Coming to America (Part Four)

The Z-car transcends.

1989 Nissan 300ZX 2-seater. Image: wallpaperflare

Despite its considerable technical and dynamic advances over its dull-witted predecessor, the 1983 300ZX still had an outdated and frankly, rather naff image. It looked like the sort of car that Austin Powers, the 1960’s throwback and International Man of Mystery in the spoof comedy spy movie series might have driven, cheerfully referring to it as his Shagmobile. Nissan realised that it was now (past) time to reinvent the car and lend it a more contemporary mien.

The new model arrived in 1989. While it retained the 300ZX name, it was dramatically different to its predecessor(s). This time, the opportunity was taken to alter the proportions of the car radically to reflect a more compact power unit. The long-nosed cab-backward stance was replaced by something more contemporary and smoothly organic, as was then the fashion.

There were still two-seater and 2+2 variants, but the styling of both was so well balanced that it was difficult to tell them apart at a glance, other than by the position of the fuel filler: this was ahead of the rear wheel arch on the two-seater, behind it on the 2+2. The T-bar targa roof was now a standard feature(1). The Cd of the new model was 0.31, actually a slight increase on its predecessor.

The 2,960cc V6 engine was retained but was given new DOHC cylinder heads with variable valve timing and four valves per cylinder. Again, there were naturally aspirated and turbocharged versions. The former produced maximum power of 222bhp (166kW) and torque of 198 lb ft (268Nm). The latter produced maximum power of 300bhp (224kW) and torque of 283 lb ft (384Nm). Adjustable suspension and four-wheel steering were offered on the turbocharged model. US prices started at $27,300 for the naturally aspirated manual transmission 300ZX.

The US Car and Driver magazine published its road test of the new 300ZX in August 1989. Having forgotten how highly they rated the outgoing model (apart from its same-again styling), they introduced the new one as follows: “This is not the flabby, disco-poseur’s 300ZX of old. That tawdry beast is gone, laid to rest in a special graveyard reserved for stretch slacks, musk colognes, and slap-on chest hair.” Instead, it was “quite simply, one of the most alluring cars to appear on the United States market in years.”

1995 Nissan 300ZX Turbo. Image:

The reviewer described the styling as “stunning in the metal, a beautiful and exciting car that looks exotic without being quirky.” The interior was similarly impressive, being “perhaps the most beautiful and efficient cockpit in the sports-car kingdom.” The only complaints concerned the automatic climate control system, which seemed to be a bit temperamental, and the Bose audio, which lacked fade and balance controls. Both items of equipment were optional and could be avoided in favour of manual air-conditioning and a Nissan branded audio unit.

1990 Nissan 300ZX interior. Image:

The naturally aspirated test car reached 60mph (97km/h) in 6.7 seconds and had a top speed of 143mph (231km/h). The handling was neutral, initially tending towards understeer when pushed, but a sudden movement on the accelerator (either way) could provoke manageable oversteer. Braking performance was excellent, with no fade evident on test. The variable assistance electronic power steering was “smooth [and] satisfying”, while using the five-speed manual gearbox was a “sheer pleasure.”

The 300 ZX was summarised in glowing terms as follows: “We can think of no other car that offers more style and sculptured, buttoned-down beauty for the money. The established automotive objects d’art—the Italian exotics—start at twice the price. Even the naturally aspirated Z has enough brawn and handling prowess to hold most of the competition at bay.”

1989 Nissan 300ZX 2-seater. Image:

The new 300ZX was also much better received in Europe than either of its ZX badged predecessors. The new model was pictured on the cover of the March 1990 issue of Car Magazine with the tagline, “like a Porsche 944 Turbo and a 928 rolled into one“. Journalist and former motor racing driver, Roger Bell drove one for 2,000 miles and was mightily impressed. “You sense the class and quality of the 300ZX on first acquaintance. It looks terrific, sounds potent, menacing, it compels attention.” Driving it was even better: “You’re immediately hooked, seduced by its scorching performance and brilliant handling.”

