Curbside Classic: 1996 Nissan 200SX SE – Have We Met?

(first published 4/10/2012)    Although at least two new cars were for sale at the time, 1995 was a lousy year for Nissan.  What once was a company that produced (relatively) confident, robust cars introduced a new, minimized Maxima and this, a Japanese take on name debasement: the 200SX.

The previous 200SX, a name discontinued after 1988 in America, was a rear-drive, 2-door car of a certain size.  It was not overly powerful, but it carried a certain air of competence due to its rear-drive architecture and Nissan’s general reputation of being somewhat more of a driver’s car than a comparable Honda, or especially Toyota.

The basic formula for this car went on to morph into what was called the 240SX starting in 1989, and it was sold here for many years until it was consumed by the great Coupe Crisis of the late 1990s.  The 1989-1998 240SX has starred in stories you’ll remember such as “Wow That Stereo Is Loud” and “Why Do That Car’s Tires Slide All Over The Place?”  In all cases, however, the 200SX and later 240SX rear-drive cars had been comfortable, competent 2-door sporty cars that enjoyed a certain gravitas which front-drive compacts could not quite match.

With the 200SX name in hibernation after 1988, it was left to the Sentra name to carry the sporty, slightly masculine flame for bargain hunters.  While the 1990 Sentra was awfully staid in appearance, it at least wasn’t especially juvenile looking.  Pared down to 2 doors and equipped with a very competitive 2.0 liter, 140-hp engine, the 1991-94 Sentra SE-R won hearts and minds with the automotive press and buying public alike.  It was an inexpensive (not “cheap”) sporty car with clean lines, good quality, and plenty of power that a man could buy, drive and be proud of.  The car is still revered by many to this day, and it was frequently referred to affectionately as a “poor-man’s BMW,” with at least one automotive writer conversely calling the concurrent BMW 318 the “rich man’s SE-R.”

The wheels of change never stop turning, however, and for reasons I’ve never been quite able to comprehend, Nissan rather abruptly began to squander its image as the Japanese make with a bit of a sporting edge.  Though it is somewhat forgotten today, the automotive press was borderline apoplectic about the rear suspension of the 1995 Maxima, having gone from a truly independent setup to more of a cart axle, similar to what you might find under a K-car.  While they couldn’t really prove it affected the overall handling of the new Maxima much, they viewed it as some kind of Big Sign that Nissan had changed in some unforeseen, fundamental fashion.  Their suspicions, for the most part, would be confirmed.

If the 1995 Maxima was a lazier iteration of that line, then the 1995 Sentra was virtually comatose.  Gone were the crisp, clean lines, replaced by a tall, narrow appearance, an inexplicably high tail, cheap hubcaps, and the tiniest exhaust pipe in the free world.  It too lost its sexy independent rear suspension and gained a cheapo torsion beam rear axle, perhaps a more forgiveable offense on a Sentra than on a Maxima, but the new car was so dull no one cared.

Nissan for some reason chose not to call the 2-door variant of the new Sentra a Sentra, instead bringing back the 200SX name in base, SE, and SE-R versions, the SE-R again getting the hot 140-hp engine.  The 2-door body greatly helped the first-glance appearance of this basic car, but it had lost that almost indefinable appeal that the previous Sentra SE-R enjoyed.  Put bluntly, the new 200SX looked like a chick car, and that wasn’t the worst of it.

Grille or no grille, the new car was bland.  The old car was bland, too, but bland as in “nondescript.”  The new car was bland as in “Avis.”  ($14.95 a day in Orlando with our Dumpy Disney Family Pack!)

The SE and base versions featured a 1.6 liter, 115 horsepower engine.  I can attest to the fact that this engine was quite durable (excepting the horrid front main seal design) due to my sister owning one. She battered through all 4 years of college in her 1996 version, but powerful it wasn’t.  It had a droning, despondent character, and while it would rev to the 6000 rpm needed to attain all 115 horses, you’d never know when you hit that pinnacle of power because the car was too cheap to have a tach, even with a manual transmission.

While the requisite sporty spoiler, alloy wheels, and slightly engorged tailpipe beef up the visual pizazz, the buying public somehow saw through the facade.  Even the vaunted SE-R name and better 140-horse engine could not bring the love back to the Sentra/200SX name as it had in past years.  It is entirely believable that a person might choose a stripper Eclipse over a well-equipped 200SX based on looks alone.

These years with Nissan have a familiar feel.  As time wears on, I tend to think Nissan’s apparent complacency during this period has an almost American, Deadly Sin sort of feel to it, in fact.

They debased the 200SX name rather casually with our featured car and generally rested on their laurels while cheapening their cars in noticeable ways.  I dare say they would have done better to keep building the previous Maxima and Sentra rather than bring out the cheaper 1995 versions, at least in the sense of the buying public’s mental image of the company.

It would be many years before Nissan regained most of its mojo lost due to these cars.  Let’s hope Nissan (and most other companies, for that matter) learned something from them.