FEBRUARY 1989 BY LARRY GRIFFIN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DICK KELLEY
From the February 1989 Issue of Car and Driver
There’s a sequence in Out of Africa in which Robert Redford buzzes a clearing in a biplane, thumps down, and taxis up to his startled paramour, Meryl Streep. Delighted, she marvels at his unexpected arrival at the controls of an airplane:
“Where did you get it?”
“When did you learn to fly?”
Well, hedgehoppers, that’s Nissan. It, too, just learned to fly. Or relearned. From the Maxima (C/D September 1988) to the 300ZX (check here next month) to this 240SX, all of Nissan’s new fliers tower with talent—as its legendary 240Z did under the Datsun banner two decades ago.
In 1969 the original Z-car, quick and light and looking right, captured the imaginations of the world’s sports-car fanatics. In a creative coup, Nissan perfectly conceived its two-seater coupe for its perfectly perceived market. The 240Z took flight with a near-ballistic rush that left its foes rocking in their wheel chocks.
Yet from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, Nissan squandered its well-deserved dynamic reputation. Its sporty models grew glitzy, and its lesser models became mundane. Meanwhile, Honda blitzed new trails in excellence, Mazda licked the edges of the performance envelope, and Toyota hung on as Japan’s biggest car company. By 1988, Nissan had fallen from second place among imports in U.S. car sales. Luckily, new Nissan management had already begun to trim its lineup of flabby underpinnings and blasé bodywork.
This is now, and the 240SX is Nissan. The new 240, though not directly related to the original, is also a car to lust after—unlike the 200SX it replaces. The 240’s trappings, from its voluptuous lines to its worthy innards, showcase Nissan’s reborn enthusiasm. A trip in the SX proves that, just as with the original 240Z, a flight in a well-trimmed craft brings its pilot great joy.
The 240SX steps up to the needs of the 1990s with all the right stuff. It contains a new, normally aspirated, twelve-valve, 2.4-liter four-cylinder instead of the 200SX’s normally aspirated V-6 or four-cylinder turbo. The SX handsomely houses the new engine amid lighter weight and better handling; Nissan’s engineers may have relearned flying overnight, but they weren’t born yesterday.
Nissan’s new managers cleverly insisted on retaining the 200SX’s basic rear-drive layout. The 240 makes the most of it with a new rear suspension. Its multilink design offers welcome self-stabilizing characteristics and precise handling—areas where the 200’s higher weight, narrower tracks, and less accomplished tires showed a weaker grip on theory and road alike. The new suspension design—similar to that finalized for the next 300ZX—easily provides almost any mix of agility and stability that Nissan cares to dial in. It delivers increasingly benign toe-in as cornering loads grow. It minimizes squat, lift, camber change, and jacking for flatter handling without stiffer springs and bushings. The 240’s front suspension retains the 200’s strut layout but includes more anti-dive.
Anybody seeking joy in an automobile’s handling, meaning all of us with hands caressing the wheel and feet hot to trot for thrills underfoot, will find exceptional dynamics in the SX—perfect for a lively model that Nissan flatly proclaims a sports car.
Like the old 240Z, the SX gives a terrain-hugging ride but masterful control. Like such recent fighter-tough, society-slick fliers as the BMW 750iL, the Peugeot 405Mi16, and the Plymouth Laser and Mitsubishi Eclipse turbos, the 240SX feels lighter than the scales say it should. It weighs 2798 pounds, but its deft controls and cheery bent for changing direction belie its mass, subtracting about 400 pounds from its feel.
Until you take the controls, the only clues that times have changed at Nissan lie in the 240SX’s bodywork. It comes as either a fastback, the SE, or a blocky notchback, the XE. Nissan styling clinics show public preference split 50-50.
Both cars wear four-wheel disc brakes, but the fastback will soon offer an ABS system. Our SX was equipped with a sport package, optional only on the fastback. It includes fore-and-aft spoilers, a firmer suspension, alloy wheels, and tires fattened from 195/60R-15 all-weather skins to 205/60HR-15 performance rubber with better dry grip. From the same option box: cruise control and a leather-wrapped shifter and wheel.
Every 240 turns up with linear rack-and-pinion power steering. Nissan keeps communications between car and driver open and direct. No variable-assist or variable-ratio monkey-motion muddies the messages. Wound tight, the 240’s steering produces a snug 30.8-foot turning circle, good for superb tuckability in gridlock wars and parking snarls. Yet the guileless steering and almost unflappable chassis allow exhibitions of gripping behavioral magic. Blend this natural gift of grab with 0.83-g skidpad cornering, thanks to Bridgestone Potenza RE88s, and the 240SX helps you look like the most masterful conducteur de l’auto this side of Alain Prost.
Nissan fits in the SX almost every control that a master driver, an advanced amateur, or a really rank beginner could want. The dash layout, simple and thorough, surpasses most others in both its appearance and its function. Barely a stretch of the driver’s mind or muscle distracts from the driving. A digital speedometer with head-up display lurks on the options list, but bypass it for the fine standard analog array—whose large tach and speedometer dials dominate the central bulge of the instrument pod. Small coolant-temp and fuel-level gauges nest in the pod’s outer corners. They fill perfectly the viewing space framed by the sport wheel—whose horizontal spokes join the rim a bit too low for best hand placement. Embedded in the wheel are membrane buttons for decently coordinated cruise controls, though the spoke-mounted buttons prove less handy than, say, Honda’s hub-mounted buttons or the stalk-activated designs from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The 240’s console houses climate controls capable of all but rainmaking. Stereo components fill most of the leftover space above the snickety-snick five-speed stick or the lever for the optional four-speed automatic (whose gear ratios drew mixed reviews). Our SX’s radio fronted a clean layout and large soft-touch buttons, but it didn’t pick up signals cleanly. As for onboard music, an optional Sony compact-disc player stood in for an also-optional cassette deck, but after hearing the four speakers’ poor AM/FM sound we didn’t bother trying any CDs. Still, based on Nissan’s studious attention to finer details in our prototype SX, we suspect the sound system in production-line 240s will not fall on its woofers.