Bell drew a comparison with its predecessor: “Smooth voluptuous lines distinguish it from the vulgarity of previous ill-proportioned Z-cars [and] in profile it could be mistaken for a mid-engined car.”  His only significant criticism was that, although 2″ (50mm) narrower than a Porsche 928, it was still too big for British B-roads, a fact he rightly attributed to it being designed primarily for the US market.

Bell’s test car was a 2+2 twin-turbo model(2). The under-bonnet area was tightly packed, and the fuel tank and space-saver spare reduced luggage space to “little more than a deep tray”. However, the cabin was “cosily spacious for two long-limbed people to stretch out in comfort.”  The cockpit architecture was “superb, the low-line dash sweeping around into integrated doors that carry some of the switchgear [and] outer vents.”  The targa roof panels were well sealed and could be removed “quickly and easily. Wind noise dominates only when driving al-fresco.” The seats were excellent and the minor switchgear was “of superb tactile quality clustered on handy satellites.”

Top speed, limited to 155mph (250km/h) was achieved “with contemptuous ease” around Millbrook’s banked bowl and the car was remarkably stable at high speeds. The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was measured at 5.7 seconds. The multi-link suspension gave “unusually fine cornering control” and the speed-sensitive four-wheel steering was “free from all slop and vagueness.” The short-travel gear-shift was “clean, fast and undemanding” and the servo-assisted clutch was “light but lacking in sensitivity.” The anti-lock brakes were “terrific – powerful, true, progressive and nicely weighted.” The handling was the very definition of “accuracy and precision.”

In summary, the 300ZX was described as “an icon that exceeds expectations by a larger margin than most hyped-up muscle cars fall short of them.” Finally, it appeared that Nissan had produced a Z-car that could compete on level terms with the likes of Porsche and impress the most stern and demanding of its critics.

The second-generation 300ZX had the longest lifespan of any Z-car, remaining on the market for eleven years until the end of the century(3). It received a steady stream of technical and minor cosmetic updates, but the final cars were barely distinguishable from the early ones, a testament to the essential rightness of the design, certainly for the US market for which it was primarily intended.

1989 Nissan 300ZX Turbo. Image:

The European automotive establishment might never have given the Z-car quite the respect that at least the earliest and last versions deserved, but that hardly mattered as it was an enduring success in the US. With the second-generation 300ZX, the Z-car had finally evolved into one for which no excuses needed to be made. It was not a steady evolution and the 280ZX was certainly its nadir, in both stylistic and dynamic terms, but progress thereafter was highly impressive.

The Z-car was reinvented once again in 2002 with a new generation 350Z, but that is another story entirely.


(1) Again, an entry-level two-seater was offered in the US market without this feature.

(2) The two-seater version was not offered in the UK.

(3) In its home market only. Exports were discontinued in 1996.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

24 thoughts on “Coming to America (Part Four)”

  1. I never gave this car much thought as back in the days I never saw them around. Things have changed a bit now as there’s a white 300ZX Turbo in my area. I didn’t have an opportunity to take a photo of it yet, but I can report it has a lovely exhaust note.

    1. Finally I stumbled upon my local 300 ZX Turbo. Here’s a quick photo of it.

    2. Great car, but the black wheels do it no favours at all and leave the wheel arches looking like vast black nothingness. Here’s the same car in the same pearlescent white colour, but with (sensibly sized) standard alloy wheels in silver:

  2. In the early Nineties a friend was co-owner of Germany’s second largest Nissan dealership and his personal company car was such a 300ZX turbo with a Nissan-approved tuning kit (probably from Nismo) that came with full works warranty and raised power to 450 PS.
    I had the opportunity to drive this car a couple of times. It wasn’t my kettle of fish but its acceleration was simply breathtaking. With enough engine speed to be outside the turbo lag zone and a right foot on the carpet in second or third gear the kick in the back was enough to bang one’s head against the headrest and even beyond 200 kph it went like a catapult. Road manners were pretty good but at least to my eyes it was no sports car -too big, too heavy and too US-oriented.
    The car served its purpose because nearly all buyers at this particular dealership ordered the tuning kit…

