Car and Driver
The Datsun/Nissan Z-car, introduced as the 240Z as the 1960s sputtered to a close, now ranks in the pantheon of great Japanese things, right up there alongside Nikon cameras, fatty tuna sushi, Katana swords, and Mothra. There wasn’t anything particularly new about the 240Z; it was built of ordinary and familiar parts. But it drove so well and was built so well that it elevated consumers’ expectations for all sports cars. It was a better Datsun—and Nissan—that would eventually inspire better Porsches, better Corvettes, and better Jaguars.
But Nissan didn’t have the spiritual fortitude to stick with the Z’s original mojo. The disco temptation was impossible to fight during the 1970s, and the Z became the ZX. Crushed velour upholstery, T-tops, and a flabby suspension came with it. Then Nissan changed its mind again. Here's the Japanese sports car, its antecedents, its gooey successors, and its eventual resurrection as a true sports car again.
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Prelude: The Pre-Zs
The Z wasn’t Nissan/Datsun’s first two-seat sports car. In 1959, Datsun began selling the Sports 1000 roadster (Fairlady 1000 in Japan) powered by a 1.0-liter four-cylinder. But it was the 1963 Sports 1500 with its 85-hp 1.5-liter four that established Datsun as a sports-car builder in North America. It eventually grew into the Sports 1600 and Sports 2000 as the engine gained displacement. The last Sports 2000 left production just as the Z-car arrived during 1970.
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The 240Z Arrives
With a long nose and a fastback rear hatch, the first two-seat 240Z (introduced in Japan during 1969 as the Fairlady Z) looked like a sharpened version of the Jaguar E-type. And it cost only $3601 when C/D first tested it in the June 1970 issue. The 2.4-liter single-overhead-cam, 12-valve straight-six made 151 horsepower that was fed into a four-speed manual transmission and aft to the rear wheels. That was enough to push the 2330-pound Datsun from zero to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds.
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Datsun sold a healthy 16,215 240Zs in the United States during its first model year. Then it sold 33,684 during 1971 and a massive 45,588 for 1972. By the time the 240Z entered its last year in 1973, the Z-car was firmly established as a sports-car icon. And another 46,282 Z-cars hit the American roads during 1973.
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Race and Rally
In August 1971, Datsun entered three 240Zs in the rugged East African Safari Rally. Although untested in battle, all three finished the rally, and car #11, piloted by Edgar Herrmann and Hans Schüller, finished first. In second was another 240Z.
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The Tokyo Municipal Police Department used early Fairlady Zs as pursuit cars. It’s frustrating when the cops have nicer cars than you do.
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The original Z-car suspension was simple but exceptionally effective. Just a pair of MacPherson struts up front and the similarly structured Chapman struts in the back. That’s Chapman as in Lotus’s Colin Chapman. John Morton used the now iconic Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) 240Z to earn SCCA C-Production national championships in 1970 and 1971.
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The 240Z grew into the 260Z for 1974 as the straight-six’s stroke increased to bounce displacement up to 2.6 liters. But emission controls sucked output of the engine down to 139 horsepower. The addition of mandatory 5-mph bumpers also increased weight, to 2580 pounds. But the bigger (literally) news was the new two-plus-two model that stretched the wheelbase 11.9 inches to shove in a small rear seat. The Z-car was becoming more GT than sports car.
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The End of the Beginning
With the six now at 2.8 liters, the Z became the 280Z for 1975. Throw in Bosch fuel injection, and the 280Z’s engine made 149 horsepower. It still wasn’t a rocket ship, but it grew significantly better in 1977 with the addition of a five-speed manual transmission. Sales were still strong, with more than 70,000 Zs hitting the road in ’77. But even icons age, and the first-generation Z-car left production after 1978.
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The Velour Conspiracy
The late 1970s were all about the personal luxury car. Think Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Chrysler Cordobas, and the like. So Datsun/Nissan decided to shift the Z-car in that disco-friendly direction, and the result was the 1979 280ZX. It was flabbier than the 280Z and embellished with the complete lack of restraint typical of the era. Think velour upholstery, digital dashboards, and marshmallow suspension. And, oh yeah, T-tops on either the two-seat or two-plus-two versions.
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Ordinary Hits Hard
While the 280ZX superficially resembled the 280Z, it was 2.3 inches wider, an inch longer, and profoundly different under the skin. The Chapman strut rear suspension in the older car, for instance, was dumped in favor of semi-trailing arms virtually identical to those used in the company’s 810 sedan. About the only components that carried over intact from the 280Z were the 2.8-liter straight-six engine and the five-speed manual transmission. Of course, since the new car was heavier and the engine was strangled down to 135 horses, the 280ZX was a slug. Think more than 11.0 seconds from zero to 60 mph.
