ROAD TEST

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Nissan’s revised 200SX is distinctive in appearance and differs to its main adversaries in one key area, which brings the words ‘good’ and ‘news’ to mind…

It is early in the morning, long before sunrise, on a motorway in northern Europe. The road is all but deserted, and the only sounds you can hear are crisp musical notes emanating from the impressive CD multi-player in the boot, and the muted gallop of four Bridgestone tyres. You are cruising well within the car’s limits, at between 95-100 mph. Although your speed dictates intense concentration, it has been a comfortable, relaxing trip.

Until what appears to be a dog darts out from the side of the carriageway.

In racing, there is a school of thought which suggests, not unreasonably, that should a car spin off in front of you, you simply steer straight for the point at which it lost control, the idea being that it will no longer be there by the time you are.

On the road, the argument goes that you don’t swerve to avoid errant animals, for fear of what else you might hit in so doing.

Sound propositions both, but there are times when it is difficult to place theory before human instinct. This was one such. The ‘dog’ came from the right: automatically, you go left. It was a fairly violent steering input, and just for a second you begin to appreciate how those apparently inexplicable motorway accidents occur. The rear of the Nissan started to load up uncomfortably, but it later transpires that it has a tendency to do this whenever you coax it towards the limit. What feels like the start of a precarious, corkscrewing ride proves to be no more than a momentary hitch. By the time you’ve realised that the errant object is in fact cardboard, and not canine (such are the capacities of the wind to play tricks on an unlit motorway), the Nissan is heading once again in your preferred direction of travel. Its chassis is not without composure, and its grip threshold, as you discover later in a more controlled form of experimentation, is reassuringly high. A viscous limited slip differential comes as standard.

Of course. the 200SX is being pitched to contend with rather more than just motorway debris. Its stated targets include the VW Corrado, Vauxhall Calibra, Honda Prelude Mazda MX-6 and Ford Probe, all serious players in the growing sports coupé market.

The 200SX has a few obvious advantages in this company.

The Calibra, largely responsible for having awakened interest in the Ford Capri’s old stomping ground, is no more than a Cavalier in a mini skirt. The Corrado, similarly, is a Golf with an added splash of lipstick. Fine cars both in their own right, and the Calibra represents excellent value for money, but they remain adaptations of existing saloons. Nice to look at it. but little different under the skin.

The Probe. MX-6 and Prelude may be pukka coupés, but they lack the 200SX’s purer rear-drive configuration. Good as many fwd drivelines are nowadays, and as appropriate as they may be in certain applications, there’s no substitute for rear-drive in something that purports to be a sports car. Perhaps that’s just a personal preference. Certainly, it’s something that’s hard to explain in words. It’s more a sensory thing. To my mind, the Probe is a pleasant enough autobahn companion, but you’ll soon grow weary of trying to thread it through Alpine passes. The Nissan, in contrast, encourages mountainous frivolity.

It turns in well, though you have to rely or judgement rather than feedback when placing the car. The steering, in a fashion beloved of the majority of Japanese manufacturers, is sadly devoid of feel. At times, it’s hard to believe that it’s connected to the front wheels at all, but you get used to it.

The ride is good, too. Our chosen route to a distant bit of France contained everything from the super-smooth surfaces of the A26 to what can only be described as a particuarly poorly maintained rallycross circuit. The road was actually being resurfaced, over a 10 km stretch, as traffic continued to use it. . . An impractical solution and, in teeming rain, a slippery one, although it did have supplementary informative benefits. Firstly, the 200SX is endowed with excellent traction in the wet, though application of brute force will eventually provoke a response. Secondly, cabin occupants remained cushioned from the worst of the ruts.

At least, two of them did. . .