  3. In the summer of 1990 (or was it 1991?) I was involved in the production of a commercial for a tyre company and chose a 300ZX as the basis for the picture car.
    The car was not yet very well known due to low sales, it was (relatively) easy to disguise (aka deface) and there was an 1/8th scale model version that could be used for the driving shots in the studio.
    I didn’t hade much time for the conversion, the original car was borrowed and had to be returned to the owner without damage. So I made a new front bumper, taped the lights with foil and covered the rear wheels – the cameraman was responsible for the most of the unrecognizability of the vehicle afterwards by setting the studio lights and the rest was don in the editing.
    This was definitely not a masterstroke in terms of vehicle design, but there were no complaints from the client – which was enough praise for me.

    Of course, I didn’t drive the car – it was delivered by the owner and collected (without damage) after the shoot.

    In all its appearance, I considered the 300ZX a serious contender in the Grand Touring market at the time.

  4. When the 300ZX was just introduced I was lucky enough to sample it during a writeup and photo session for a magazine yearbook; this one was about the different approaches and opinions to what exactly constitutes a “sports car”. The 300ZX was highly impressive, fast, assured and comfortable. Also a very nice design IMHO. The DAX Cobra used as a contrast was its exact opposite in almost every way imaginable but great fun though (but hard work compared to the Nissan) – and that V8 exhaust note never got tiring!

    1. Now that I see it…
      Wasn’t the Nissan’s key made from something like titanium?

  5. Dave: Possibly, I don’t remember- but I did like its looks enough to make a photo of it.

    1. I remember a 300ZX ad in a Car and Driver issue stating a lot of technical details and yes, it said the key was made from titanium.
      Early nineties: what a time for Japanese sport cars! Remember CAR Magazine, March 1989 cover?

      And some were still to come…

  6. Good morning all. Yes, the 300ZX Mk2 was, stylistically, a massive leap forward over its ‘shagtastic’ predecessor. Nissan also had the self-confidence to go its own way and not produce a composite of other supercar styling tropes, an accusation that might be directed at the first Honda HEX.

    Fred, what a great job to have! I’m always intrigued by those anonymised cars that appear in commercials for other products (or competitor’s cars). Sometimes the disguise is nothing more than badges removed or taped over, but it’s often more creative, as in your case. Nowadays, I imagine it’s all done with CGI(?)

    Here’s a particularly cheeky and egregious example of such advertisements:

    Bruno, I’m beyond jealous of that assignment of yours, although an acquaintance did allow me to take his contemporary Toyota Supra Turbo for a spin. Here’s an example of the model:

    It was lovely!

  7. 1989 was a good year for Japanese sports cars. In addition to today’s subject, that year saw the introduction of the the 2nd Celica All Trac(aka GT Four), MX5 Miata, the NSX, and the 3000GT/Stealth. I’d even include the comparatively humble Eclipse/Laser/Talon, the tuner’s favorite until the arrival of the cheaper to buy and insure Neon. I can only hope the market pendulum swings back in favor of these kinds of cars rather than SUVs.

    Dave, what was involved in the Nismo tuning kit to get it up to 450PS? Here in the US, we had two aftermarket but Nissan USA-approved upgrades. The first, from Stillen in Orange County, CA, probably kicked out about 375 bhp and cost about half again the list price of the twin turbo. I don’t remember who made the second, but a finished car cost about $100k and supposedly had supercar level performance.

    1. If I remember correctly the dealer-fit tuning kit was a remapped ECU, different intercoolers and some steel (instead of ceramic) catalysts. The number of parts that were replaced was astonishingly small. The engine obviously was robust enough to take the power increase without any further modifications.
      The price can’t have been too high, nowhere near the sum you quote, more like a new Micra in standard trim.

  8. I distinctly remember being very impressed by this new 300ZX model as a car-magazine-devouring child. Nissan (and indeed the other big Japanese car manufacturers) were really on a roll in those days.

