Nissan 350Z History

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As spectacular a sports car as Datsun's original 1970 240Z was, that it was a sports car hardly mattered at all. What did matter was that it was a Japanese vehicle that competed with the best of Europe and America in quality, performance and sheer sexiness and beat them — without sacrificing the keen pricing advantage that opened the door to Japanese imports in the first place. The 240Z was the Japanese car that was so desirable in so many ways that buyers would have happily paid more for it. It was a breakthrough for the entire Japanese automobile industry and suddenly buying Japanese didn't necessarily mean you'd made a compromise or settled for second best.

Over the next 26 years, Datsun became Nissan and the Z grew into the 260Z, 260Z 2+2, 280Z, 280Z 2+2, 280ZX, 280ZX 2+2, 280ZX Turbo, 300ZX, 300ZX 2+2, 300ZX Turbo and ultimately the 300ZX Twin Turbo. Then the Z car went away (from America at least). But it has since returned as the 350Z and the current 370Z, reborn with an infusion of the original's character even as its engine swelled to the greatest displacement yet.

Some of those successor Zs were just as purely sporting as the original 240Z, while others were barely more than disco-era Japanese versions of the Buick Regal. But they were always interesting…sometimes like a hurricane through a trailer park interesting, but interesting nonetheless.

First Generation (1970-1978): The Original Z

There was nothing startling or especially original about the 1970 Datsun 240Z two-seat coupe. The MacPherson strut front suspension was taken straight out of Datsun's 1800 sedan and the rear suspension was a "Chapman strut" design, which was basically a MacPherson strut system for the hind end. The engine was the 510 sedan's 1.6-liter, OHC four with two more cylinders grafted on to make a surprisingly lusty 2.4-liter SOHC straight six (the bore and stroke dimensions were unchanged from the 510) with dual SU-like carbs. It was backed by a familiar four-speed manual transmission. There were disc brakes in the front, but the rear still used ho-hum drums and the structure itself was an ordinary unibody with a 90.7-inch wheelbase. Even the styling was derivative with Ferrari GTO-like proportions and a Jaguar E-Type-inspired nose capped by a delicate bumper and framed by headlights recessed into ice scoop buckets mounted in the front fenders. The interior was clean with its high-back bucket seats and instrumentation deeply tunneled into the dash, but again no great shakes innovationwise.

Though it lacked originality, the 240Z was immensely attractive and, with 150 horsepower pushing just 2,320 pounds, decently quick for the era. Sports Car Graphic stirred the four forward gears of the first 240Z to go from zero to 60 mph in just 8.2 seconds and complete the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds at 86.5 mph. And it only cost $3,500 — a screaming bargain. "We think Datsun has a real winner," wrote Road & Track at the time, daring to state the incredibly obvious.

With sweet handling and an undeniable star presence, Datsun had no problem selling 16,215 Zs that first year. So for 1971, the company didn't mess with it, and sales more than doubled to 33,684 units. Again essentially unchanged for 1972, the 240Z saw its sales rise to 45,588. Changing practically nothing for 1973 resulted in another 46,282 Zs hitting this country's fair shores. But with new bumper regulations (and more weight) coming and emissions regulations threatening to strangle output, there would have to be some changes.

Changes arrived in the form of the 1974 260Z. The name was earned as the straight six was stroked to displace 2.6 liters while it still inhaled through two SU-style carburetors. "It's an updated version of the 240 that includes the required safety equipment," wrote Motor Trend, "yet continues the virtues of its forebear." But the extra displacement couldn't keep engine output from dropping to 139 horsepower with the new emissions equipment and the federally mandated 5-mph bumpers' weight helped push weight up to 2,580 pounds. So zero to 60 now took 9.9 seconds according to Motor Trend.

The 260Z coupe was now but one model in the Z family as a new 260Z 2+2 joined it in Datsun dealer showrooms. With a wheelbase 11.9 inches longer than the two-seater's, there was now room for a tiny rear seat under an awkwardly shaped roof. With a three-speed automatic transmission available as an option, the heavy and relatively slow 260Z 2+2 was hardly a sports car — and a harbinger of the direction the Z car's evolution would take.

