1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Ron Perry

In his book The Reckoning, author David Halberstam wrote about the post-Korean-war stagnation of the U.S. auto industry and the rise to world prominence of the Japanese carmakers. As part of his in-depth look. Halberstam examined two industrial giants: Ford and Nissan. In the case studies. Nis­san was a model of everything that was right with Japan's auto industry: It was astute at marketing its wares in export markets, blessed with excellent quality control and worker/management harmony and adept at plowing a large percentage of profits into research and development for future models. Conversely, Ford was the archetypal blundering U.S. automaker: It was lag­ging in engineering leadership, harnessed with a poor-quality image, often tardy or off-target in addressing new-market seg­ments and plagued with old manufacturing facilities and a dis­satisfied work force.

The funny thing about well-researched books is that they take a while to write. And shortly after The Reckoning hit America's bookstores, an interesting addendum was occurring. Ford trimmed excess capacity, introduced some hot-selling, new models and was out-earning mighty General Motors on half the volume. Nissan, on the other hand, was losing marketshare and, more important, losing money for the first time in recent memory.

This story originally appeared in the September 1988 issue of Road & Track.

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1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Road & Track

Call it the re-, re-reckoning. Nissan desperately wants to regain the leading edge in technology it owned nearly two decades ago among Japanese automakers. Can we remember back that far? It was before Honda brought its first Civic to the U.S. Back when the 510 wowed econo-minded sports-sedan enthusiasts with its overhead-cam engine and 4-wheel inde­pendent suspension; when the 240Z was a sellout its first two years on dealer lots and dubbed by Road & Track as one of the “10 Best Cars in the World”; when the 520 pickup truck created a whole new market for rugged, nimble mini-pickup trucks. Back when Nissan was Datsun.

It’s been four years now since Nissan decided to dump its old Datsun moniker in the U.S. and market cars under the parent company’s name. And in the interim, Nissan has tasted the bitter pill of a declining market share; a conservative, play-it-safe product with me-too styling; a loss of direction and mixed message for the 240Z’s successor and Nissan performance/luxury flagship, the 300ZX; price pressure on bread-and-butter sedans from Korean and other Third World-assembled cars; and a steadily rising yen.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Ron Perry

All of that hand-wringing is about to end. You see, Nissan has a revitalization plan under way with four all-new products for 1989. And Step One is to stir up the low/medium-priced sports/GT ranks with the successor to Nissan’s long-running 200SX, the 240SX.

Three little numbers—a two. a four and a zero.

That designation worked magic for Datsun in the early Sev­enties (with a Z suffix tacked on for good measure), and if you overlook that 240 is equally synonymous with a long-lived line of conservative Volvo sedans and wagons, it’s reasonable to assume that tagging Nissan’s new sports/GT thusly will evoke positive memories and maybe even create some new excitement.

How’s this for starters? The 240SX is (drum roll, please) a rear-driver. It’s endowed with a sleek, wind-cheating body wor­thy of a 0.30 Cx aerodynamic drag rating and independent rear suspension derived from the Nissan MID-4 mid-engine con­cept sports car. Inside, there’s a wonderfully fluid dash layout and cockpit configuration reminiscent of the Nissan ARC-X show car. And, get this, pocket-rocket fans: Nissan’s going to bring it in at less than $15,000—much less if the yen/dollar exchange rate stays at current levels.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Ron Perry

Based on the all-new, 5th-generation Japanese home-market Silvia, the 240SX is longer and wider than the 200SX it re­places, giving it a sleek, new look. And compared to last year’s 200SX top offering, the SE V-6, the new car is some 200-300 lb lighter, depending on option selection. This weight saving is an important power-to-weight factor because the U.S.-bound 240SX is available with 2.4 liters of normally aspirated 4-cylinder power only. Nissan wanted it that way. Recent exorbitant increases in U.S. auto liability-insurance rates for young buyers of sporty cars has hurt sales dramatically. Selecting the box that says V-8, V-6, twin cam, supercharged, turbocharged or even four valves per cylinder can get very expensive these days.

As with the former 200SX, two body styles of the 240SX will be available: a formal notchback XE and a performance fastback SE. The luxury-oriented XE looks like a scaled-down Acura Legend coupe, especially from the rear three-quarter view. The SE hatchback is dominated by a thick B-pillar, remi­niscent of the 1975-1980 Chevy Monza. Both models feature a specific-to-the-U.S. front-end treatment with pop-up head­lamps similar to the Nissan Pulsar or Ford Probe. The rear is dominated by a large, light-bar taillamp treatment curving downward at each end, akin to that of the ARC-X show car and artist’s renderings of the new Infiniti sedans.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Ron Perry

All in all. the new 240SX is an attractive, well-rounded, well-integrated shape—one that doesn’t suffer from some of the styling excesses of more recent Nissans. But is it as distinctive and immediately recognizable as the original 240Z? Is it a car of classic proportions in the Jaguar XKE idiom? To a large extent the 240Z’s long-hood, short-deck styling was dictated by its inline-6 engine, short wheelbase and lack of rear seats. That car has now grown in performance, luxury content and price into today’s 300ZX, which the 240SX does not replace.

