Sine Wave: The Highs and Lows of the Nissan Z-Car
When it’s good, it’s great, but when it’s bad, it’s terrible.
Finally—after 11 years of production, Nissan is finally ready to replace the dusty 370Z with an all-new Z-car, adding a seventh branch to the automaker's iconic sports-car family tree. While the so-called Z Proto is just a concept for now, it hints that the next Z should be one of the better sports cars to ever wear the famed Nissan "Z"-car badge.
Naturally, that got us thinking about the first six-generations of Nissan Z-cars that have come and gone. For all of its fans and sustained longevity, the Z is a car of contrasts: when it's good, it's great, but when it's bad, it's been a stinker. So, in anticipation of the forthcoming freshened Fairlady, here's a breakdown of the highs—and lows—of the Nissan Z-car throughout the past 50 years.
High: 1969-1978 S30 Datsun 240Z, 260Z, 280Z
Really, there isn't anything other than the O.G. Fairlady that could sit at the highest point in the entire lineage. We're not saying it's been all downhill from here, but the original S30-generation Nissan Z-car set an aesthetic and experiential standard we're not sure has been met since. Maybe the later Z32 300ZX, but even that fails to channel half of the charm and enthusiasm as the granddaddy of them all.
From the minute the first 240Z launched in 1969, it captured attention as a reliable, gutsy sports car with effortlessly handsome Euro-inspired looks and excellent handling, proving to the world that Japanese automakers are more than capable of producing legitimate sports cars. It responded to modifications and personalization with aplomb, and was a superstar on both the professional and grassroots motorsports circuits. Every Japanese sports coupe has played catch-up since, and nothing satisfies quite like the original Z.
Highest Example: Fairlady Z432
Of all of the original Nissan Z-cars throughout history, the Japan-only Z432 is the one we'd most like to tear through the Hakone Turnpike in. Essentially, the Z432 incorporated the 2.0-liter DOHC inline-six from the contemporary "Hakosuka" Skyline 2000 GT-R—as opposed to the regular Z's OHC inline-six—that spun out an impressive 160 horsepower and 133 lb-ft of torque. Nissan built 420 examples, and all were originally sold in Japan.
Low: 1979-1983 S130 Datsun 280ZX
Talk about a sine curve. As it turns out, the apple does fall far from the tree. The bloated, homely 280ZX was one of the most disappointing sequels this industry has ever seen, a direct result of Datsun's (Nissan's) decision to move the Z further toward the role of grand tourer. As a result, the 280ZX was fat and underpowered, though it did introduce the Z-car family to forced induction with later turbocharged variants that pushed power to the 180-hp mark. Toward the end of production, the turbo 280ZX was one of the quickest sports cars of the day, with a 0-60-mph run of around 7.4 seconds, but this speaks more for the dourness of the period than of the 280ZX's merits.
Lowest Example: 280ZX 2+2
The smelliest of all of the S130-generation Nissan Z-cars are the overly cushy 280ZX 2+2s, sans turbo. Less power, more weight, worse proportions—just what we wanted.
Low: 1984-1989 Z31 Nissan 300ZX
Things didn't get much better in the next generation of Z-cars, either. If the S130 was a bloated pastiche of the svelte S30, the Z31 was its fly-infested corpse left out in the Florida sun. The Z31 represents the cushiest iteration of the Z, moving the Fairlady family far away from its original intention as a small, lightweight sports coupe.
This is also the first time the Z was fitted with a V-6 rather than the traditional inline-six, though don't get your hopes up if it's power you're after. Even in turbocharged form, the best the Z31 could muster is 205 hp. Some credit is due for the Turbo's electronically adjustable suspension and five-speed manual transmission, but that wasn't enough to make up for the awful body cladding.
Lowest Example: Base-level 300ZX 2+2 w/auto
It might have looked fast during its day and had better dynamics than the preceding S130 280ZX, but that doesn't mean it's any more desirable.
High: 1990-1996 Z32 Nissan 300ZX
If the original 240Z proved Japan was capable of creating a legitimate sports car, the ultra-modern Z32 was proof it could build a world-class high-tech performance car. Exceptional build quality, a rigorous development phase, and stunning performance elevated the Z32 to instant-classic status the minute the first example left the factory floor. While the regular Z32 300ZX is an excellent regular-use sports car, the range-topping 300ZX Twin Turbo was one of the most potent sports cars of the day, with a mighty 300 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque.
Highest Example: 300ZX Twin Turbo
As mentioned above, it was tough to find a more advanced sports car of the era than the twin-turbo Z32 300ZX. With rear-wheel steering and electronically adjustable suspension, the 300ZX Twin Turbo was the definitive sports car of the late 1980s and early 1990s for many enthusiasts.
High: 2003-2008 Z33 350Z
While not as cutting-edge and jaw-dropping as the preceding 300ZX, the 350Z ushered the Z nameplate into the 21st century both in aesthetics and in ethos. The powerful 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V-6 and short wheelbase made the 350Z one of the sharpest sports cars of the 2000s, while the curvaceous design made it one of the most recognizable.
Highest Example: 350Z Nismo
Could the best 350Z be anything else? Along with the outrageous aero revisions to the front and rear fascias, the upgraded 350Z incorporated revised springs, dampers, anti-roll bar, front shock-tower brace, and extra body-shell welds for rigidity.
Neutral: 2009-current Z34 370Z
When it first launched in 2009, we were smitten with the new Z-car's revised platform cribbed from the 350Z, along with the latest iteration of the ubiquitous VQ-series 3.7-liter V-6. The 332 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque on-tap are healthy figures for any naturally aspirated sixer, and the slung-back cabin and squat proportions made us swoon.
Eleven years later, not so much. The 370Z survived production for so long, what was once considered a relatively tech-forward sports car with rev-matching, stability control, traction control, and a limited-slip differential became a poster child for driving simplicity. Now, the stripped-out base examples of the 370Z are some of the most acetic sports cars available in an increasing digital world. The model manages to simultaneously feel rather dated while still being a hoot to drive, but it's high time for the next chapter in the Nissan Z-car saga to open.
Lowest Example: 370Z 50th Anniversary Edition
Mechanically, the 50th Anniversary Edition is the same Nissan 370Z we still enjoy, but a BRE-inspired vinyl package is hardly a fitting tribute to half-a-century of Z-cars. Nissan could have done so much better, but it didn't, and the half-assed and very garish white-red-blue livery is another example of the 370Z rotting on the vine.
Highest Example: 370Z Nismo
Even in 2020, it's not all doom and gloom levied at the 370Z. The Nismo variant adds a suite of significant chassis improvements including revised shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars, along with bigger brakes, stickier tires, and redesigned aero. Oh, there's also a boost in output, to 350 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque.