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1996 Nissan 240 SX

  • Driver

Is it just me, or is the Nissan 240 SX the forgotten entry in the sporty coupe segment? It just doesn't seem to spend much time on most buyers' radar screens.

And that's a shame. I mean, what's a sporty coupe supposed to be? Try: stylish, different looking, reasonably quick, fun to drive, affordable to buy and run, practical enough to justify its existence. The 240 SX scores remarkably well, on all counts.

The notchback coupe has been restyled again (it was significantly made over a few years ago, when the hatchback variant was canned). The 1997 mods are concentrated at both ends. The new nose has thin, downward-canted headlights, with small air openings above the bumper and huge ones below. It's a more aggressive approach, which I think works well.

Copy with the new taillights: simple, clean-looking. My test car was done in a new-for-'97 color, deep fuschia.

Didn't the guy who named this color listen to rock during the '70s? The name of the group was Deep Purple. The artist formerly known as Prince would love it. I rather liked it

myself.

Even the base model gets alloy wheels, a 15-inch lace-spoke design. The sportier SE and luxury-oriented LE versions add 16-inch five-spoke alloys, with Coke-bottle-shaped side sill extensions.

Inside, a new seat design is complemented by new fabrics, but that was irrelevant on my LE tester, which comes with standard leather. Too bad. The sporty driver would prefer cloth, and also might like the power tilt-and-slide sunroof and remote keyless entry system, which are exclusive to the LE.

The instrument faces are white, but darken when you switch on the headlights at night. Haven't a clue how they do that, but it looks cool.

The design and functionality of the controls will present no surprises to those familiar with Japanese cars. Everything seems well built and nicely finished.

You sit close to the floor, in a classic sports car stance. Legroom will satisfy the longest of leg, but NBA stars may find headroom an issue.

The rear seats are clearly of the "beats walking home in the rain but only just" variety. The seatback folds in one piece (not the more versatile split-fold) to augment the trunk,

which is shallow by necessity, in allowance for the rear axle lurking below.

Yes, this is a rear-wheel drive car, the only thus-configured Japanese entry in this class and, with the demise of the lovely and talented 300ZX, the only "pusher" car in Nissan's fleet.

Undeniable pleasures in balancing throttle, steering and brakes in a rear-drive car

Rear-drive remains the preference of at least the, um, more senior (ahem, more mature?) sports car fans, who may have actually driven an MG or Triumph at some point in their lives, whose teeth weren't necessarily cut on CRXs or Sciroccos.

They (ahem, again, we) can point to the dominance of rear-drive in race cars as proof of its superiority when performance is the dominant criterion. While we can also enjoy

pushing front-drivers to the limit, there are undeniable pleasures in balancing throttle, steering and brakes in a rear-drive car that simply cannot be found in a puller.

The 240 SX is really quite a brilliant handler. The steering is rapier-sharp, and the MacStrut front and multilink rear suspension really do the job. Actual cornering power isn't mind-blowing, and that's really an advantage: you can have fun, yet if you do overcook it, you've got lots of margin to recover.

It's the response, the communication, the sheer entertainment value of the car's handling that's so rewarding. Wheels contributor Marc Lachapelle told me he used "scalpel" to

describe the way it carves the corners — an apt description.

Despite this, ride quality isn't bad. This is no Buick, but it won't shake your fillings loose either.

Concerns about poor-weather traction with rear-drive are partially dealt with by Nissan's exclusive standard viscous-coupled limited slip differential.

You can hang the back end out under power, but it'll be your choice, not the car's. Add a set of top-rate winter tires, and the 240 SX will be a thoroughly practical winter car, as my personal experience with a rear-drive four-cylinder car (BMW 318) on Bridgestone Blizzaks attests.

The 240 SX's engine remains the 2.4 litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder, producing 155 horsepower at modest-for-a-multi-valve 5600 r.p.m. The torque peak of 160 pound-feet arrives at 4600 r.p.m., but that fairly high rev level is misleading; the torque supply is deep and broad.

Displacement of 2.4 litres is a lot for a four without balance shafts, especially on a cold start the analogy that comes to mind isn't "sewing machine" but "tractor."

Even this becomes part of the fun. Sure, it's a little raw, but what the heck. Haven't we overdosed on refinement? This is a sports car, a bit of an edge shouldn't be a big deal.

It also pulls the car with a lusty urge. As with the handling, the acceleration isn't spectacular if you just look at the numbers. It's the satisfying way the car generates its

performance that works here.

The only drawback is that the car has a magnetic attraction for 140 km/h cruising. Keep your eyes peeled for The Man, or your operating costs will rise dramatically.

The gearbox doesn't hide the fact that it's a piece of machinery. You can feel the gears engaging, but again, that puts you in tactile touch with the car. The clutch engages smoothly and strongly.

Nissan is making a big deal about the 240 SX's affordability, with the new well equipped base model including such lux-o-bits as air/con, AM-FM-CD-cassette six-speaker sound system, cruise, power windows, locks and mirrors.

While this is a lot of gear, $26,398 isn't exactly cheap. Like all Japanese companies, Nissan realizes that if a car is built back home, it's going to be pricey. All it can do is load it up and hope the customer recognizes the value.

The blatant omission on the base car's equipment list is anti-lock brakes, which don't arrive unless you step up to the SE.

It also brings firmer suspension, a rear anti-roll bar, bigger wheels and tires and a couple other toys, an apparent great deal for just two grand more.

On the other hand, the next step — the LE, with leather, sunroof and remote keyless entry — seems a bit steep at $3,000.

In an era where even sports cars are sugarcoated, shrink-wrapped, civilized and homogenized to a fault, the Nissan 240 SX is a bit of a throwback.

I'm not sure how large of a market exists anymore for a car like this.

But I know that those who are attracted to it will fall in love again, every time they fire it up.



Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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