Where the 4-cylinder, 2 + 2-seat 240SX does, in fact, harken back to the original 240Z is in performance. As the “At a Glance” specifications box shows, performance of our early prototype 240SX was on a par with or superior to the original Datsun 240Z. The heart of the 240SX is a somewhat undersquare 2389-cc sohc inline-4 that’s basically the bulletproof Nissan Hardbody truck block with a freer-breathing 3-valve-per-cylinder head (two intakes and one exhaust) and with a tuned-runner intake manifold grafted on. Nothing exotic there. At 140 SAE net bhp. it develops roughly the same power and torque as did the original 240Z’s 2393-cc sohc inline-6 when you take into account that the 1970 Z’s 150 bhp was measured as SAE gross bhp, minus all power accessory drives. Of course, the 240SX’s 4-cylinder isn’t as smooth as the Z-car’s inline-6. Large-displacement 4-cylinder engines never are. And Nissan didn't resort to expensive counter-rotating balance shafts to smooth things out either. Instead, 240SX engine vibrations are damped by building in rigidity (by means of a 1-piece main-bearing girdle) and by using soft fluid-filled engine/transmission mounts. The latter causes more driveline judder on hard shifts and sudden throttle applications than most staffers like. But overall, the engine is tractable and develops good low- and mid-range torque, becoming thrashy only above 5500 rpm. Shifting of the direct-acting 5-speed manual gearbox with double-cone synchromesh is superb, a refreshing change from the remote cable shifters on many front-drive competitors. An electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmission is optional.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
The heart of the 240SX is this normally aspirated, sohc, 12 valve, 140-bhp inline-4. Nissan shunned turbocharging or an optional V-6for insurance reasons.
Ron Perry

As for the 240SX’s handling, it is light-years ahead of the 240Z, a car not known for its high-speed agility or stability. The 240SX exhibits an uncanny balance of good stick with excellent impact harshness. Dive and squat are well-controlled, with just enough body roll to let the driver know he’s approaching the car’s 0.82g limit of adhesion. The car’s 53-percent front/47-percent rear weight distribution is nearly ideal. With the stand­ard power-assisted steering, turn-in is crisp, not overboosted. Maneuverability is excellent, the 240SX being able to hang a U-turn in a mere 30.8 ft, tighter than the Honda Prelude with 4-wheel steering. And a full 7 degrees of caster in the convention­al MacPherson strut front suspension gives good on-center feel.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
The key to the 240SX’s top-notch handling is its MID-4-derived multilink rear suspension.
Ron Perry

Nissan’s new multilink rear suspension, which you’ll also be seeing on the all-new 300ZX this spring and other future rear-drive and all-wheel-drive offerings, gets most of the credit for the 240SX’s phenomenal road manners. The 4-link suspension (actually a lower A-arm and three upper links) does a superb job of optimizing rear-wheel camber, keeping the outside rear wheel vertical to the road surface during hard cornering. The lower A-arm is diagonally mounted, its fore and aft axial dis­placement checked by a rear-mounted lateral link to provide stable toe-in attitude when lateral (cornering) or longitudinal (braking) force is applied. The upper two links have an outer pivot axis outboard of the wheel, thus forming an imaginary downward-canted kingpin axis that induces stabilizing toe-in on deceleration because of rear-wheel or engine braking. Liftoff the throttle in the middle of a high-g turn and the 240SX quietly tightens its line, without any of the trailing-throttle oversteer hyperventilating (the driver's) common with semi-trailing-arm rear suspensions. Nissan’s new multilink is a sus­pension a trackwise enthusiast can play clip-the-apexes with, yet so benign that a junior insurance underwriter isn’t likely to get in trouble, no matter how hard he or she tries.

Inside, the 240SX is human engineering at its best. No frills. Just wonderfully integrated form following function. The dash is rounded to match the car’s exterior and seems to flow into the center console and molded door panels. The large-dial analog gauges housed therein are attractive and easy to read. Materials are topnotch. Switches have a tactile feel about them. All con­trols are easy to reach and use without taking one’s mind off the task at hand—spirited driving. There’s a real dead-pedal, and the accelerator and brake are suitable for heel-and-toeing. The steering wheel and shifter are leather-covered, of course. If there’s one interior item that takes some getting used to (be­sides the motorized front shoulder belts now found on many Japanese and Ford Motor Co cars), it’s the mono-form seats. On first blush, the seamless fabric gives a J.C. Whitney-terrycloth seat-cover look. Nissan bonds the seat fabric directly to the molded foam, making an exceptional grippy support for exploring the capabilities of the suspension. Most R&T staffers were able to get comfortable behind the wheel, although pro­visions for seat-cushion rake and height would be a welcome addition. And as with most 2+ 2 GTs, the rear seat is for chil­dren or small animals only.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Interior design has a flowing, show-car quality, with cloth-covered glovebox door and seamless mono-form bucket seats a styling first. Cockpit layout is excellentfor serious driving.
Ron Perry

Aside from the rear suspension, the 240SX will offer another first. Available as an option on the coupe version only is a digital head-up speedometer display—the first import so equipped.

Sure, the 240SX is space-inefficient. And maybe compared to a gaggle of torque-steering, turbo-lagged front-drive sports/GT pretenders, the new Nissan is a bit on the heavy side. But the 240SX is balanced and fun to drive in a fashion only rear-wheel-driven cars provide. It takes to twisty roads like macaroni to Tupperware, and, “Hello, good-hands people,” is as easy to insure as your father’s Oldsmobile.

Above all, Nissan’s new popular-priced sports/GT is worthy of the 240 designation. Now, if Nissan has a few more at home as delicious as this one, they might just pull off The Big Come­back—we reckon.

1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Ron Perry
1988 nissan 240sx first drive
Road & Track