Curbside Classic: Nissan 200SX Turbo – Unused, Unloved, Unlocked

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What do you do when you own one of the more whimsical artifacts from the bad old days of Datsun’s renaming?  Apparently, you just ignore it and let it rot.  And when passersby let you know of its obscure historical relevance, you let them take photos.  Good thing I’m around to remind owners of thirty-year old S12-chassis Nissans what they have.

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I found this car sitting in this driveway several months ago.  After so many torrential downpours and months of negative temperatures, I finally got around to snapping photos of the poor car after I came across the very well-kept, and still used, 1984 Trans Am I posted last week.  The Pontiac reminded me of the Datsun-Nissan because it was similarly period correct, only in a completely opposite way.  Both are overwrought, characteristically ’80s sports coupes, but while one takes a low-tech, rather atavistic (but more effective) approach to meeting the expectations of the day’s buyers, the other is a rather populist embodiment of the high-tech fantasies that defined the period.  

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A neighbor of mine had one of these until she replaced it with an ’88 Regal (which I also loved, with all its buttons and digital displays), but the relentless geometry of the Nissan’s fussy detailing really spoke to my juvenile sensibilities.  Taillights hidden behind a six-square grid, a hexagonal grille insert, and an distinctly triangular theme when viewed from the side were Nissan’s idea of clean styling at the time; look at some of their other cars from the mid ’80s and they’re even busier.  Nevertheless, aerodynamics were a genuine consideration when penning this car’s shape and a drag coefficient of .34 was quite competitive at the time.  I’m not sure of the number for the rarer notchback coupe.

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Not that the uber-clean styling of the famed S13 successor made it anymore popular.  That car, with its composed chassis, is highly sought after today by people who rip out the KA-block truck motor and replace it with the SR-block, which was the actual follow-up series to our featured car’s twin-spark CA18ET.

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With 120-horsepower out of 1.8 iron-blocked, multi-port fuel-injected liters, sans intercooler, this was as up-to-date of an engine as most could’ve hoped for in 1984.  With a typically crisp five-speed transmission and rear-wheel drive, performance was pretty good for the time, with sixty being served up in 8.7 seconds; not bad for a car which weighed 2,800 pounds.  Top speed was a less impressive 116 miles per hour, suggesting that the engine’s focus on torque (134 lb-ft at 3,200 rpm) didn’t translate to eager high-speed performance.  Indeed, its rough high-rpm running was widely noted in contemporary reviews. Not that it mattered in the double nickel days; adapting the design for competitive emissions performance, driveability and reliability was a bigger priority.

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American consumers weren’t exactly given any indication that the engine under that hoodscoop was less than Nissan’s best effort, but as always, Japan had the option of a much hotter engine with the 187 horsepower (JIS) FJ20ET twin-cam.  The 300ZX Turbo sold at the same time was quite possibly slower than a 200SX so equipped.

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Neither of the two would’ve been especially sharp in corners.  Like Toyota did with the Celica GT-S, Nissan equipped the top-trim 200SX with an independent trailing arm rear set-up to replace the live axle standard in lesser versions (unlike Toyota, Nissan at least offered a hotter engine with the upgraded suspension).  In such a softly suspended car, the live axle’s constant camber would’ve arguably been more advantageous (as a bunch of satisfied Volvo and pony car owners could tell you).  But, along with all the interior gadgets that came with the 3-door-only Turbo, the special suspension was a premium feature, so there you go.  After this car’s dull predecessor, I’m sure Nissan wanted to make sure those who plunked down 12,000 1984 dollars felt they got their money’s worth.

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You’ll have to excuse the slight blurriness of this shot.  Most shots kept coming out this way without the flash, but looked even worse when using it.  The quality that went into this interior is evident despite its filthy state, and this top-end model has most of the plastic blanks on the dash filled.  Nissan had a lot of fun with switchgear in this era; anyone else remember the wiper stalk with the clear plastic window which displayed the degree of delay dialed into the variable intermittent setting?

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Topping out a boost gauge is often a challenge; in digital form, it was probably even more of an event.  If this bright display failed to delight during the dark six AM commute to the job where its original owner earned money to make payments for it all, I hope it at least made for an amusing spectacle for friends or other acquaintances.

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It’s unfortunate that other interior shots came out poorly as this car is fully equipped with “bitching betty,” in addition to an alarm, a trip computer and a host of other trinkets worth showing off.  All that gadgetry didn’t help most magazine reviewers’ rather cynical impressions of the car; this was most definitely a product designed with the home market in mind.

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Starting in 1985, sport-oriented Nissan customers would be better served by the similarly tech-tastic front-drive Maxima, which would go on to become one of the company’s home runs.  While it might not have been a turbocharged, rear-wheel drive show piece, its chassis was nearly as composed and more importantly, its 153 horsepower V6 was a much better performer.  Perhaps that explains the decision to drop the 1.8 turbo for 1987 and replace it with the same engine used in the 300ZX, Pathfinder, Maxima and Hardbody.

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Mid ’80s Nissan showrooms were confusing places even without the name change and in those days, mid-range cars like the Stanza and 200SX weren’t drawing in customers like Maximas, 300ZXs and Sentras were, not to mention the compact trucks.  But during the last years of truly cheap Yen, these were still worth importing and those who did buy one didn’t see a clone around every corner.  In a market full of front-wheel-drive competitors, that gave them a charm all their own.

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