Vintage Review: 1980 Datsun 200-SX – Samurai Stocking Stuffer

(first posted 12/21/2017)        Just in time for Christmas, way back in 1979, Datsun (Nissan) sent a new 200-SX stateside.  For buyers seeking a small-scale Personal Luxury car, it was a tempting treat.  Car and Driver took the new 200-SX out for a spin–did they see it as a good gift?

The previous 200-SX, introduced to the U.S. in 1977, was a lump of coal.  That car’s odd looks and uninspired performance never really connected with U.S. buyers.  But the small sporty car segment was hot in the late 1970s, and the heat turned up even more after the 1979 oil shock.  By December 1979, many car shoppers definitely had economy at the top of their list, though they weren’t necessarily ready to give up style.  This time, Datsun made a list of buyer priorities and checked it twice, sending over a car that was set to dazzle, not disappoint, its target audience.

“Personal luxury” and “sporty flair” were just the ticket as the ’80s unfolded, and Datsun delivered.  The crisp styling of the 200-SX was clean, handsome and amenable to two-tone treatments, though padded vinyl landau tops were not.

Inside, Datsun provided an attractive interior filled with niceties and gizmos to tickle the fancy of fickle style-oriented buyers.  Color coordination was also well done, without the overwhelmingly monochromatic looks that was often found on domestics at the time (for example, a green interior from GM circa 1980 was really, really green).

As for performance?  Well, it was decent but uninspiring.  Ironically, the 200-SX was praised as being a better handler than the “doughy” 280ZX (harsh!), though braking and shifting weren’t great, and the 200-SX really wasn’t a driver’s car.  But it wasn’t designed for that mission: style and economy were paramount.

Datsun did practice the fine art of continuous improvement, as attested by the 200-SX engine.  While the block was familiar, myriad enhancements were made to improve performance and economy, including standard fuel injection. Domestic 4-cylinders in 1980 simply weren’t comparable in terms of up-to-date features or refinement.

The estimated price of Car and Driver’s test car was $8,200 ($26,371 adjusted), making it fairly expensive for a small coupe at the time.  But buyers weren’t deterred by the price, and they loved the style of the 200-SX: 92,514 were sold for 1980, beating many small, sporty competitors including the Dodge Challenger (13,059), Dodge Omni 024 (51,731), Plymouth Sapporo (10,311), Plymouth TC3 (59,527), Mercury Capri (79,984), Buick Skyhawk (8,322), Oldsmobile Starfire (8,237).  The 200-SX also sold more units than some fully redesigned, mid-sized Personal Luxury cars for 1980, such as the Chrysler Cordoba (46,406), Dodge Mirada (28,633) and Mercury Cougar XR-7 (58,028).  So the 200-SX was able to bridge between the worlds of economy and Personal Luxury just as Datsun intended.  It turned out to be exactly what many buyers wanted in oil-shocked America, and was a well-timed gift from a Japanese Santa.