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.
I never would have believed the 2nd generation 200SX was such a big seller. Of course, the sales numbers for it’s biggest competitor, the Celica, weren’t mentioned….nor were the numbers for the Mustang. Compared to those 2 cars I would guess it would not seem so successful?
I kind of liked these cars but always thought the body looked like it was “floating” over the wheels. Then the icing on the oddity cake was the two-tone paint scheme many examples wore. Though I have to admit that the Mustang also had weird two-tone paint schemes.
These cars, when you see one today, are oddly compelling.
I was also surprised by how strong the sales results were. The 200-SX was the second best selling Datsun for 1980, behind the 210. I was unable to locate exact sales for the Prelude and Celica, so I don’t know how the Datsun did in comparison to those direct competitors. My guess is that the 200-SX outsold the Prelude and was probably close to the Celica, maybe even outselling it for 1980.
On the domestic side, the Mustang was a huge success, selling 271,322 units, but the Thunderbird plunged to 156,803. At Chevrolet, the Monza sold 169,418 and the Monte Carlo did 148,842. Pontiac sold 187,979 Sunbirds and 114,714 Grand Prix. Personal luxury stalwarts from GM were also still huge sellers, with Regal hitting 241,735 and Cutlass Supreme selling 274,101. But most of these nameplates (Sunbird excepted) were down by double-digit percentages compared to their 1979 results.
So the 200-SX definitely punched its way into the marketplace, and gained a nice share of sales.
The Prelude sold 50,676 in the U.S. in 1980, the Celica 146,967 (both calendar-year).
Thanks! The Toyota numbers are impressive, especially given the fact that the Celica was in the 3rd year of its design cycle. Does the total include the Celica Supra also?
It does. The Productioncars.com Book of Automobile Production and Sales Figures, 1945–2005 gives 1980 U.S. Celica Supra sales as 21,542, although I don’t know if that’s a model year or calendar year figure.
Just now found this:
1980 notchback in silver w/ 30k miles in perfect condition was my first car. I think it was around 1987. Was a pretty nice car, not great in the snow. LOL I should scan some pics.
Now wait !
First promo image:
Is that dude in his scuba gear supposed to go diving amidst those rocks and the crashing waves?
He really wanted to get away from those malformed 200-SX coupes 😉
As I’ve shared before, my mom’s first brand new car she ever purchased was a Datsun 200-SX (a 1982 she recalls), trading in her Orient Yellow Fiat 124 Sport Spyder for it. Like most vehicles she ends up buying, she was initially drawn to its looks, and ultimately liked it when she test drove it.
This is the only picture of it I’ve been able to come across over the years, photographed outside the house I grew up in, in Milton, MA. Note Mom’s original green Massachusetts plates!
Great to see this picture. I think your Mom’s attraction to this car was similar to many people’s, and exactly what Datsun was aiming for with this generation 200-SX.
When I was growing up, one of our neighbors went jogging most mornings with friends, and I remember one of his jogging buddies (a guy probably in his mid- to late-30s) got a silver 200-SX. I used to love checking it out when I was walking my dog in the morning. For the times, it was a really stylish car.
Kids I went to high school with had parents who bought each one of them a new car at high school graduation. To show how tastes changed rapidly in just a few short years, the kid who graduated in 1978 got a fancy GMC stepside pickup with decals, wheels, and all. The kid who graduated in 1980 got one of these.
That one was the first of these I had noticed. A black/silver 2 tone, I was surprised at how much I liked its looks.
Datsun seemed to be on a roll around this time in the few years before the renaming to Nissan.
I’d imagine it looked like this then? This is a JDM Gazelle; same car as the Silvia, just sold thru different dealer networks.
I loved these 200SX coupés. I believe these were true pillarless hardtops, with no center pillar between the front window and the following side/rear window. Am I correct on this? BTW; I love the Gazelle design in the above photo! Here is a lovely 2-tone 1982 model.
I pretty much agree with your thoughts concerning sales numbers of the 200SX and the Celica, and would agree that the Prelude pretty much trailed the pack, it was just introduced in 1980…..give or take a year.
I agree, looks like a very bad place to enter the water. Another thing to think about: in 197x (the period the picture in the ad depicts is not clear), what would be the odds you would park just a few feet from where another 200SX is parked? It’s not like they were hugely common outside Japan.
The Prelude arrived in the U.S. in MY1979. In Japan, the Prelude debuted in November 1978, about five months before the S110 Silvia, and I think the spread in the U.S. models was similar. It sold better in the U.S. than you might have expected, especially considering that it was an oddball thing.
Great piece(s), GN – your writing is a fine complement to this informative “rerun” article. I learned a lot.
My preference leans toward the hatchback, but both cars still look great. I remember quite a lot of notchbacks running around. This is a probably my favorite generation of SX until the ’89 240 SX was introduced.
The success of our featured car in the marketplace was kind of a shock to me, but when I think about how many I remember seeing, it all makes sense.
I knew someone who cross shopped the 200SX versus the Toyota Celica and chose the Datsun. It was a sweet looking car, and it could move too.
I always liked this car. Simple but nice style. I prefer the coupe to the hatch back but would be happy to find either. Haven’t seen one in years
Went to look at one of these with my father after he became disenchanted with the build quality and ‘unable to find problem’ service record of our lemon scented Rabbit. He seemed to like it okay until the salesman put it in 5th gear in a parking and proceeded to lug it from a dead stop to 35 mph while saying how smooth the engine was. We walked away shortly afterward, but I was never told why he didn’t like it. I wonder how well the crankshaft bearings dealt with such maltreatment?