  9. It´s a good time to re-appraise that design. It´s still very fresh. I really like the way they handled the DLO and the roof to body line. At the back there is a good example of the full width lamp cover. Like the 1989 Audi 80 whose thread has been revived today the car is an example of timeless product-design formgiving. What is satisfying is that there is one clear form with a small but clear accent: that line that runs from the front bumper through the door and onto the rear bumper, traced out as a rising curve. The bodyide is described by a simple arc section (vertically) which only flares a bit around the arches. So, simple overall forms, one accent and good detailing.
    I realise today we have cars that seem to be all details with no clear view of a the underlying form – it´s all accent and detailing, even a quite disciplined car like the Clio has so much happening from front to back and side to side that it´s unsatisfyingly over-active.
    We have not talked about the less expensive sister, the 200 SX, have we? That´s two sports cars in their range at the one time.

    1. Not forgetting the 100NX, when powered with the 2.0 SR20DE engine it could be rather fun:

      The Sunny GTi with the same engine was a good hot hatch, and the P10 and P11 Primera GT enjoyable to drive sporty saloons…perhaps Nissan´s golden age, at least in its european range.

    2. Hi Richard. I would add to your observations on the 300ZX a plaudit for the really tidy way the liftback shut-lines are handled. The only visible shut-line is a horizontal extension to the lower DLO line around the rear of the car. The 1984 200SX used a similar treatment and was another very well resolved design:

      Its 1989 successor was another excellent piece of work. Nissan really was on a roll then:

      We must take a closer look at the 200SX.

    3. I think that the S13 Silvia three-box coupé was also excellent, if less individual than the ZX/SX/NX – it’s rather a very well-crafted homage to the Lancia Gamma Coupé:

      While it shares its front doors with the SX (and it was available with its front end in the US – I think that the very elegant JDM front fits it better), it has its own personality and none of the two designs are compromised in any way (I think that Mitsubishi and Chrysler have managed the same thing with the Eclipse/Talon/Sebring/Avenger coupés a few years later).

    4. I really miss proper coupés such as these. They are so much more stylish than the crossover mutants that litter our streets these days.

    5. The 100 NX is another goodie. That which all these designs have in common is the applicati0n of basic industrial design principles for resolving joint and junctions and the primary surfaces. The personality is in the proportions and the graphics (light and grilles and lamps). The reason we are where we are now is that that genre or style was exhausted though not because it wasn´t good. I suspect we´re in something equivalent to the late Victorian phase in architecture: a lot of random styling. The difference is that late Victorian architecture is rather nice and pleasant whereas much of contemporary car design is uninteresting and a wee bit annoying. I have been giving the new Corsa208 further scrutiny. Both are non events because neither has one strong trope (although the Corsa has a nicer front end than the 208). Apart from that, neither of them amount to much. Compare with the 100NX.

    6. Hi Richard. Late Victorian architecture was highly ornamented, but it was still fundamentally authentic in that the the decorative elements were mainly part of the structure. I would regard current automotive styling as analogous to postmodern architecture, where the external decoration bears no relationship to the underlying construction or functionality of the building. Both are, of course, dead-ends in design terms.

    7. I never thought of it that way, but when I look at it that way, you’re right.

    8. Those were really great days for car design. The 300ZX is very nice, but that 200SX is just wonderful! So perfectly proportioned and judged, and so futuristically smooth. It has concept car overtones. You get sniffs of something like the Rover CCV or a ‘nineties Giugiaro concept car but in something that’s actually on the road. Thanks for reminding me of it and I wholeheartedly support a deeper dive into the subject (that of Sylvias in general, too).

      Here’s the CCV (image AROnline)

      I don’t usually notice shutlines and such, but the nifty treatment of the liftback shutlines on the 100NX always stood out to me, even if the rest of the car always seemed a bit too “round” to me.

  10. Never found the 300ZX’s rear tail-light arrangement appealing, otherwise like the rest of the car despite being of the view that for all its good reputation it drifted away from its Z car roots and growing too large.

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