The 260Z lasted just over one year, as the 280Z appeared late in 1975 with a new 2.8-liter version of the SOHC six now running with Bosch fuel injection. The extra displacement and fuel injection system bounced engine output up to 149 horsepower, but the two-seater now weighed 2,875 pounds and Road & Track could only manage a 9.4-second 0-to-60-mph time. Buyers still scooped up the Z, however, with almost 52,000 coupes and 2+2s getting to American buyers during '75. So Datsun didn't change anything for 1976 and sold nearly 60,000 of them over here.

A five-speed manual transmission finally replaced the four-speeder as standard equipment on the 1977 280Z, but the other changes were mostly cosmetic with phony hood vents replacing the access ports atop each fender. Those vents must have been enchanting since sales ripped past a combined 70,000 coupes and 2+2s for '77. Then, Datsun made an AM/FM radio standard for 1978 (with the price now at $7,968 for a coupe, a good radio should have been standard) and that was that for the original Z.

After nine years, the original Z had become an icon of '70s cool and sophistication. But would Datsun resist the disco era's influence and maintain the car's sporting roots? Or succumb to temptation and embrace the KC and the Sunshine Band generation?

First Generation (1970-1978): The Original Z

It's tough to say anything good about the 1979 280ZX or 280ZX 2+2. The new car was bigger, heavier, flabbier, gaudily decorated and less fun than the Z it replaced. In fact, it was in many ways a two-door version of the large, rear-drive 810 four-door sedan Datsun was then selling and shared its new trailing arm independent rear and MacPherson strut front suspension with that softly tuned car. About the only carryovers from the 280Z were the six-cylinder engine (now choked down to 135 horsepower) and its five-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmissions.

The 280ZX retained the basic proportions of the original Z but, in two-seat form, rode on a 91.3-inch wheelbase (1.1 inches longer than the original Z), was an inch longer overall and a full 3 inches wider. That resulted in a roomier interior that Datsun filled with all the stuff you'd expect in either a late-'70s luxury vehicle or CHP officer Frank Poncherello's bachelor pad. Still, at least at first glance, it was easy to mistake the new car for the old one.

Motor Trend tested a '79 2+2 and found, no surprise, that 135 horsepower and 2,915 pounds didn't make for scintillating acceleration. With the five-speed, the 2+2 took an awful 11.3 seconds to reach 60 mph and covered the quarter-mile in 18.0 seconds at 77.0 mph. The handling wasn't particularly sharp, either, but the wallowing ZX was a hit anyhow.

It's almost impossible to distinguish a 1980 280ZX from the previous year's edition except for the fact that the special "10th Anniversary" edition offered that year was awash in gold and black paint and the "T-top" removable roof panels were now on the options list. Sales remained strong and 71,533 ZXs were delivered to U.S. buyers during the '80 model year.

The 1981 280ZX Turbo did a lot to resurrect enthusiasm for Datsun's (in the process of becoming Nissan) "sports car." Offered only as a two-seat coupe, the Turbo had a Garrett compressor blowing 7.3 psi of boost into the 2.8-liter six to bring total output up to a respectable 180 horsepower. That dropped the 0-to-60-mph time into the low 7-second range and put quarter-mile times back into the 15s. The normally aspirated '81 ZX also got a slight increase in its compression ratio to bring its total output to 145 horsepower, thus improving its acceleration from crummy to almost passable.

For 1982 Dat… er, Nissan expanded availability of the turbo package to the 2+2 and now offered it with the terribly mismatched three-speed automatic transmission, too. There were also some tweaks to the bumper trim, the taillights were redesigned and power steering was now standard across the line. A total of 57,260 280ZX models of all sorts were sold in the U.S. during the '82 model year.

New wider tires, some tweaks to the upholstery and optional digital instruments were all that changed on the 1983 280ZX. It was the last year for this dreary generation and the last year the Datsun name would appear anywhere on a Z car.

Third Generation (1984-1989): The Wedge 300ZX and 300ZX Turbo

With the Nissan name now firmly in place, a new Z car took up residence in the former Datsun showrooms that clearly broke with the old Z styling and engineering themes. A new 3.0-liter SOHC V6 now filled the engine bay — an engine that made 160 horsepower normally aspirated and a full 200 when turbocharged. A five-speed manual transmission was standard with either motor, and a new four-speed automatic was optional with both.

