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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The Z32 300ZX

January 6, 2012 by Matt

Nissan Z32 300ZX 300Z Red Twin Turbo

This one’s tough for me. I want to like this car; I really do. But, like a tragic hero, a fatal flaw keeps me from being able to truly commit my fandom.

The ’90-’96 Z32 300ZX arrived on the scene precisely as I was awakening to my car interest. My dad of course owned the 240Z, so I’d been familiar with the Z lineage ever since I could remember. The ’90s were a time of incredible sophistication and one-upmanship between Japanese sports car makers, and the top-of-the-line twin turbo Z32 was the first salvo in what would eventually escalate into a full-fledged horsepower and technology war. The Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, FD Mazda RX-7 and Mark 4 Toyota Supra would all follow within a year or two, but the Z32 was the first, and it had a connection to the “family sports car,” so I naturally gravitated toward it.

Nissan Z32 300ZX 300Z Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Gray Grey Cloth

A little over ten years after its release, it had lost none of its fascination. I had just turned 21, and celebrated the occasion by dealership-hopping in the area and test driving various sports cars. The local Nissan lot featured an early Z32 nestled securely in the showroom. The salesfolk wouldn’t let me test drive it, but did sit in it for a good while, and the natural fit was amazing—I barely adjusted the seat and all the controls fell easily to hand. It fit me like a glove, and felt fantastic. I would have driven it home in a heartbeat if I had had the means.

Nissan Z32 300ZX 300Z Engine Motor VG30DETT

In terms of performance, I couldn’t (and can’t) fault it. The 3.0l, DOHC, twin-turbocharged VG30DETT engine pumped out 300 hp, propelling the 3350 lb car to 60 mph in around 5 seconds, and the passive 4-wheel steering system provided predictable and sticky handling.

But…one glance at the engine bay picture above will clue you into my primary gripe with the mechanicals and styling: The packaging.

Nissan Z32 300ZX 300Z Red Twin Turbo

There’s no doubt it’s an attractive and fast car. But in the process of achieving those peaks of performance and styling, Nissan decided to abandon the traditional long-nose short-deck sports car proportions in favor of a cab more centered in profile. In doing so, they not only bade sayonara to the classic Z silhouette, they were forced to cram even more mechanism (four overhead camshafts, two cylinder heads, two turbos, two intercoolers and all the associated piping) into a now-smaller engine bay. I can’t imagine changing the spark plugs or even doing an oil change on the VG30DETT—it’s a complete nightmare for a shadetree mechanic.

So while its lineage, looks and speed exhibit an undeniable pull, the abandonment of the beautiful Z sports car shape, coupled with the thought of owning a car I would dread working on spoil the party a bit. It’s a shame, really. There’s so much good in the Z32.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing various generations of Nissan’s celebrated Z-car series. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Datsun, Nissan, Thoughts On Z-Cars


  1. John D says:

    That is a beautiful example you have there in the pictures, but I was never really drawn to this particular car because I think most of the ones I saw seemed kind of beat and it became, in my mind, the white trash IROC-Z of the Japanese muscle cars. So while a clean example is much admired by yours truly, they are kind of difficult to find. Also, my only ride in one was after I had been driving the FD for a bit so the ZX didn’t seem particularly fast and just felt too heavy for my liking. And the interior styling was a bit dated. And yes, the engine bay made me want to run away screaming.

    I also assume they must have limited potential as they’ve never been very popular with track/autox enthusiasts (or am I missing something?). I know weight was a penalty and I’m guessing that the Supra is much easier to mod for big power, making the ZX a bit superfluous? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Matt says:

      I definitely see where you’re coming from, and share your assessment a degree. Several factors contributed to the Z32 being less well-regarded than its rivals:

      • Like the Z31, it was the first of the new generation on the market. The Z32 may have sold well as a result, but the FD and Supra in particular had a chance to see where the Z32 would end up, performance- and technology-wise, and leapfrog it in the subsequent years.
      • Where its rivals were offered in just two (or even one) flavors, the Z32 came in four: NA 2-seater, TT 2-seater, NA 4-seater and convertible. As a result, its image was broadened beyond “hardcore sports car” and watered down.
      • It actually wasn’t Nissan’s range-topping sports car—that would be the Skyline GT-R, even if it wasn’t available here. So the Z32, although very capable, didn’t receive the automaker’s “best.”

      As a track toy, compared to the FD or Supra, you’re right; they do have limited potential. The engine bay is a disaster, and the engine, while strong, needs upgraded internals above 400-500 rwhp or so. Interestingly, much like the later Audi B5 S4, which also has a cramped twin-turbo V6, the upgrade path seems to be very specific and happen in “stages,” meaning there isn’t as much room for creativity and/or uniqueness when building power. And yes, counterintuitively for a small-ish 2-seater, the Z32 is a heavy car.

      I should also point out the irony of FD fans like you and me harping on the Z32 for having a cramped, messy engine bay. :)

  2. joseph says:

    uhm, i beg to differ on some of these “facts” that you’ve stated. first yes, the z32 has a crammed engine bay. it is though not a huge burden to change plugs or the oil, all you need is a rachet and a nice need to remove the plenum! to change the oil? no biggie the oil filter is one of the easiest to get to ive ever seen on a car, truck, what have you. the engine internals dont have to be upgraded until around 600+. minded you have had a ecu remap tuning. if you really enjoy the 300zx z32 body style and feel but dont like the engine bay swap the vg30 and throw in a rb26 hahaha, you got your room and a fast reliable sports car. all while keeping a nissan engine.

    stock for stock a 300zx and a supra, fd will hang with eachother.. once upgraded, its all about how its built. the fd is a rotary its gonna handle alot more boost and and hit stupid hi rpms and weighs less. thats why id ssay put a rb26 in a 300zx itll be easier to “work” on and will throw out just as much power as either of them cars.

    hope this helps!>

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