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The Turbo Hope
After an almost carryover year in 1980 (there was a 10th Anniversary Edition painted black and gold and wearing Goodyear Wingfoot tires), some semblance of performance returned with the new 280ZX Turbo for 1981. Thanks to a Garrett turbo heaving about 7.3 psi of boost into the engine, output shot up to 180 horsepower. The Turbo was initially available only as a two-seater with a five-speed manual transmission. But with acceleration from zero to 60 mph now taking only a few tenths more than 7.0 seconds, it was a vastly more interesting 280ZX to drive. By 1982, the 280ZX Turbo was also available as a two-plus-two and with a stupidly mismatched three-speed automatic transmission. After the 1983 model year, the 280ZX died a deserved death. And so did the Datsun name after 1981. After all, during the 1982 model year, Nissan sold 57,260 of them in the United States.
Getty / ISC Images
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Yeah, That’s Paul Newman behind the Wheel
The legendary Bob Sharp and sometime actor Paul Newman teamed up to compete with the Z-car in SCCA Trans-Am competition during the 1980s. With Newman driving, the team took its first victory (in a 280ZX) at Brainerd in 1982.
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If the 280ZX was the lazy version of the original Z, the all-new 1984 300ZX appeared as the Z-car in full recline. The styling was so square as to be virtually featureless, the sometimes engaging straight-six was swapped out in favor of a more powerful SOHC, 160-hp 3.0-liter V-6, and the interior may as well have been equipped with Barcaloungers. Throw a turbo on that same engine, and output bounded up to 200 horses. Once again, it was offered in two-seat and two-plus-two versions, and practically nothing carried over from the old 280ZX to the new 300ZX. If anything, the chassis was simultaneously better-handling and better-riding than before. But this first 300ZX was boring.
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But Not Slow
Stripped of its heavy civilian duds, the third-gen 300ZX made a decent competition machine. After all, in stock form it would roar from zero to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, according to that first C/D instrumented test, and growl up to 100 mph in an impressive 20.1 seconds.
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Fifth out of Eight
Nissan made T-tops standard issue on all 1985 300ZXs, but the car itself was already aging in the market as new competitors emerged. In a May 1985 eight-way shootout, the 300ZX two-plus-two finished a mediocre fifth, tied with the Ford Mustang SVO. Yeah, so it beat the weak Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta and lousy Chrysler Laser XE, but the Mitsubishi Starion ESi came in third. And both the Toyota Supra and the winning Audi Coupe GT were clearly superior. This third generation of Z-cars would linger on through 1989 with a few superficial tweaks, but the market was leaving soft cruisers like this behind.
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In 1988 Nissan sold only 1002 of its refreshed third-generation Z in an eye-catching white metallic. The Super Shiro had the best parts of the 1987—1989 300ZX Turbo, and added cloth Recaro bucket seats, thicker anti-roll bars, special coil springs, and white 16-inch wheels. This one sold on Bring A Trailer for almost $12,000 in 2018.
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A New Sports-Car Style Standard
The new 1990 300ZX was awesome. And the 300ZX Twin Turbo was flat-out astonishing. Low, wide, and modern, the Z32 was mesmerizing: the first Z-car to set a new sports-car style standard. The suspension was vastly more sophisticated, with A-arms replacing the previous struts up front and an all-new multilink system in the back. And that rear included Nissan’s High Capacity Actively Controlled Steering (HICAS) system, which added some rear steering under the correct conditions. The new 300ZX didn’t just handle well; it handled better than almost any other new car.
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The Rocket Ship
The 300ZX’s all-new 3.0-liter V-6 used DOHC heads and four valves per cylinder and was rated at 222 horsepower. That’s 17 more than the 1989 300ZX Turbo’s engine. And when two turbochargers were added to the mix to create the 300ZX Twin Turbo, the result was 300 horsepower. This deep into the 21st century, 300 horses may seem tame for a sports car, but in 1990, it was mind-boggling. C/D’s first test of the non-turbo version measured a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds. The 300ZX Twin Turbo knocked that down to 5.0 seconds flat and ran the quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 102 mph.
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The Porky Rocket
The Z32 version of the Z-car did carry one massive burden: its own mass. The 1991 300ZX Twin Turbo crushed C/D’s scales to the tune of 3570 pounds—an enormous number by the standards of the early 1990s. That’s heavier than a contemporary Corvette and not much lighter than the Dodge Stealth R/T, which was larger and equipped with all-wheel drive.
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The sort-of-a-four-seater 300ZX two-plus-two returned with the fifth-generation Z-car a bit after the two-seater hit showrooms. With a 101.2-inch wheelbase (4.7 inches longer than the two-seater), the two-plus-two had rear seats that were nearly usable. Visually, the two-plus-two was virtually indistinguishable from the two-seater despite the additional length. However, the two-plus-two was never offered with the turbocharged engine.