The 1984 ZX's profile had a pronounced wedge shape with distinctive pop-up headlights that seemed to peep out from slots in the chiseled nose when they were down. The 300ZX had an almost antiseptically clean, even boring, design, though turbo models (all of which were two-seaters) had a distinctive scoop along the left side of their hoods. Optional "body sonic" seats (that vibrated to the music) marked the zenith of electronic excess.

While the engine was new, the chassis was similar to the 280ZX's with a too-soft trailing arm rear suspension, mushy MacPherson struts up front and the same 91.3 inches of wheelbase between them. This was a new car, but it was carrying forward the personal luxury example set by its immediate predecessor rather than reigniting the passion of the original Z. But it was popular with more than 70,000 ZXs being sold in America during '84.

T-top lovers burst out in joyous song with the announcement that these removable roof panels were standard on all 1985 300ZX models. Beyond that, however, the '85 carried over from '84 with changes.

The Turbo model lost its hood scoop and gained 16-inch wheels for 1986. Additionally, all models now had rocker panel flares, and there was a new base model that did without T-tops. In a comparison test against the '86 Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 Turbo and Dodge Conquest TSi, Motor Trend wrote, "In a four-car contest somebody has to finish 4th. The 300ZX Turbo has a mouthwatering engine, producing 200 smooth, effortless horsepower, but it is handicapped by its mediocre-at-best chassis…. The 300ZX suspension doesn't control pitch motion adequately, body roll is only slightly better and it's the combination of these motions that limits the car's handling performance. Even in steady-state cornering conditions like the skid pad, the 300ZX is almost 10-percent slower, at 0.80 g, than the others." Still, the '86 300ZX with its single turbo was decently quick, making the trip from zero to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds with the quarter-mile going by in 15.9 ticks for Motor Trend.

A soft-edged restyle in 1987 rounded the 300ZX's lines a bit, and a new turbo and other revisions added five horsepower to both the naturally aspirated and Turbo models for 1988. But as the 300ZX carried over virtually unchanged into 1989, it was obvious that it was a car whose time had come and gone — a 1970s idea executed with 1980s technology. And now it was the 1990s....

Fourth Generation (1990-1996): The Almost Exotic 300ZX and 300ZX Twin Turbo

Few cried as the third-generation Z car mercifully left production. But no one was quite prepared for the all-new, all-awesome 1990 300ZX and 300ZX Twin Turbo that succeeded it. Motor Trend awarded the 300ZX Twin Turbo its 1990 Import Car of the Year award, saying: "The 300ZX Turbo has abundant personality, alternately as docile as a well-mannered child and as aggressive as Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, dependent only on throttle position…. It offers the world-class performance of the Porsche 928 S4 and Chevrolet Corvette, but duplicates neither. It doesn't challenge drivers' ability with a hair-trigger, superstar temperament." In winning that title, Nissan's newest Z beat, among others, the then-new Lexus LS 400, Mazda Miata and Infiniti Q45.

The '90 300ZX was stunning; it was wide, squat and from every angle fascinating. The previous 300ZX looked soft and was soft, but this one looked tough and eager to dominate even in the longer 2+2 variant. The wheelbase now stretched to 97.0 inches on the two-seater and separated a supple and advanced suspension using multiple links and A-arms up front, and a multilink system in the rear that incorporated Nissan's "HICAS" (High Capacity Active Suspension) system. HICAS included some rear steering that depended on vehicle speed, steering angle and other parameters. This was easily the best-handling Z car yet and one of the world's great road cars at any price.

And it was fast. Normally aspirated 300ZX two-seaters and 2+2s were powered by a new 24-valve, DOHC, 3.0-liter V6 making 222 horsepower — that's 17 horsepower more than the '89 300ZX Turbo. The Twin Turbo used a pair of turbos blowing through twin intercoolers in a densely packed engine bay to make an astonishing 300 horsepower. Performance numbers varied from publication to publication, but most Twin Turbo Zs hit 60 mph in the low-to-mid-5-second range. It was, by far, the quickest Z car ever offered by the factory. Beyond that, it was the fastest car Motor Trend had ever piloted through its slalom course at that time.

