(first posted 4/22/2016) Nissan has a rich performance pedigree, with models like the 240Z, 510 and Skyline GT-R revered by enthusiasts. The torch is carried today by the awe-inspiring GT-R and the slick 370Z. In Australia, many young enthusiasts cherish their Silvias and Skylines, while the Sentra SE-R and 300ZX enjoy an enduring reputation in North America for driving excitement. There have been so many sporty Nissans mentioned in this paragraph, but one that many forget is the little, pill-shaped NX.
This unfortunate omission from many memory banks is understandable but regrettable. The NX was offered in North America for only 3 model years and never quite received the full glare of the spotlight. The early 1990s were the salad days of the compact performance coupe but although many of those vehicles were axed by the mid/late-1990s due to declining sales, the NX bit the bullet in North America long before the mass exodus.
Blame slow sales. John Matras’ Illustrated Datsun/Nissan Sports Car Buyer’s Guide listed US sales figures of 5562 in 1991, 9389 in 1992 and 7329 in 1993. That means that, for example, the Geo Storm outsold the NX by 7-to-1 in 1992. By the NX’s final season, the percentage of buyers who opted for the NX 2000 over the cheaper NX 1600 had also plummeted from 60% to just 4%.
And why were sales so slow? First, the segment was absolutely packed with competitive entrants. There was the aforementioned Storm and related Isuzu Impulse, the Diamond Star Motors triplets, Mazda MX-3, Honda CRX (and later, Civic del Sol), and Toyota Paseo. Then there were domestic offerings like the Ford Probe, Chevrolet Beretta and Dodge Daytona, as well as sporty models of the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cavalier and Volkswagen Golf. It’s hard to think of another time in automotive history when consumers after sporty, compact-sized cars was faced with so many choices. Even in Australia, a less fertile market for small coupes, there were myriad choices and the NX was far from the most popular.
But it wasn’t just the market that offered such a breadth of choices, it was also Nissan showrooms. The NX slotted below the 240SX in North America but there was overlap between high-end NX prices and low-end 240SX prices: in 1993, a NX2000 with a 5-speed stick retailed for $14,720, while a 240SX notchback manual cost $14,755. The bigger, RWD coupe was ageing but offered a little more power and a little more space, albeit with a not-insignificant increase in curb weight (around 300 lbs). The NX2000’s double-overhead cam SR20DE 2.0 four-cylinder pumped out a stout 140 hp at 6000 rpm and 130 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm, while the 240SX’s bigger 2.4 mill had 155 hp at 5600 rpm and 160 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm.
In a fashion-conscious segment like the compact sport coupe arena, the 240SX’s 1989-vintage styling may have come as a liability and the extra rear seat space might not have even factored as a consideration for most buyers. So, the greater threat in Nissan’s showrooms was arguably the Sentra SE-R. It shared the NX’s chassis with all-independent suspension and its rorty SR20DE engine. It also had clean lines, an almost identical curb weight, and, most importantly, cost less. In 1993, $12,455 was the retail price for an SE-R manual, almost $2k less than a NX 2000. Mechanically, differences between the NX 2000 and Sentra SE-R were largely confined to bigger brakes and wheels for the NX, as well as a wider track.
In other markets, the mechanically-related Pulsar SSS offered a similar increase in practicality and decrease in price (in Australia, the NX enjoyed some breathing room as Nissan’s only sub-300ZX coupe until 1994). There was also the turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Pulsar/Sunny GTI-R, available in Japan and Europe, that took Nissan’s compact platform to performance heights: a wild 227 hp and 210 ft-lbs of torque that put the vaunted Sentra SE-R to shame and even outperformed the naturally-aspirated V6 in the 300ZX!
For those not as fussed with performance, the NX was available in many markets – albeit not Australia – with a 1.6 four-cylinder producing 110 hp at 5000 rpm and 108 hp at 4000 rpm.
The NX’s biggest drawcard over the Sentra SE-R was its unique appearance, designed at Nissan’s La Jolla studios in California, but some consumers may have found the NX’s lozenge shape more of a drawback. It was certainly distinctive and although it is very much from the “organic” school of design so popular with Japanese automakers in the 1990s, it has aged better than its predecessor, the Pulsar EXA. Still, overall styling more resembled the flaccid Toyota Paseo than the aggressive Isuzu Impulse, while the Sentra SE-R’s styling was clean, simple and no-nonsense. The Sentra sat five (at a pinch) but the NX was strictly a 2-seater plus 2 children. Despite this reduction in practicality, sitting in the front of an NX felt the same as a Sentra. The dashboards were identical, with a straightforward layout and clean presentation but little color and flash – the 1980s were over, although digital instruments remained in the NX 1600.
The NX’s equipment list wasn’t bad. The NX 1600 came standard with power steering, driver’s airbag, folding rear seat, power mirrors, with 13-inch wheels as standard. Upgrading to the NX 2000 netted you the bigger engine but also more conventional gauges, removable roof panels, 4-wheel disc brakes, limited slip differential, rear spoiler, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob and 14-inch alloy wheels. Clearly, the two different NXs had two very different audiences in mind although a four-speed automatic was optional in either. In Australia, the range consisted of NX and NX-R models. Despite the latter’s moniker implying an extra dose of performance, the NX-R instead was mechanically identical but offered features like power windows and cruise control as standard. What did the “R” stand for, exactly? “Really nicely equipped”?
The lesser NX may have been a more leisurely drive, but the NX 2000 – like the Sentra SE-R – had a goodly dose of adrenaline. The 2.0 engine revved strongly but had decent low-end torque while the 5-speed manual transmission was a slick shifter. Performance figures varied: Road & Track pegged the NX’s 0-60 at 8 seconds, Wheels recorded an 8.7, while Car & Driver recorded an impressive 6.9. The American magazines were impressed by the NX’s handling, saying it could be thrown into a corner and remain composed, lean little and be ready for another turn. Australia’s Wheels magazine, however, found the NX’s handling to be “soggy” and “unhinged” while remarking the ride was merely “ordinary”, despite their praise of the related Pulsar SSS. No matter where an automotive journalist resided, though, the NX was universally praised for its engine and chided for being noisy.
Car & Driver tested the NX 2000 against the Geo Storm GSi and Mazda MX-3 GS, ranking the NX 2nd overall. The praise was heady, with their verdict concluding – despite the MX-3’s victory – that if Porsche could build an inexpensive coupe, the NX would be it. Wheels was less impressed, ranking the NX dead-last in 1993 against the Honda CRX (del Sol) and Prelude, Toyota Celica and Eunos 30X (Mazda MX-3) despite having a lower price than all of them. Again, Mazda’s coupe was the victor, praised for its quality feel and smooth V6 while the NX was criticized for feeling “built to a price”. British automotive journalists were also underwhelmed by the NX’s handling; it appears British and Australian testers prefer much firmer and buttoned-down handling than Americans, which explains why suspension tuning is often different between those markets. Interestingly, despite slow sales in Australia and the UK, the NX survived until 1995 in both countries. Around 5,000 NXs were sold in the UK where it was badged as the 100NX.
Ultimately, despite some criticism, the NX was a thoroughly competitive compact coupe. It wasn’t the best or the wildest but it offered considerable power and distinctive looks. But unless you were enamoured with its rounded lines and available t-bar roof, Nissan had another model with the same performance, same chassis, more space and a lower price. In North America, it was even a coupe. And that’s why so many people today talk about the Sentra SE-R, Silvia and Skyline, while the NX is scarcely mentioned.
This NX was shot in trendy Paddington on Brisbane’s northside. The wheel covers indicate it is a base model.