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Posts filed under ‘Thoughts On Z-Cars’

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:

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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The 370Z

December 5, 2011 by Matt

Nissan 370Z Blue

I don’t want to like this one. It disrupts my narrative that the Z-car series has been going downhill since the introduction of the ’90-’96 Z32 300ZX. But so help me, I actually like the changes Nissan made over the outgoing 350Z. And if the 370Z could truly handle (and went on a diet), I’d think even more highly of it.

Nissan 370Z Blue

That said, I do—predictably—have some bones to pick with the styling. The biggest is simply the jarring awkwardness of the proportions. Nissan clearly attempted to reintroduce some early Z-car styling cues, notably the shape of the quarter lights and the long-nose fastback sports car shape. There’s just one issue with that approach: The 370Z is still obviously a mid-cab car, and no amount of line shifting will change that fact short of actually moving the cab rearward in the car’s profile. As it is, there’s an uncomfortable visual tension between what the car wants to be, and what it is.

Beyond the proportions, most of the details are well done. I don’t have a problem with the head- or taillight boomerang shape; it’s different but not overdone, and it works. The “teeth” in the grille are a bit much—a better way to differentiate the car’s grille from its predecessor’s rectangular shape would have been to alter the shape itself instead of adding doodads inside it. But now I’m splitting hairs.

Nissan 370Z Interior Inside Cockpit Gauges Dashboard

The 370Z’s interior is a welcome improvement over the 350Z’s stark cockpit, with colored inserts on the doors and a bit more shape to the dashboard. The jury’s still out on the SynchroRev Match automated rev-matching system offered with the 6-speed manual transmission. My first reaction is that it seems like it would detract from the satisfaction of driving a manual and acquiring the skill necessary to rev-match and heel-and-toe, but who knows; in practice it could be worthwhile, as long as it’s not too intrusive.

No, overall, I like the 370Z a good deal. Fix the proportion issues, shave 200+ lbs off the 3200 lb curb weight and add a suspension package and I’d be an even bigger fan.

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:

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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The Z31 300ZX

October 20, 2011 by Matt

Nissan Datsun Z31 300ZX 300-ZX Red

The third generation of Nissan’s Z-car, the ’84-’89 300ZX—known internally as the Z31—represented a departure from the 280ZX in many ways. It was really emblematic of the times. The styling is very, very ’80s (more so than many of its rivals like the RX-7 and Supra) and the engine philosophy was characteristic of the period as well.

Nissan Datsun Z31 300ZX 300-ZX Silver Grey Gray Back Tail Lights

Boxy and geometric, the Z31 eschewed the late-’70s baroque curves of its predecessor in favor of a more high-tech look. The “sleepy” headlight treatment drew some criticism for its seeming ambiguity—it was said the stylists couldn’t decide whether to retain the typical Z-car exposed headlights or bow to the flip-up fad of the period, so they compromised with a design that was neither here nor there. Because of the new, shorter V6 engine, the cab began its inexorable march forward in the car’s profile, dampening some of the classic long-nose / short-deck sports car shape. But as evidenced by the relatively long overhangs front and rear, the overall proportions were carried over, if uneasily married with the emerging angular themes. In short, the design looks very dated, but it’s not desperately unattractive.

Nissan Datsun Z31 300ZX 300-ZX Engine VG30ET Bay Turbo

The tuning methodology with the turbo engine, in contrast to some like Porsche who got it right almost from the beginning, was very “period” as well. Nissan had some racing experience with turbocharging, but certainly not as much as some of their competitors, and were constrained by mass market demands in ways more specialized automakers weren’t, factors which undoubtedly influenced their decision-making. The net result was that the turbocharged 3.0l SOHC V6 (a first for a production Japanese car) was “undertuned” as much as possible, the goal seemingly to be able to slap a “Turbo” badge on the Z31’s decklid with the minimum amount of actual investment. Compression remained relatively high for good off-boost response (8.3:1 for the later cars), the turbo was tiny compared to the engine’s displacement, maximum boost pressure was very low (only 4.5 psi again, for the later cars) and an intercooler was notably absent.

The net result of the design and engineering decisions was a car which beat its rivals to the marketplace—the RX-7 and Supra would take until ’87 to acquire turbos—but which was completely outclassed when they arrived. As mentioned, even in its day the styling dated rapidly, and by the end of its short 6-year model run in ’89, the Z31 300ZX was all but forgotten about in comparison tests and reviews. It was a shame, since the car was generally vice-free, but a longer gestation period and more foresight employed during its development would have served it even better.

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:

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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The 280ZX

October 3, 2011 by Matt

Nissan Datsun 280ZX S130

The true second generation of the Z-car, the ’79-’82 280ZX, doesn’t get much love. In fact, if we rank the enthusiast appeal of the various Z-car iterations, the 280ZX would likely place second-to-last, “surpassed” only by the even more disliked ’83-’89 300ZX.

It’s unfortunate, seeing as how most of the derision is reserved for the stock car, and in comparison to the original 240Z. When the 280ZX is given a few beneficial modifications and examined in isolation from the rest of the Z-car lineage, it shines brightly in its own right.