I bet he did a number of the clutch too!
I remember reading that C/D road test ages ago. Never could figure out the slightly odd Santa and elves angle even if it was the December issue. To me, the 200SX notchback coupe verges on incipient broughamocity with the opera windows, but the hatchback was a pretty sleek job for 1980.
I agree the hatch looks better. The notchback reminds me of a Tbird/Fairmont Futura/Dodge Mirada, and just seems off on a sporty car, especially with such a sleek body from the beltline down. The hatch follows the lines better and looks more organic. The greenhouse is a bit overdone though, too much glass(numerically) and that louvered pillar just seems pointless.
CC word of the day: “broughamocity”. 😉
One of my best friends in High School had a 1980 notchback in black and silver. We spent much time comparing it to my 1979 Mazda 626 coupe that I had at the same time. Comparatively (in SoCal) there were many more 200SXs, it was the better seller, but nowhere near the Celica’s success. Speed and handling-wise they were extremely similar, notwithstanding the 200SX’s supposed extra 20hp.
The dashboard on these seemed much more “advanced” than the Mazda’s with some kind of digital driver info center. Or maybe it was just a digital clock. Either way, it looked a bit more futuristic at the time, definitely more angular.
Nice cars, fairly solid, and comfortable.
The ’77 200SX looks like an AMC design. Could be mistaken for a new Pacer?
LOL, whining about the “color monotony of so many interiors” in 1980. If they only knew what was to come, a choice of grey or beige in most cars, except those that only offer black inside. Likewise the whining about having only a temporary-use spare tire. Hey, at least it has a spare tire….
These looked great, and IMO looked even better (inside and out) after the mid-cycle refresh. After a showroomful of misshapen cars in the late ’70s, Datsun suddenly had some sharp lookers with this and the upcoming 810 Maxima.
It’s entirely possible I’m stumbleblundering my way into a big, fiery debate I’m not aware of, but I think Nissan were incredibly, remarkably stupid to do their name game, in the process burning down a big mountain of brand equity and fierce loyalty and starting from scratch with a name nobody knew. I’m given to understand this was done because Nissan executives, feeling a loss of face by Toyota and Honda doing business under those names in this market, couldn’t just let it go.
There was undoubtedly a mixture of reasons, but wanting a single global brand in an era of globalization really did make quite a lot of sense. And I really doubt that they actually burned through that much brand equity; the transition took a number of years, with the vehicles having both names for some time. I don’t think anyone didn’t realize that Datsun had become Nissan. people are pretty stupid, but not quite that stupid.
Nissan had bigger problems than that, which eventually led to them being bailed out by Renault. That came later, but their uneven management (and resulting products) took their toll over time.
I hear what you’re saying, Paul, but if you’re not into cars to the degree we are, and only get a new/different car every 10 years or so, and had never considered a Datsun anyway – that kind of buyer may well have been unaware. I can think of three older people in my extended family who wouldn’t have known nor cared. I remember by Dad asking me “Who makes Nissan?”. He used to be a car guy back in the twenties and thirties, but kinda lost touch after the war.
In Australia it seemed like there was something of a product disconnect between the Datsun (popular, often technically interesting) and Nissan (not so common, technically downgraded) years. In the early-mid seventies they were on a roll, but seemed to lose their way in the early eighties and never recovered the level of popularity they once enjoyed. This may just be an artifact of poor product planning decisions forced on the local branch from head office – I’d be interested to see what others think.
It didnt stop or steer very well at all yet is somehow considered ‘sporty’ basically its a Bluebird in a sports suit, they even removed the race type shift pattern,
The concurrent Bluebird hardtop was a better looker.
I’m amazed they sold as many of these as they did. $8100 1979 dollars was a lot of money for that car. By comparison, I bought a GM Exec Malibu Classic Coupe that year that had just about every option available, right down to the Pwr Sunroof. If memory serves me correctly, the sticker price just nicked $8K (actual OTD price was closer to $6K), about what I paid for the wife’s Subaru GL Wagon the next year. And I thought that was enough money for a compact wagon, 4X4 feature notwithstanding.
I remember these as chic cars.
“Japanese Santa” is apt — they are crazy about Christmas, though more for couples to exchange gifts. I’ve even heard a Japanese Christmas song, composed for anime “Toradora.”
Ultimately, blame Charles Dickens and Prince Albert. Fun fact: Scrooge was inspired by the grave of Scotsman “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – meal man.” The appellation was mangled into “mean man,” though he was actually a naughty skirt chaser and got busted by Church authorities. An example of how history is much better than fiction.
Another fun fact: the typical now-traditional, down-home, feel-good Christmas dinner in Japan is Kentucky Fried Chicken and a strawberry sponge cake.
Globalization is complicated, but this kind of cultural exchange (like American kids growing up with Japanese car culture, anime, and food) can’t help but put a smile on one’s face.
1980 notchback in silver w/ 30k miles in perfect condition was my first car. I think it was around 1987. Was a pretty nice car, not great in the snow. LOL I should scan some old pics.
One of the engine’s they offered had dual spark plugs. Anyone know about that engine