to put appropriate eggs in the correct baskets: realigning Sentra with Altima and Maxima into a sedan class for the quieter-mannered, while transferring the SE-R on waivers to the ranks of the240SX, the 300ZX and a younger, warmer-blooded franchise.

The base 200SX costs $12,000 for a five-speed. The engine is a 1.6-liter four-banger borrowed from Sentra and delivering 115 horsepower. Next up is the 200SX SE with an identical power plant, but 14-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, side moldings, sport bucket seats, air conditi oning, power windows and cruise control pushing the sticker to $14,269.

Finally, the SE-R with premium tires on 15-inch wheels, and a 2.0-liter, 16-valve four producing 140 horsepower. Or more than Neon, Civic and Saturn, but less than Integra.

All are equipped with dual air bags, tilt steering wheel, fabric seats Nissan claims to be "low fatigue" (which we presume means less tiresome than piano stools), tachometer and power mirrors. But a four-speed automatic transmission is optional.

Braking on the SX and SE models is by standard front discs and rear drums, while all-wheel discs are standard only on the SE-R. Anti-lock brakes are an option.

Although sameness and generics whimper from the inside of all models, these interiors are roomier than other sport coupes. Even the rear seats have a purpose beyond trash caches, thanks to a compact rear suspension that minimizes intrusions into cabin space.

But Nissan might be overly expectant, even s nguine in announcing there's enough room back there for three large adults. We managed two medium ones, and a small dog that brought lunch but wouldn't share.

Up front, driver and passenger have more than enough room for all extremities, even for hips wider than shoulders. And 84 cubic feet is more interior space than the target coupes: Civic, Saturn and Integra.


Although it doubtless will be the smallest seller, the 200SX SE-R will certainly be the largest love in the hearts of enthusiasts.

Performance numbers may be far from blinding, but there's enormous exhilaration from driving a lighter car with a twitch of understeer while close to the limits of power and stickiness. Especially when steering is precise by input and responses; margins of balance and imbalance are broad, and the car's reactions highly predictable with early warnings as unmistakable as an elbow in the ribs.

It's all relative, of course. Six knots at the tiller of a slippery sailboat with lee rail under in a boiling sea delivers far more jollies than whistling down any highway at 120 m.p.h. in a Lexus.

The 200SX has a new multilink rear suspension for a smoother ride and reduced road noise. Such a system better handles vertical loads unique to cars whose front wheels must carry the triple burdens of steering, braking and traction.

And its five-speed manual shifter is a computer joystick, a snip, snap, snicking delight from Aces Over Europe.

Standard on the SE-R is a limited-slip differential for distributing power to the wheel with the most traction during moments of motoring sideways in wet or dry. Add anti-lock brakes, and the SE-R becomes a lane-change wizard effectively canceling any excuse but a big-time case of the dumbs for twirling at speed into the weeds.

When a member of the Clan McSentra, the SE-R had a definite following of mischievous infatuates. Now that it's part of the 200SX family, fans will surely follow.

1995 Nissan 200SX SE-R

The Good: Well-engineered, inexpensive, thrifty coupe and an able gymnast. Room in back for more than a briefcase. High level of technology for the price.

The Bad: Styling, inside and out, devoid of distinction. A little pricey.

The Ugly: Top-end performance governed to about 15% off.

Cost As tested, $16,259. (Includes dual air bags, cruise control, 15-inch cast alloy wheels, power sunroof, traction control, power windows and mirrors, air conditioning, rear spoiler, bucket seats, security system and leather-wrapped steering wheel.)

Engine 2.0-liter, 16-valve, in-line-four developing 140 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, four-place sports coupe.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., with five-speed manual, 8.6 seconds. Top speed, electronically limited, 109 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 24 and 31 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,536 pounds.