If this generation 300ZX had an Achilles' heel, it was weight. The '90 Twin Turbo weighed an astonishing 3,474 pounds, which was a couple hundred pounds more than a Corvette, a couple hundred pounds more than the '89 300ZX Turbo and nearly 1,200 pounds more than the first 240Z. But this 300ZX was more comfortable than any 'Vette, much more aggressive than the '89 model and just as uncompromised a sports car as the 240Z. It was a remarkable achievement even if, at $33,000 for the Twin Turbo, it sure wasn't cheap.

No big changes were made to the 300ZX for 1991, though a new stripped-down model (no T-tops) was offered. A convertible version, powered by the naturally aspirated engine, joined the 300ZX lineup midway through the 1992 model year and featured an integrated roll bar. But apart from the introduction of the convertible, what was most remarkable about this generation of ZX was how little it changed. What few changes occurred for 1993 are barely worth mentioning, the big news for 1994 was the addition of front airbags and a keyless entry system, and both 1995 and 1996 were straight carryovers.

As wonderful as this car was, it was too expensive to sell in huge numbers (with the Twin Turbo costing nearly $45,000 by 1996) and almost ludicrously complex in Twin Turbo form. In a world increasingly obsessed with SUVs, the 300ZX seemed almost an anachronism. It was a shame that it was withdrawn from the American market after the '96 model year, but it was understandable, too.

Fifth Generation (2003-2009): The 350Z

After a six-year hiatus, the Z car returned with a vengeance in mid-2002 as a 2003 model . Harkening back to the original, the reinvented Z was available only as a two-seater and only with a naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine. But it was also a thoroughly modern car with its big wheels now pushed out to the corners, knife-edge headlamps, an aggressively hunkered down cockpit and a tapered tail.

Powering the 350Z was the "VQ35DE" 3.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V6 which, thanks to continuously variable valve timing and a relatively high (10.3:1) compression ratio, made a thick 287 horsepower at 6,200 rpm. In truth, though, there was nothing exotic about this engine, as other versions of the this V6 could be found under the hoods of Nissan's Altima and Maxima sedans, the Murano SUV, the Quest minivan and Infiniti's G35 sedan and coupe.

Moreover, the VQ35 lacked the characteristic smoothness of both the naturally aspirated and the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6s found in the 1990-'96 300ZX. However, behind the Z's six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission was a super-trick carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic driveshaft leading (except in the base model) to a limited-slip rear differential. Instrumented testing by Edmunds editors yielded an impressive 5.6-second 0-to-60-mph run and a 14.2-second quarter-mile at 99.7 mph from the six-speed model.

The 350Z's structure was, like every previous Z car's, a unibody design, and the suspension design was similar in concept to the previous 300ZX. But whereas previous Z cars were built on dedicated sports-car platforms, Nissan placed the 350Z FM platform, which the company also used for other cars like the Infiniti G35. Unique to the 350Z were strut tower braces spanning both the engine bay and the rear cargo area. These reinforcements made the suspension more secure and stiffened the entire structure, but the rear one severely limited cargo capacity.

With the engine's centerline located behind the front axle line for better weight distribution across a relatively long 104.3-inch wheelbase, the 350Z's handling balance was excellent. And best of all, the 2003 350Z's price was a downright cheap $26,269 for the base model. Reviving the 240Z's value heritage was certainly a good idea.

Our editors were enthusiastic about the 350Z even if we found the car's five trim levels — from base to hard-edged and big-braked "Track" model — a bit dizzying. "The six-speed's shifter has short throws and precise gates," wrote Brent Romans, "and the automatic can pop off impressively fast upshifts…. It's an easy car to get acclimated to and drive fast." For braking, the 350Z boasted ABS- and EBD-equipped vented discs at each corner. Track models had brakes designed by aftermarket brake specialist Brembo. These rotors were larger and thicker, with larger calipers to boot. On certain trim levels (including the Track), Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) stability control system was available."

In 2004 the company evoked the spirit of the departed 300ZX convertible with the introduction of the 350Z Roadster. 2005 saw the advent of rev-matched downshifts for the five-speed automatic, as well as a special 35th Anniversary edition that included 18-inch alloys, Brembo brakes, exterior styling enhancements, available two-tone leather seats and a slight bump in horsepower.