The new 200SX may be similar in character to its immediate antecedent, but it differs in style. In some ways, it is vaguely redolent of the old Reliant Scimitar GTC, though it is several hundred per cent better proportioned. It has a distinctive, and tidy, silhouette. The old hatchback has been ditched in favour of a conventional boot. While this doesn’t actually assist the practical processes. the 200SX can still be used as a semi-convenient three-seater. Despite claims to the contrary. it’s not really a two-plus-two. Although the rear bucket seats are accommodating per se, it’s impossible to generate sufficient leg room, even if you impale your front-seat passen ger on the dash. (And a 5ft 9in driver used up all but a fistful of inches’ legroom on the offside.) It is, however, tolerable if you park a third party sideways across both rear seats, with a little subterranean cushion packing to provide a flatter platform. . .

Although the boot looks minuscule, it will actually absorb several soft sports bags if you pack them thoughtfully. A long weekend’s luggage for three, plus two sets of camera gear, were easily consumed.

In evolving the 200SX. Nissan did consider opting for the presently fashionable V6 route. In the end, the lighter weight and packaging advantages of a turbocharged four prevailed, and in its latest guise the SR2ODET produces 197 bhp/6400 rpm and 195 lb ft of torque at 4800. Around 190 lb ft is available all the way from 3000-5000 rpm, beyond which the engine begins to betray its four-cylinder origins. Below that, it’s impressively smooth, and totally devoid of lag. Bearing in mind you’re not likely to sustain 6000 rpm in top in everyday usage, the engine’s rougher edges will probably remain hidden for the most part. Estimated top speed is 146 mph, and it should reach 60 mph from rest in about seven seconds (Nissan claims 7.5s for 0-62).

There is ample mid-range punch, too, and the 200SX picks up cleanly and forcefully in fourth gear from around 2800 rpm. Going in the other direction, the brakes are positive, powerful and provide plenty of feel

Inside, the 200SX is lavishly appointed. It’s well put together, and has more buttons than Cadbury’s, but in truth you could be in any Japanese car. It’s built to a standard formula: feature-packed and easy to use, but short on character.

There are two specification options, ‘Standard’ and ‘Touring’. The difference is fairly minimal. The latter incorporates the aforementioned CD player, several hectares of leather (instead of moquette), suede door inserts (rather than cloth) and a passenger airbag. The Sony CD is a major boon. It accommodates 10 discs, and will mix and match a variety of music for ever and a day. You can travel for hours and hours without bothersome fiddling around, and without getting bored. Whatever pricing policy Nissan adopts (it was due to be announced at the Motor Show, shortly after this issue had closed for press), this musical diversion will almost certainly justify the hike on its own.

‘Standard’ trim incorporates air conditioning, leather-wrapped wheel and gear lever, tilt adjustable steering, central locking with immobiliser alarm, ABS, driver’s airbag, electrically operated windows and heated mirrors. In short, the only listed option is four-speed automatic transmission.

The seats offer impressive support, and getting comfortable presented no problem. The best evidence for this came at the end of a four-hour stint, when there was no sign of dead legs or seized knees, which are all-too-frequent tell-tale signs of poor cockpit design on trans-European trips.

Fuel economy was respectable. Nissan claims 32.1 mpg at a constant 75 mph, and 26.6 around town; our own return varied from around 24 during rigorous usage to 29.8. UK road conditions should easily nudge you close to the 30s, on average.

Verdict

As the 200SX’s price had still to be verified as we closed for press, it is hard to assess exactly how it fares pound for pound against the opposition. It was expected that the ‘Standard’ version would be listed between £19,000-£19,400, and the ‘Touring’ around £1000 more. Whatever, it will be pitched aggressively against the Probe (£19,370 in 24v V6 guise), MX-6 (£19,245 and the costlier Prelude (£20,995 for the VTEC).

Take for granted that it will have an appealing price. Add the elegant profile. The pace. The decent handling. The 200SX has a bit of everything in its favour. It’s a shame that it isn’t as distinctive within as it is without, but we’ve grown used to that with contemporary car design.

Less familiar is the willingness of mass manufacturers to stick with rear-wheel drive in this day and age. The 200SX may not be perfect, but it’s a pretty good effort, and at the very least it keeps one’s options open as automotive cloning creeps ever further under the skin. S A

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