Briefly, then, let’s review the common criticisms:

  • It’s too heavy. Compared to the featherweight 240Z, yes, and perhaps for the era 2,800 lbs was a tad on the portly side, but today that’s the weight of your average econobox, and certainly lighter than succeeding generations of Z-cars.
  • Its suspension is too soft. Nissan switched from Chapman struts in the first-generation Z-car to semi-trailing arm rear suspension for 280ZX, and lowered the spring rates considerably for a more “cruiser-like” feel. Be that as it may, there’s nothing inherently disadvantageous about the suspension design itself, and it’s easily firmed up and transformed with a judicious selection of aftermarket springs and shocks.
  • Its engine’s power is pathetic. This criticism could have been leveled at just about any performance car to emerge from the mid/late ’70s, as automakers were finding their footing amid an avalanche of new emissions and safety regulations. But as with the suspension, the basic engine design is sound—the turbocharged L28ET was the internally-strongest L-series inline-6 made—and it responds very well to some basic tweaks, most notably the removal of emissions-control hardware:

Nissan Datsun 280ZX S130 Engine L28ET L28 Motor

Yes, that’s the stock engine bay. In fairness, most cars’ engine bays resembled snake pits of vacuum hoses until the mid-’80s or so, but the 280ZX’s first-generation fuel injection and emissions gear arguably take the prize for the most cluttered, especially compared to the beautifully unencumbered early 240Z bay. But the good news is twofold: As mentioned above, there’s a strong, responsive engine under all that mess, and in non-smog states and counties, if the inspector skips a visual check in the course of his annual once-over, the engine can be safely liberated from its vacuum hose shackles.

Nissan Datsun 280ZX S130 Interior Inside Cockpit

In its day, the 280ZX didn’t exactly win high marks for style, either, incessantly compared to the clean, seductive shape of the thin-bumpered 240Z. But again, when taken on its own merits, it’s actually a nicely-proportioned, handsome, classic long-nose short-deck sports car shape. The admittedly-dated interior is free from any experimental gadgetry that marred many of the car’s contemporaries, and like so much of the rest of the car, benefits significantly from minor tweaks like an updated steering wheel and shifter boot.

I’d like a 280ZX in my driveway. I just wouldn’t be able to leave it stock.

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:

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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The 350Z

September 18, 2011 by Matt

2003 Nissan 350Z

Few sports car dynasties have gone through as many changes as Nissan’s Z-cars. From the original 1970 240Z to the present-day 370Z, the design details, the engine and the chassis have all undergone a wholesale revolution, keeping the car competitive in its class while still attempting to maintain a link to its heritage.

As you might imagine, as a Z-car owner, I have a some opinions about the ’03-’09 350Z, the “reboot” of the Z-car concept after the previous generation’s departure from our shores in ’96. As with most re-imagingings, the 350Z retained some of its immediate predecessor’s styling cues, introduced some new ideas, and reached back to the original 240Z for certain elements.

2007 Nissan 350Z Rear

The most obvious carryover from the ’90-’96 300ZX, and the styling feature I have the biggest problem with, are the proportions. Instead of a more classic long-nose, short-deck distribution of visual masses in profile, the cab is intentionally pushed forward to sit more or less in the middle of the car. The designers’ goal may have been to try to define a sort of “center of mass” that the car would seem to rotate around, making it look more agile, but result is that the 350Z looks downright awkward from some angles—notably the rear 3/4 view—and every aftermarket styling scheme invariably adds a large rear wing in an attempt to get some “wedge” back in the car’s profile. Adopting a more traditional sports car shape would have solved the problems handily. I understand there were concerns the car would have been perceived as “too retro” or a shameless attempt to cash in on nostalgia (a la ’02-’05 T-bird, among others), but there’s a way to push the envelope stylistically and still keep the overall proportions that remain the key to a sports car’s curb appeal. The designers missed the mark on that one.

Nissan 350Z Interior Inside Cockpit

The links to the 240Z and completely new design elements I don’t really have a problem with. The grille opening, featureless interior door panels and triple gauges surmounting the center dash recall the original Z, while the door handles, headlights and taillights are the most prominent new features. Overall, they’re well done and contribute positively to the car’s look and feel. Well done there.

As for the engine and chassis, well, the car was exactly what it needed to be. It wasn’t as barnstormingly powerful as the twin-turbo 300ZX, but in the context it was introduced, it didn’t need to be. There was an opening for a simple, honest, straightforward 2-seat sports car with a modicum of extra power, and the 350Z fit the bill perfectly. It wasn’t as intentionally unconventional as its arch-rival the RX-8, and therein lay one of the keys to its success vis-a-vis the Mazda offering. Buyers didn’t have to educate themselves before a test drive; they arrived on the Nissan lot and saw a car that looked kind of cool. They sat in it, and instead of learning it had a Wankel rotary engine and suicide rear doors, they found two doors, two seats, a 6-speed and a totally normal 3.5l V6 under the hood. That kind of simplicity had its appeal, and was a major reason 350Z sales easily outpaced those of its major competitor throughout its model run.

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:

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