For 2006, a Grand Touring trim debuted with a luxurious interior, the Brembo brakes and RAYS super lightweight forged-alloy wheels. Additionally, manual-transmission cars were upgraded to an even 300 hp, non-Brembo brakes received larger rotors, a new vehicle speed-sensitive steering rack made its debut, 18-inch alloys became standard on base Zs, and there were minor styling tweaks inside and out.

For 2007, an HR ("High-Revving") version of the venerable VQ35 engine, rated at 306 hp and boasting an elevated 7,500-rpm redline, was standard on all models. Also, the Track model was discontinued in favor of the 350Z Nismo, which offered a race-prepped chassis and numerous aerodynamic upgrades. There were no notable changes to the 350Z after 2007, and the last year of production for the coupe was 2008, while the convertible soldiered on through 2009.

The 350Z's chapter in Z-car history is a significant one. It marked both a return to the original Z's goal of affordable performance and the beginning of modular platform construction for this formerly purpose-built sports car. The enlarged VQ-Series motor didn't make the sweet sounds of the previous 300ZX's 3.0-liter V6, and it failed to raise the performance bar relative to the 300ZX Twin Turbo, but it certainly helped to accomplish the 350Z's mission of providing impressive bang for the buck.

Sixth Generation (2009-Present): The 370Z

Picking up where the 350Z left off, the sixth-generation Z car is known as the 370Z due to its larger 3.7-liter V6, which is rated at a robust 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. For the reinvented Z's second go-round, a primary development goal was to reduce weight. Nissan cut 3.9 inches from the wheelbase and 2.2 inches from the overall length, a rare downsizing in this bigger-is-better era. The rear track, on the other hand, was made 2.2 inches wider for better roadholding. There's also a new front suspension cradle, a V-shape bar under the body and detailed structural enhancements to the rear of the car, which allow the 370Z to have both better handling and a more comfortable ride while trimming a respectable 100 pounds from its waistline.

The standard transmission is still a six-speed manual, but the shift action is much improved, and there's now an optional innovative SynchroRev Match system that actually matches revs for you, allowing you to downshift without worrying about blipping the throttle. The automatic transmission still matches revs on downshifts as well, but this time it's a seven-speed unit. The 370Z's exterior styling is somewhat controversial, melding retro styling cues like the C-pillar kink of the 240/260/280Z with Zorro-style jagged headlights, but it's certainly one of the most distinctive designs on the road. And the new Z's amazing performance allows enthusiasts to put to rest their lingering suspicion that the two-decade-old 300ZX Twin Turbo might be the best-performing Z car of all time.

Nissan's performance benchmark for the 370Z was the Porsche Cayman, and a glance at the track sheet shows that the new Z nails it. The 0-60-mph sprint is completed in 5.1 seconds, while the quarter-mile flashes by in 13.4 seconds at 104.6 mph. The Z also zips through our slalom cones at almost 70 mph, circles the skid pad at an eye-popping 0.97g and stops from 60 mph in just 101 feet. These are numbers that the Cayman S would be hard-pressed to match, let alone the base Cayman. Moreover, in keeping with the bang-for-the-buck emphasis that returned to the fore with the 350Z, the 370Z offers all this firepower for a base price of around $30,000.

Our editors are duly impressed by the 370Z's numbers, of course, but we also appreciate the car's improved ride quality and interior materials quality, both of which are night-and-day better than the 350Z's. Impact harshness has been dialed down considerably, and the almost Infiniti-grade cabin sits pretty with pervasive soft-touch compounds and faux-leather dash and panel trim. The seats are excellent, and most controls feel robust and fall readily to hand. If it weren't for the 370Z's vibrating shifter and pedals, intrusive road noise, and less-than-mellifluous engine note ("Loud, but not in a cool, sports car kind of way," our track driver opined), it would be a near-faultless execution of the affordable-sports-car concept.

At the end of the day, the 370Z delivers Porsche performance for Pontiac money, which brings the Z car full-circle to its 1970s roots. Expectations are higher today, but if you want two seats, head-turning style and lots of speed at a reasonable price, the sixth-generation Z is one of the best in the business.

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