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Face Off--Nissan Z-Cars

Most peope should be familiar with the idea behind a traditional (or horizontal) wine tasting. Essentially, a tasting is meant to give the taster a sampling of comparable wines or high-end beers--for example, California chardonnays or Russian Imperial Stouts--to help illustrate the impact of different ingredients, different soil, different techniques, and the like. Or at least that's meant to be the point; I was raised on a steady diet of car magazine comparison tests, so I usually just try to figure out which I like best.

However, I'm guessing the idea of a vertical tasting might be a little more foreign--it certainly was to me until a few months ago. Vertical tastings give the taster a sampling of different vintages of the same wine or beer, with the goal of comparing those vintages and learning how that beverage ages. The idea is to compare the 1969 Dom Perignon with the 1988 Dom; or, to get a little closer to my price range, comparing a six-month-old box of Franzia to Franzia purchased right off the supermarket shelf.

If our regular face-off features are traditional, horizontal comparisons between direct competitors, today's head-to-head is decidedly vertical in nature. Rather than pit a given Nissan Z-car against the Toyota Supra, Chevrolet Corvette, and Porsche 911 against which it competed, I'm pitting the various Z-car generations against each other and challenging you to pick your favorite. This removes brand loyalty from the equation and poses a completely different question--what do you value in a sports car? Do you prefer the classic, timeless simplicity of the older vintage, the more robust capability of the modern editions, or the character of the cars that came in between? Feel free to vote using your own criteria and explain those criteria in the comments section.

My commentary on the various Z-car vintages can be found after the poll and the jump.

[The poll widget is no longer available because has ceased operations.]

First Generation--Datsun 240Z, 260Z, 280Z
1969_Datsun_240Z The original Datsun 240Z is one of the all-time sports car classics. When it was introduced in 1970, it raised eyebrows with its combination of sleek styling and strong performance--and it soon went on to a distinguished racing career. All of this broke new ground for Japanese cars. To quote from our earlier post onthe 240Z:

"The 240Z changed all of that and ushered in a decade in which the Japanese were to emerge as force with which to be reckoned.With its long, sinuous lines, silky 2.4-liter inline six, fully independent suspension, front disc brakes, and lightweight two-seat hatchback body, the 240Z was a serious sports car that looked and performed like a 7/8-scale Jaguar E-Type at a fraction of the price and with superior reliability. Or, alternatively, the 240Z was as pretty and advanced as the Toyota 2000GT but was actually available to the public at large.

"Gorgeous, quick, genuinely innovative, and relatively inexpensive, the 240Z was an immediate hit, quickly becoming one of the best-selling sports cars in history--a sales success that would continue even as the Z-cars became steadily bigger, heavier, and softer through the late 1970s and early 1980s. ...

"The 240Z was such agreat design that it still holds up today. It still looks great, and 8.0-second performance from 0-60 and mid-20s fuel mileage is a combination that makes a well-maintained 240Z a viable daily driver even today, nearly four decades after its introduction. It remains such an icon that Nissan very publicly began selling restored 240Zs out of dealerships in 1998."

As we mentioned in that blurb, the 240Z did slowly move away from its light, minimalist two-seat sports car origins. The 260Z and 280Z editions brought larger engines--though, thanks to increased regulatatory pressures, that didn't always translate to more performance--and vestigial rear seats appeared in the longer 2+2 models. These concessions to utility presaged a move towards a grand-touring focus that would emerge in the second generation.

Datsun_280_zx_gold_black_1982-1 Second Generation--Datsun 280ZX &280ZX Turbo
To the second generation, Datusn added an "X" to the name, subtly massaged the classic styling, and added an emphasis on comfort and image that annoyed many fans of the iconic original. But while it's tempting to dismiss the second-generation Z as a fat, soft poseur (an impression Datsun played up at the time in ads like the Black Gold commercial), it would be wrong to do so. The 280ZX was a less precise driving object than its predecessor, but the market had shifted along with the 280ZX; particularly in its Turbo guise, the second-generation Z-car was still a very attractive and capable performer for its time

The sprinter may have added a few pounds of fat, but there was some added muscle as well.