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Under the relentless whip of Steve Millen, the Z32-generation 300ZX proved a formidable race car. Actually, it was usually the 300ZX two-plus-two, since the longer wheelbase allowed better weight distribution, including positioning the fuel tank within the wheelbase. It racked up wins throughout the early 1990s; the pinnacle events came with GTS-class wins in both the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans in 1994, running a production-based twin-turbo V-6 that produced more than 800 horsepower. In six years, Millen would win the IMSA title twice.
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A convertible roadster was added to the 300ZX line for 1992. Along with its quick-folding manual top, an integrated roll bar added strength to the structure. But by the mid-1990s, the SUV craze was starting, and prices of the ZX were rising. Sports cars seemed impractical, frivolous, and expensive. Despite the fact that the 300ZX Twin Turbo made C/D’s 10Best list every year it was eligible—seven times—the Z32-generation 300ZX was withdrawn from the market after the 1996 model year.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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The Prodigal Returns
Nissan didn’t send any Z-cars to the United States between 1997 and 2002. But there were always hints that Nissan was interested in bringing the car back, and it reappeared for the 2003 model year as the all-new 350Z. Leveraging the Nissan parts bin, the new Z-car was built atop the same front-/mid-engined (FM), rear-drive architecture as cars like the Infiniti G35 and used a version of the same VQ-series 3.5-liter V-6. This contained costs and allowed Nissan to offer the car with a keen $26,809 base price. The aerodynamically more aggressive and Brembo-braked Track model C/D first tested was only $34,619.
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A New Heart
Nissan puts VQ-series V-6s in everything from Altima sedans to Murano SUVs and Quest minivans. But it’s in the Z-car where it has found its best performance voice. With 24 valves, twin-cam heads, variable valve timing, and a stout 10.3:1 compression ratio, the all-aluminum VQ35DE in the 2003 350Z was rated at an athletic 287 horsepower without the help of any turbochargers. That’s just 16 hp shy of twice what the original Z-car’s 2.4-liter straight-six produced. The VQ may be ordinary, but it can be entertaining when fed through a six-speed manual transmission (a five-speed automatic was optional). The 2005 model’s engine is pictured.
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Setting a New Standard
In C/D’s first test of the new 350Z, in 2002, the Track model ripped to 60 mph in only 5.4 seconds and dispensed with the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph. But what was truly exciting was how balanced the new car was over its 104.3-inch wheelbase. With 53 percent of its 3322-pound curb weight over the front wheels, it had quick turn-in and excellent transient responses. It also pulled 0.88 g on the skidpad with only moderate understeer.
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Open to the Road
The 350Z was strictly a two-seater as Nissan decided not to offer a two-plus-two version. And T-tops weren’t on the option list, either. But a roadster convertible did return. In a 2003 five-way shootout against the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4, the Audi TT, and the Honda S2000, the 350Z roadster Touring finished a hard-fought second, behind the Honda. “This car has a low pulse rate and a sense of gravitas about it,” wrote Patrick Bedard. “Nothing flexes. The clutch takes up with indisputable authority. The steering is deliberate and trusty. The shifter glides through the well-oiled maze. The engine is hushed until you call upon it, and then it delivers seamless acceleration accompanied by the sweetest baritone song from the pipes.” It’s no wonder that the 350Z made C/D’s 10Best list for 2003.
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The 35th Year
For 2005, Nissan produced a 35th Anniversary Edition of the 350Z that included a 300-hp version of the VQ35DE with a 7000-rpm redline. It only came wearing Ultra Yellow, Silverstone, or Super Black paint and special 18-inch wheels. Because torque dropped off a bit with the gain in horsepower, the anniversary edition wasn’t necessarily quicker than the regular 350Z. But it was consistently more entertaining.
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For 2007, the 350Z was gifted with a new version of the VQ V6—the VQ35HR—rated at 306 horsepower. About the only visual that changed was a new hood subtly tweaked with a gentle center bump.
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Nissan Motorsports International (NISMO) is kinda/sorta like Nissan’s version of BMW M division or Mercedes’ AMG. And its first model was the 2007 Nissan NISMO Z. Most of NISMO’s tweaks were aerodynamic bits that turned 18 pounds of rear lift at 75 mph into 33 pounds of rear downforce. Throw in new 18-inch front and 19-inch rear wheels encased in Bridgestone RE050A tires, and this was a 350Z optimized for track duty. The V-6 was rated at the same 306 horsepower as in other 350Zs. “This is a sincere and thorough effort by NISMO,” wrote C/D’s Tony Swan, “but its virtues will be tangible only on a road or track with very fast turns.” So go find more fast turns.
Entering the 2008 model year, the 350Z was tired. So at the end of 2008, it was retired.
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The sixth-generation Z arrived as a 2009 model slightly smaller than before, more powerful than ever, and more tautly skinned. As the name announced, under the skin the VQ-series V-6 now displaced 3.7 liters. It was rated at 330 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque. And it was powering a car that weighed less than the 350Z.