Coming to America (Part Three)

The Z enters its Vegas period.

Nissan 280 ZX. Image: DTW Collection

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.

1983 Nissan 280ZX. Image: DTW

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.

1984 Nissan 300ZX. Image: autoevolution

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.

1983 Nissan 300ZX interior. Image:

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.”

1988 300ZX facelift. Image: autoevolution

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

23 thoughts on “Coming to America (Part Three)”

  1. Sadly, I haven’t seen either one of these here in Switzerland for a long time. Maybe 80’s Japanese car appreciation will never take off here… too many Golfs and Alfas!

    Didn’t CAR have a silver one on the cover with the headline “This is not a sports car”? My collection of CAR from that period has long gone, so I can’t check.

    1. Swiss sightings have become rare indeed. But back in the 80s, the 300ZX was very common. For me, it was the way I remember the Z best. Maybe also in 280ZX guise, but I was rather young then. I wasn’t aware that there were two different lengths of this car, even in the nineties with the completely new shape.
      German Wikipedia says the 2-seater of the ’82 to ’89 shape wasn’t sold in Germany, so it was probably the same for Switzerland and the rest of Europe.

      It is not very easy to find enthusiasts of older Japanese cars here, I agree. There have been Japanese (or Toyota only? I don’t remember) meetings in our area, and they seem to gather a decent number of drivers, but they are rarely seen in daily driving.

    2. German two-seater sales of any Z ended with arrival of the 260Z, which already was sold only in 2+2 form.

  2. Morning Daniel, I recall the Car magazine article well, with its front cover saying ‘Is this a sports car? We say no’. You could win one of 3 Peugeot 205 GTis in the same issue.

    Car were much kinder to later generations of the Nissan, I believe.

    1. Good morning Andrew and Charles. Here’s the Car Magazine cover in question:

    2. I’m wondering where I can pick up the 205 GTI that I just won 🙂

    3. Square shapes? Check! (Half-concealed) pop up headlamps? Check! Clumsily attached details (like the air scoop)? Check! Many black or grey plastic details? Check! Turbo written randomly on the car? Check! We’re right through the Twilight Zone* into the ‘eighties alright. It may look tacky, but it sure is representative of its time.

      Is it my imagination, or were cars – sports cars in particular – getting wider in the ‘eighties? ‘Sixties and ‘seventies models like the 240-280Z were very contemporary in being relatively narrow and long. Maybe the move to fatter tires and the need to accomodate those during the ‘seventies trickled over into the road cars.

      This is probably illustrated by the Porsche 924, its motorsport versions and the 944:


  3. Sadly I never saw this issue – I gave up on Car Magazine after their disastrous “scoop” of the Mk3 Escort in 1980.

  4. Perhaps no car has suffered more from middle child syndrome. She was even an erstwhile champion, as we barely recall.

    The more recent family photo below features a beloved baby Bluebird and the awesome son of Skyline. Absent are the scrappy street-wise sister Silvia, and of course our wallflower of the day.

    1. Hi gooddog. That Bluebird was a pretty sophisticated car and, I believe, quite a collector’s item now. The 280ZX, not so much…

  5. Good afternoon, Daniel. Like Andrew, I barely have any recollection of this car. The hood scoop on the Turbo looks a bit like an afterthought to my eyes.

    1. Hi Freerk. Agreed, and the front spoiler is a bit tacky (and tacked-on) too. The non-turbo facelifted version above is rather better resolved.

  6. I have a co-worker currently trying to sell a 1985 300ZX Turbo in pretty decent condition.
    My biggest memory of the 300ZX was having to put out fires under the hoods of 3 of them. I was the assistant manager of a service shop that specialized in ‘quick’ oil changes. The placement of the oil filter relative to the starter and tight quarters could, and did, lead to oil filter wrenches crossing leads causing an arc that opened a hole in the filter and set the oil inside on fire. Not a good thing.

    1. Yikes! How do you put out an oil fire inside an engine?

  7. I’m thoroughly enjoying this history of the Z(X) cars and it brings back happy memories of the related 200SX that brightened up my childhood years. Any chance of the series being extended to cover that car too? Looking forward to the next instalment in any case.

  8. A neighbour of mine had one (his dad). It was about 1980-something. They had two Datsuns, as I recall, which was something unusual. Apart from that, this car and its relations has been a rare sighting. I´d pay money to see one now (though not so much money). I may even have seen one at the classic car dealer in Them (Denmark) but was distracted by the other risky prospects inside the huge shed. …. but I am mistaken, it´s a Starion which is not a million miles away from the Z car in style and feel. They also have a Fiat 130 saloon and the orange Marina coupe that once lived on my street is still there.
    Would spare parts be the biggest single obstacle for fans of Japanese cars?

  9. The 280ZX and 300ZX never did seem to be able to get the styling on point compared to the first two generations of Mazda RX7, Mitsubishi Starion and Porsche 924/944 (despite reservations about the rear of the latter two).

    1. I agree about the styling, Bob, but that doesn’t quite explain the veneration which the parent company chose to heap upon Nissan’s own awkward Thunderbird (Paul Newman version pictured below), while outside of North America the Fairlady wasn’t so well promoted. Note how the Skyline appeared somewhat over bodied for a sports car, just like the 280ZX (or period Thunderbird).

      I don’t believe that Newman ever officially raced a Skyline, nor was the Skyline legal to register and drive in New York, but that didn’t stop Nissan marketing from feeding these somewhat misleading fantasies. They endeavored to project characteristics of the Fairlady Z to the Skyline (which was attractive for the relevant time period but would have won no beauty contests), and here we are. It’s like the Z did all the work, but the GTR gets all the credit. Life isn’t fair.

    2. The Skyline is something else, things seem to have went particularly downhill between the C10/C110 and R32 Skylines (the GT-R label skipped over the C210 to R31 Skylines).

  10. People seem to either forget, are too young, or just don’t know; the Z31 was and will most likely always be the best selling generation Z car. I was always confused about the hate/middle child syndrome. Maybe the 280zx could have that title but it was a product of it’s time.

    1. Hi Nate. The Z31 (a.k.a. first 300ZX) was deservedly a strong seller as it was so much better than its ropey 280ZX (S130) predecessor, even if we were a bit sniffy about it here in Europe. Personally, I would choose either a 280Z (S30) or the second-generation 300ZX (Z32).

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