300zx Third Generation--Nissan 300ZX Turbo

Perhaps its inevitable that this car would be widely panned by Z-car purists. For one thing, it represented a clean-sheet-of-paper break with its predecessors, with a new name, completely new styling, and a new V-6 to replace the old Z's inline six. The 300ZX also continued the 280ZX's move into luxury and creature comforts. The 300ZX sported flashy digital instrumentation and a posh interior, at the cost of a porcine 3,200-pound curb weight and floppy, imprecise handling.

In a 1985 Car and Driver comparison test, a naturally aspirated 300ZX outweighed the lightest-in-test Audi Coupe GT by a stunning 720 pounds, completely canceling out its 50-horsepower power advantage. With its emphasis on glitz over dynamic perfection, the 300ZX had clearly broken with the 240Z's single-minded sports-car foundation.

Despite all that, though, I really like the 300ZX. For one thing, I think the 300ZX is a really nice-looking car, with a wedgy fastback profile that has aged very nicely. I'm also of the opinion that there's nothing particularly wrong with a fast, comfortable, heavy cruiser. Many compelling cars have been made in that mold--the Porsche 928 and Jaguar XJ-S among them--and while the 300ZX Turbo wasn't in their class, it was also much less expensive. I'm not going to write the 300ZX off simply because it wasn't a pure sports car; there are plenty of lust-worthy cars that don't completely fit that mold.

The 300ZX's powertrain was also world-class for its time. The gearbox was smooth and crisp, and the new VG V-6 married to that gearbox was fantastic. The third-gen Z-car carried the first iteration of the engine that would crank out large horsepower in the fourth-generation 300ZX, and that provided smooth, torquey power for an entire generation of Nissan vehicles. It's the engine that helped justify the 1991 Nissan Maxima's "Four Door Sports Car" claim, and it even served admirably in Nissan's pickup trucks and Pathfinder SUVs. The VG V-6 was a class-leading V-6 until it was finally retired in 2004, and it's one of my favorite V-6s of all time.

I'm also fond of this car because it served as the ostensible foundation of one of the all-time great prototype sports car racers of all time, the IMSA Nissan GTP-ZX Turbo. None of the IMSA GTP cars were particularly similar to their production-car counterparts, but in the case of the GTP-ZX at least the race car's engine block and head castings were shared with the production engine.

Boulevardier reputation or not, I'd happily own a 300ZX of this vintage.

1990_300ZX Fourth Generation--Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
Most Z-car fanatics seem to see this as the Z-car that got things back on track. When it debuted in 1990, the totally redesigned fourth-gen 300ZX earned a flurry of magazine awards and a groundswell of popular acclaim. Most seemed to like its aggressively rounded lines (an opinion I didn't share), and the combination of more power and vastly improved handling transformed the 300ZX from cruiser to killer.

Wait, did I say "more power?" What I meant was way more power. Wit hthe help of an additional overhead camshaft, the naturally aspirated V-6 jumped from the 160-horsepower range to an impressive 222 horses. The turbo edition, though, was a complete revelation. The single-turbo SOHC V-6 had put out 205 horsepower in the previous-gen 300ZX; the new twin-turbo DOHC V-6 cranked out an even 300 horses, eye-popping output for 1990 and healthy even to today's horsepower-jaded eyes.

The result was a Z-car that married world-class driving dynamics with a tidal wave of horsepower--once again, the Z could run with and beat Ferraris, Porsches, and Corvettes. Following its own revamp in 1984, the Corvette had disdainfully left the third-gen 300ZX in the dust, but the new 300ZX made up the ground and then some. The 300ZX Twin Turbo could accelerate as quickly as the burly Corvette, and its overall sophistication and livability consistently gave it the edge in comparison tests--a fact that I found incredibly annoying during my early-teenage Corvette apologist stage.

