Motoring: The Independent Road Test: Nissan puts the squeeze on back-seat drivers: Its soft, flowing shape is certain to appeal, but passengers in the new 200SX may find their ride less intoxicating, says Phil Llewellin

NISSAN'S new 200SX is a reminder that coupes cater for extroverts who prefer style to space. This sleek two-door is longer than a Ford Mondeo, but the rear compartment could have been designed for victims of Procrustes, the mythological nasty who specialised in amputating the limbs of unfortunate wayfarers.

Much depends on how strongly Nissan's concept of beauty appeals. The 200SX's soft, smooth, flowing shape will lure many potential customers into the showroom. But others may prefer the more rakish lines of such rivals as the Ford Probe, which is even longer and wider than the Nissan, despite its front-wheel-drive layout.

Nissan regards the 200SX as more of a refined grand tourer than a hard-charging, firm-riding sports car. That said, the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine's turbocharger should boost power to within a whisker of 200bhp. However, figures that look good on paper are less impressive on the road, mainly because the engine needs to be whipped and spurred quite hard to deliver the goods.

Nissan has virtually eliminated the sudden rush of power that characterised earlier generations of turbocharged engines, but this one is less responsive than expected until the 3,000-3,500rpm bracket is reached. There are times when third gear has to be engaged in a hurry to deal with a situation for which you might expect fourth to be adequate.

However, the 200SX does live up to its grand touring role by taking the sting out of seriously long journeys. Noise levels are low and the suspension combines a reasonably sporting feel with a soft ride. The seats would be better if they could be adjusted for height and had a more precise means of altering the backrest angle, but proved their worth when just over 1,000 miles were covered in less than 24 hours.

One of the most significant factors on that drive was the coupe's stability in strong crosswinds. But overtaking trucks in heavy rain was a frightening experience: the wipers invariably stopped when switched to what should have been their highest speed.

Economy is not a word that springs to mind when turbocharged engines are mentioned, but the Nissan's consumption only once dropped below 25mpg. Reasons included good aerodynamics and the manual transmission's long-striding fifth gear, which equates 70mph to 3,000 revs. Motorway cruising flatters fuel consumption, and figures nearer 20mpg can be expected when revving hard in lower gears.

The previous 200SX looked good, but could suffer from traction problems when surfaces were anything other than smooth. The replacement is an improvement because softer suspension helps to keep the rear tyres in contact with the road.

Nissan's competitive price includes attractive alloy wheels, air- conditioning and anti-theft equipment. Most buyers are expected to choose the 'touring pack', which exchanges an extra pounds 1,000 for such items as leather upholstery, an airbag for the front passenger and an auto-changer for compact discs.

The latter prompted remarks about there being no charge for compacted discs if you try to reconcile your spine with the 200SX's back seat.

COMPARISONS

Volkswagen Corrado VR6, pounds 20,499. VW's consistently underrated coupe lacks visual glamour, but is the sporting driver's delight. Superb handling complements an equally inspirational engine. Smaller than the Nissan, but better packaged to provide a lot more space.

Ford Probe GT, pounds 20,350. Imported from the US, the Capri's spiritual successor looks good, but the 2.5-litre V6 engine feels almost puny in this company. Quite sporty to drive, but not the most relaxed motorway cruiser, due to relatively low gearing.

Vauxhall Calibra VE, pounds 19,770. Four years old, but still shapely enough to attract admiration. Sleek styling conceals Cavalier chassis, so the Calibra feels more like a saloon than sports car. The 2.5-litre V6 engine provides adequate rather than sizzling performance.

Honda Prelude VTEC, pounds 20,995. Its naturally aspirated 2.2-litre engine should make the good-looking Prelude an also-ran in this field. But the high-revving VTEC reliably delivers 183bhp and stands tall among the world's best power units.

SPECIFICATIONS

Nissan 200SX, pounds 20,000. Four-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine, 1,998cc; 197bhp at 6,400rpm.

Five-speed manual gearbox. 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds, top speed 145mph.

Average fuel consumption 26.8mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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