The Z-car transcends.
Despite its considerable technical and dynamic advances over its dull-witted predecessor, the 1983 300ZX still had an outdated and frankly, rather naff image.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: btingatrailer.com
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.
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.”
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.
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.