Perhaps inspired by the 300ZX's revitalization, Mazda and Toyota followed Nissan's lead in the 1990s and got serious about their own languishing sports car lines. By the mid-1990s, the new 300ZX had been joined by a new RX-7 Turbo and Supra Turbo, both of which had been revamped into impressive performers. Unfortunately, this promising crop was wiped out by a worldwide drop in demand for sports cars. The 300ZX was last available in the United States in 1996, and the RX-7 and Supra were gone soon after.

350z Fifth Generation--Nissan 350Z
The preponderance of older cars in Car Lust might lead one to think that I don't like new cars. That couldn't be farther from the truth. For the most part, I love today's cars. I don't necessarily have the emotional connection with them that I do with the older cars, and there are some things like light weight, simplicity, and angular styling that I miss from older cars. But, generally speaking, I firmly believe that we're living in a golden age of interesting, high-performance cars.

The Nissan 350Z is, in my mind, one of the great cars produced during that golden age. When Nissan debuted its 350Z in 2002, the idea was that it would resurrect the original 240Z's sports-car spirit without slavishly reproducing every detail. I love that approach; and in fact I've called for the Corvette to be reimagined in just that way.

The 350Z was fairly comfortable, but it wasn't a grand tourer; it was powerful, but it wasn't turbocharged; and it was attractive in a completely fresh and underivative way. It was a brand new design, not a hideous retro-homage to the 240Z. I admire the bravery of that approach.

I had a 350Z Roadster as a test car for a week in 2005 and fell completely in love with it. It was everything a modern sports car should be, fast, fun, and highly satisfying. It also has a special place in my heart as the car I drove on a beautiful Seattle summer day, with the top down, to my very first job interview at Amazon.

370z Sixth Generation--Nissan 370Z
The Nissan 370Z is the newest, freshest Z-car, and as such there's a ton of great resources on the web that describe what it is and what it can do. To sum it up, the 370Z has more power, a stiffer frame, is made from lighter materials, and is comprehensively faster than its 350Z predecessors. more speeds in itstransmission, is stiffer, and is comprehensively faster than the 350Z. So, there you go.

My only issue with the 370Z is that I don't like the way it looks. To my eyes, it looks like the clean 350Z design has been stretched and cluttered with unnecessary character lines. I look at the 370Z as a cluttered evolution of the clean 350Z in the same way that I think the 280ZX slightly cluttered up the 240Z.

My Vote
I ultimately built two lists, one with the likely price of acquisition considered, and one that weighs the vehicles themselves without considering cost.

Price an Object

  1. Datsun 280ZX
  2. Nissan 350Z
  3. Datsun 240Z
  4. Nissan 300ZX Turbo
  5. Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
  6. Nissan 370Z

Price no Object

  1. Datsun 240Z
  2. Nissan 350Z
  3. Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
  4. Datsun 280ZX
  5. Nissan 300ZX Turbo
  6. Nissan 370Z

Yeah, that's right--even with price no object, I'm ranking the 370Z last. That's partially because I have little interest in owning a car that I don't like to look at, and partially because I like even the softer Z-cars more than one might reasonably expect. Give me a year or two to get used to the 370Z, and it might move up the rankings a bit.

--Chris H.




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My first choice would be a 240Z followed by a 280ZX and a 370Z. The 300ZX is an unattractive lump (the second generation more so than the first), as is the 350ZX, but its twin turbo motor would fit nicely in another car. The S30 is the lightest even with an underpowered L28 motor, but you can't beat it on looks.


I knew I should have used that Preview button...

There will always be a place in my heart for the 4th generation Z, for it was what I drove the night I became a Parking Lot God.

The date: March 29, 1990.
The venue: Nassau Coliseum.
The event: The Grateful Dead, with Branford Marsalis sitting in.