The 240SX’s two-plus-two seating provides legroom for four if the two in back tape in at 24 inches head-to-toe and say “goo-goo” a lot. Up front, adults sit in a fashion more appropriate to front-cabin status. Despite supportive appearances, though, the deep buckets—even in their most upright positions—lean back quite far and offer so-so padding. Nissan, unlike most purveyors of automatic seatbelts, positions the inboard latches close beside the hips of front occupants, so you regain some support sacrificed by the lackluster seats. The back seat flops forward to add cargo length to the shallow hidden trunk, which stretches wider and longer than expected.
Braking performance also stretches long for a sporting car. The pedal feels fine during hard road driving, but all-out stops from 70 mph—even with considerable pedal modulation—chew up 195 feet. We anticipate shorter stops from SEs fitted with the promised ABS system.
The 2.4-liter SOHC four, with port fuel injection plus one exhaust and two intake valves per cylinder, growls out 140 hp. The 240SX equals the old V-6—powered 200SX’s 0-to-60-mph run of 8.6 seconds and zips a quarter-mile in 16.4 seconds at 83 mph. But soon thereafter it quits abruptly: Nissan fits a top-speed governor to keep down buyers’ car-insurance costs. The power stops ker-thunk! at a claimed 112 mph—though our 240SX took a nose dive at a true 107 mph. Otherwise, the SX’s willing engine and slick body felt capable of knocking off 120 mph, its chassis even more. (Word is out—heh-heh—that snipping one engine-parameter wire disconnects the annoying cutout.)
Aiming to deliver 60,000 240SXs this year, Nissan pegs the base prices at $12,999 for the notchback and $13,199 for the fastback—low bucks, but subject to added option costs. Moreover, several faster machines skulk on both sides of today’s exchange rates. Take the Plymouth Laser and Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo two-seaters: two seconds quicker from 0 to 60, about 35 mph faster up top, but barely costlier. Such machines may not keep a lid on running costs, and they will not bend into corners as rewardingly as the 240SX, but you pays yer money and you takes yer turns as you please.
A note of guidance: Nissan insiders hint that an unrepentantly quick 240SX is well on the road to final development. The 240’s layout already seems so good that we humbly suggest a 50-percent power boost. Once and for all, Nissan, are you men or mice, ninjas or nice?
Every time I slide behind the wheel of this road bullet, I think “Porsche.” The 240SX is a 944 that’s been trimmed down, dressed up, and price-slashed for the nineties. I remember how my face crinkled into a wide smile the first time I cranked a 944 hard into a sweeper. I recall savoring the clean takeup of the steering, the way the tires dug into the asphalt like cleats into infield grass. Solid. Locked-on. Everything the 944 had to give you could use. The 240SX feels like that, too.
But there’s more to the 944 analogy. These two cars are spiritual mates. The 240’s no-nonsense dash and handsome interior exude the same businesslike function as the Porsche’s. The 240 has rear jump seats, a low cowl, and a long hood—just like the 944. Sitting in it makes you want to drive, and driving it makes you want to drive it some more.
Best of all, you don’t need to be a Wall Street wiz to be able to afford this taste of Zuffenhausen. And that gets me thinking about Porsche again. Back in Germany, they ought to be worried about this car. Real worried. —Rich Ceppos
Nissan hit a home run with the 240SX. It’s a complete package that exhibits attention to detail inside and out. The exterior is a seductively styled blend of alluring curves, and the interior combines a softly sculptured dash—à la Porsche 928—with comfortably contoured bucket seats.
The 240SX’s appeal is heightened by its mechanicals. The steering is well weighted and wonderfully communicative. The gearshift is direct and the clutch is progressive. The brakes provide plenty of stopping power, and the pedals are perfect for heel-and-toeing. The engine offers perky performance, and the handling is forgiving and entertaining. In addition, the suspension provides a resilient ride.
This combination of qualities makes the 240SX a blast to drive—whether you’re attacking a mountain road or just cruising down Main Street. With ABS and without the speed governor, this car would be just about perfect. —Nicholas Bissoon-Dath
Every so often we get a car around here that makes us smile a lot. We smile a little when a car looks pretty good and drives pretty good and doesn’t cost too much. We smile more whenever a car is fast; fast cars have a way of making us forget about price. But we save our big smiles—the no-ivories-barred kind—for cars that are just plain right. Cars that make us say, “Yep. These guys know.”
The new 240SX is such a car. Look at it: the shape is smooth and handsome and clean. Look inside: the instruments are simple and easy to read, the controls are well organized, and the various fitments are stylishly fashioned. This car was obviously designed by people who understand.
The 240SX drives with the same savvy. From the zesty engine to the hefty steering to the fine suspension, the 240 exudes the astute thinking of its creators.
I’m not the only one so taken by this Nissan. Ever since our 240SX test car arrived, there have been lots of king-sized smiles around here. —Arthur St. Antoine