By Andrew Stoy
Through the 1980s and much of the ’90s, Nissan served as the slightly off-kilter black sheep of the mainstream Japanese auto manufacturers. It wasn’t the drunken uncle (Mitsubishi) or the gay yoga instructor (Subaru), but Nissan incorporated enough off-beat features into its vehicles to keep the company two steps behind Toyota and Honda.Nissan insisted, for example, on retaining rear-wheel drive long after it was out of fashion. They also stuck two spark plugs in each cylinder of their most popular I4 engine and churned out angular vehicles seemingly styled during a Giugiaro acid orgy.
One of those vehicles, the funky and oh-so-80′s Nissan 200SX, was finally put out to pasture after the 1988 model year. It was replaced by a vehicle that, along with the Maxima, can be considered the opening salvo of Nissan’s entry into the mainstream: The 240SX. Granted, the 240SX retained rear-wheel drive and a twin-spark four-cylinder engine, but the rounded, flowing styling inside and out was much more in tune with emerging automotive trends.
Additionally, the Japanese-market version of the 240SX, known as the Silvia, had an impressive enthusiast reputation. While the U.S. offering was never a big performer, the Silvia mystique helped boost sales among the early tuner crowd. That, along with hatch, coupe and convertible bodystyles to suit a variety of customers, helped the Nissan 240SX become a consistent top seller for Nissan until its redesign in 1995.
The Nissan 240SX is a difficult car to characterize accurately. On one hand, it’s (in the opinion of this editor) attractive and the design has aged well. The interior is well laid-out and contemporary, and the driving dynamics are good for a car of this vintage. All those things have to be qualified by the fact that the 240SX driveline feels like it’s at least a decade older than the car-because it is.
An advantage of an older design is the fact that the bugs have been worked out, and that’s the case with the Nissan 240SX as well. Engines and transmissions are reliable and well-engineered, even if they are unrefined. Since the powertrain was used on several Nissan products, parts availability is good whether you’re looking for new or used items. One thing to consider is that the twin-spark system makes tune-ups twice as expensive as on competing vehicles.
What you’re getting with a Nissan 240SX is an overall good Japanese two-door from the late 1980s. It isn’t as fast as a Toyota Supra, it isn’t as quirky as a Mazda RX-7, and it isn’t as well-balanced as a Honda Prelude. But if the 240SX suits your style and you find a good one cheap, you’ll have a perfectly nice beater.
Pop the hood on any Nissan 240SX and you will find a cast-iron four-cylinder engine; depending upon your perspective, that is either a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, the KA series engines are nearly bulletproof and quite simple to work on as well. On the other hand—the hand that will be of concern to enthusiasts—KA engines were designed to be, and as a result, perform like, truck engines. It’s the same basic unit you’d find in any Hardbody or Frontier pickup, and possesses the same slow-revving nature, buzziness, and merely adequate power and torque output.
So, the 240SX isn’t going to trounce your neighbor’s LT1 Camaro off the line. Or his Prelude, for that matter. But for all its shortcomings, the KA24 engine in the 240SX is at least driving the rear wheels, which is more than can be said for most cars of this vintage. And if you really want top-down fun, look for a 240SX convertible. Performance will suddenly become much less important to you on warm, summer evenings. Just keep in mind that convertible tops are expensive to repair and replace, regardless of what you paid for the car.
Anyone who regularly hauls more than themselves and one passenger will want to consider striking the 240SX from their list as well. Only available in 2-door form, the little Nissan is not overly accommodating for rear-seat passengers. Besides, the much-larger Maxima can be found for just a few dollars more and would be a better choice for families and others not enamored of the 240′s coupe and hatch body styles.
In a Nutshell
Ask yourself what you really want. Is the answer “a sports coupe” or “a sporty coupe?” If the latter suits your needs, the by all means give the Nissan 240SX a look. For the minimal cash outlay involved, it would be difficult to find a better combination of reliability, sportiness and reasonably unique good looks. Of course, if you need more than two doors—or four cylinders— you’re out of luck.