Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Madonna or Lady Gaga? The first love or the new flame? It’s in our nature to look in the rearview mirror, to measure the brightness of the present against the best of the past. It’s no different with car enthusiasts. For all the areas in which automobiles have improved—safety, performance, efficiency, reliability—they still live in the shadow of the past. The great thing about cars, though, is that we don’t have to rely solely on our memories. We’ll never know how twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jordan would have fared against twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James, but we can find well-kept classic cars—the icons that enthusiasts worship—and pit them against their modern equivalents. That’s just what we did with these seven matchups. It’s throttle cables versus direct injection. AM radios versus infotainment screens. Old-car patina versus new-car smell. So, was it really better then? Come back next Thursday for the next entry in this series.
Open the center console in Joel Stevens’ 1998 Nissan 240SX SE, and among the spare light bulbs and relays is a note he found under the windshield wiper from a stranger asking to buy his car.
That passersby desire a sixteen-year-old car shows how much enthusiasts still respect the 240SX. And for good reason: this type of affordable, athletic, rear-wheel-drive coupe had vanished until the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S siblings were launched for 2013.
We start the 240SX with its thin metal key—remember those?—and appreciate the cabin’s lack of adornment. Behind the three-spoke steering wheel is a quartet of simple, legible, white-faced gauges. No instruction manuals are needed.
Time to slot the tall shifter into first gear and put the 155-hp four-cylinder to work. It has the low-end pull of a larger engine yet keeps growling toward its redline. You can heel-and-toe easily, the steering wheel sends coded messages about the front tires’ traction, and the car settles into a solid squat through corners. This sport coupe douses you in adrenaline with every move.
Jump to the present. Automotive tastes have changed. A generation of drivers raised in Ford Explorers and minivans now covets crossovers, not coupes. As a result, we wind up driving a Juke Nismo alongside the 240SX. Yes, the closest modern equivalent to Nissan’s well-loved coupe is a funky crossover.
A front-wheel-drive crossover? It sounds like the antithesis of the 240SX, but in many respects it fits the same mold. The Juke is affordable yet fun, an aspirational model for young drivers who don’t want a dowdy Sentra—just as the 240SX was in 1998. Did we mention that the Juke Nismo has a six-speed stick and a 197-hp turbocharged engine?
It can’t match the 240’s sense of urgency, but keep the turbocharger spooled up and the Juke Nismo dashes, darts, and zooms. Despite standing nearly a foot taller than the 1998 coupe, the Nismo digs in and hangs on in turns.
Unfortunately, its step-stool driving position doesn’t impart the same sensation of speed, and the electric power steering is overly light. The Juke will never quicken the pulse with unexpected oversteer on a frosty morning. The illusion of speed comes from a red-accented body kit and an Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel.
The Juke Nismo does an impressive hot-hatch impersonation, but the older and cruder 240SX is the little Nissan we most desire. At least until the IDx makes it to production.
- 2.4L I-4, 155 hp, 160 lb-ft
- 1.6L turbo I-4, 197 hp, 184 lb-ft
- 5-speed manual
- 6-speed manual
- Curb Weight
- 2862 lbs
- 2930 lbs
- $22,489 ($32,300 after inflation)
- Value Today: