The Z enters its Vegas period.
The major change to the 280ZX during its lifetime was the addition of a turbocharged version in 1981. This produced maximum power of 180bhp (134kW) and torque of 203 lb ft (275Nm). With a three-speed automatic transmission(1), the 280ZX Turbo achieved a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 7.4 seconds and a maximum speed of 130mph (210km/h). The rear suspension was stiffened to improve stability, but the brakes, already marginal, were even more prone to fading.
The 280ZX was facelifted in 1982 with new, colour-keyed bumpers, new alloy wheels and other minor trim and equipment changes. The Turbo model was given the option of a new five-speed manual gearbox(2) in addition to the automatic transmission, returning some sporting pretence to the model.
September 1983 saw the unveiling of an all-new model, the Nissan(3) 300ZX, again available in both 2 seater and 2+2 bodystyles. As the name implies, the engine capacity was enlarged again, now to 2,960cc, but much more fundamentally, it was now a 60° V6 rather than an in-line unit. The new engine was again offered in both naturally aspirated and turbocharged forms, producing maximum power of 160bhp (119kW) and 200bhp (149kW) respectively. The 300ZX was equipped with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
Despite the more compact engine, the 300ZX retained the long-nosed, cab-backwards silhouette of its predecessor, albeit rather more cleanly resolved, with fully integrated colour-keyed bumpers and partly concealed headlamps. The wheelbases were unchanged over the 280ZX but the overall length was reduced marginally. The T-bar Targa roof was now a standard fitment(4) and the 300ZX was moved even further upmarket with a very high specification. Consequently, the US list price was now from US $18,699.
The US Car and Driver magazine published its road test of the new 300ZX in February 1984. The review began with a major disappointment, the car’s same-as-before appearance: “The emperor has no clothes, and the ZX Turbo lacks a pretty face [and] sex-appeal.” The reviewer speculated on the reason for such caution: ”Americans were buying 72,000 units per year (90 percent of the car’s production), making the Z-car far and away the most successful two-seater in history, and no one was willing to rock the boat with a radical departure from tradition.”
The magazine was much happier to report that the 300ZX was “better in every way than any Z gone before.” Performance was similar to its predecessor. The automatic test car achieved a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 7.3 seconds and top speed of 134mph (216km/h). The way this was delivered was highly impressive: “A throaty rumble under the hood of a nicely tuned intake system complements the instant throttle response that only fuel injection seems able to deliver these days. The automatic [transmission] takes up the slack in the driveline with hardly a click.”
The handling was a revelation: the 300ZX “did not spin, fishtail, or show any crankiness at all when tossed well past the limit during our evaluations.” Braking performance, a previous weakness, was “just as impressive [with] good stability [and] minimal fade.” Refinement was also hugely improved: “Engine, wind, and driveline commotion are so subdued that you can leave a stoplight and find yourself 20mph over the speed limit before you even think of glancing at the speedometer.” The interior was very well appointed, and it was easy to find a comfortable driving position, with a full set of large and clear instrumentation, which was beautifully illuminated at night, ahead of you.
The 300ZX was launched in Europe in the summer of 1984 and Car Magazine published its first road test of the new model in its June issue. The feature was headlined Blown Chance and that gave the reader a clear idea as to what was to follow. The reviewer stated that the new 300ZX reminded him strongly of the Chevrolet Corvette, which he regarded as “over-rated and over-priced.” Its appearance was, “more’s the pity”, strongly reminiscent of the outgoing 280ZX. The claimed performance figures elevated the 300ZX “to the fringe of the supercar set” but, like the Corvette, it was “just too flawed to be regarded as a well-honed thoroughbred.”
The test car was a 2+2 turbo manual version that was “rather long and heavy.” While it was “commendably clean aerodynamically” with a Cd of 0.30, its appearance was overly familiar and spoilt by “front end fussiness exacerbated by flip-over headlights that only half close [and] an add-on air dam that integrates clumsily with the penetrating snout.”
Inside, the 300ZX felt “big and slightly intimidating” with a long bonnet, high sills and out of sight tail. The instruments were big and clear but the flanking piano-key switches for minor controls were “beyond fingertip reach.” Overall, the “typically Japanese in style” dashboard and interior was “nothing special.”
The reviewer found the clutch travel too long, forcing him to sit closer to the wheel than was ideal. Moreover, the clutch take-up point was vague “making jerk-free shifts more difficult than they should be.” The power steering had “decent weighting but feels artificial” and, at slow speeds, the accelerator was “difficult to control delicately enough to prevent snatching and shunting in the driveline.”
Despite being turbocharged, the engine’s power “comes in so progressively that you can’t really define a point on the rev counter where the surge starts.” Conversely, above 5,000rpm “power falls away so suddenly that…the engine’s a spent force.” The measured 0 to 62mph (100km) time was a second shy of Nissan’s quoted figure and the claimed top speed of 156mph (252km/h) “must need a very long run-in to achieve it without assistance from wind or gradient.”
Ride quality on the adjustable dampers’ Normal setting was “not at all bad” but on Firm they felt as though they were “locked solid” and on Soft the car “floats and wallows without adequate suspension control.” The 300ZX’s handling “strikes a better balance than that of the sloppy 280ZX” but was still “bland [and] uncommunicative” so was “not an enjoyable car to drive fast.”
While the 300ZX “handles very predictably” with “safe, well-weighted, ABS anti-lock brakes” it was no sports car, but a “boulevard cruiser [and] grand touring express”. It might have been “a great stride forward from the 280ZX” but “Lotus, Porsche and other makers of £15,000 to £20,000 fast cars haven’t a thing to worry about.”
The contrast in the verdicts between US and European reviewers was striking, but unsurprising. The 300ZX was designed for a driving environment in North America that was (and remains) a world apart from that found in Europe, and especially on the crowded roads of Great Britain.
Despite its cautious, evolutionary appearance and the rather tepid reception it received in Europe, the 300ZX was a much better car than its predecessor. It was still primarily a grand tourer, but now it handled (and stopped) in a manner befitting such a car, even if it could not compete on equal terms with thoroughbred sports cars.
The 300ZX remained on the market until 1989 and received a couple of minor facelifts that included more colour-keying of exterior trim parts and, in 1987, a restyled rear end. This comprised a full-width slim rear light bar, with the number plate relocated down to the bumper.
The next Z-car reinvention would, however, be much more dramatic.
The story of Nissan’s Z-cars concludes with the final part of this series.
(1) The Nissan five-speed manual gearbox was not offered on the turbo variant as it was considered insufficiently robust to manage the increased torque.
(2) This was a Borg-Warner, rather than Nissan, transmission.
(3) The Nissan marque name had now fully replaced Datsun.
(4) In 1986, Nissan offered an entry-level version without the T-bar roof in the US market.