At show's end, still thrumming from the astonishing second set, we serpentined our way across the parking lot. The medium blue metallic 300ZX, not yet a common sight, was parked between a camper van and a newish Town Car. We got in, I fired it up, and eased slowly into the crowd-and-car packed aisle. And, as if Charleton Heston himself had raised his staff to the heavens, the crowd parted. I piloted the Z, as through an empty lot, straight to the exit, and arrived at our group's rendezvous -- a Cajun restaurant renowned for its Sazaracs -- a full 15 minutes before anyone else. That night I asked to be addressed as "O Parking Lot God." Everyone agreed to do so, but only for one night. But I still think of myself in those terms, except when I can't find my car.

That car had, and still has, some serious mojo. Replace the covered sealed beams with flush lights and, 20 years on, it would still look contemporary. It would be on my "someday" list but for the fact that I can no longer bend low enough to get in and out of one.

Is "the jump" supposed to be a cut of some kind? Because it didn't work. This huge marathon of a post is fully exposed. :\

I did come across a nice-looking 240Z for sale in Miami for $3000. For that kind of money (if I had it), I'd fly down there and drive it back.

The modern 350Z/370Z stubbornly fail to move me. They're perfectly competent and reasonable priced, all things considered, but the 350Z feels like an overweight knockoff of the Audi TT, with fussy details and a visual bulk that I don't like. The 370Z is an improvement -- it's gimmicky, but it adds some visual tension that the design desperately needed -- but I'd rather have its Infiniti G-Series cousin, which has slightly better proportions and a nicer interior.

I feel obliged to plug my history of the 240Z:

Dammit, it looks like I'm the only defender of the early-body 300ZX.

Yes, it isn't the best of the Zs, but it's still a Z, which is in fact AWESOME. It was the generation that opened up the doors to Z-dom and Datsun/Nissan-dom, with its semi-hidden-headlighs; low,low, wedgy profile and impressive styling cues. And being from the 80s doesn't harm either! And I'll take mine with fewer gadgetry, please.

Second: the 280ZX. I just like its coupe shape. Turbo/5-speed, please. Hold the gadgetry.

Third: the 300ZX, a beautiful car, though a little heavy. At least it got power to throw it around a corner.

Fourth: it would be an honor to own a 240Z, but it's doubtful. Besides I dunno if I could ever cut one up. Maybe as a weekend cruiser...

Fifth: I really like the 370Z, because it's lighter, powerful, slightly smaller and more aggressive looking. Hold the rev-synch, thingy, I work alone (at least, I want to learn to)

Last is the 350Z. It took me months for me to appreciate its looks. Yes it's more spacious for taller drivers, but I'd rather have the 370Z, which makes the 350Z look a little on the plain side. But it's not that I don't like it, it's just that it ain't my first (or second, or third...) choice.

S30 without doubt would have to be #1 on my list. Its what every Z enthusiast should aim for. Gorgeous on the eyes.

S130 apart from the hideous bumpers is a very nice car, My first car was a 82, and my current car now is a 79 slick top. Its like owning a S30 but without the price tag. Brings a smile to my face every time i see her.

Z31 my second car, She was a brilliant brilliant Z, Compared to any other car from mid 80s to even mid 90s with the flip up headlights the Z is the standout for me, While lowered it looks superb. She was a brilliant car until characteristically as most z31's appear to do, had a engine fire. Apart from that lol.

After i would list the z34,z33 and lastly z32. I'm really just not a fan of the more rounded shapes. I like the brutal wedges and hard angles. they may have a considerable amount more power and more luxuries but i just don't see them the same way as the first 3 generations of Z's, Same as Chris The cars that I have owned hold a lot more sentimental value to me. The s30 after owning my first 3 Z's is naturally my ultimate car. It's a Z enthusiasts thing, not many people understand.

If anyone hasn't discovered Ate Up With Motor yet, I highly recommend following that link. You won't be disappointed.

I'd recommend the winner of this round goes to the Nissan/Datsun face-off round 2, to challenge:
Datsun 510
Datsun B210
Nissan 200SX
Nissan Pulsar
Nissan Sentra SE-R
Nissan Skyline

I had an '83ZX with a rather conventional color scheme, silver with a black interior. It was the best car I've ever owned. 13 years and 325,000 highly molested miles it always took what I threw at it. Though a bit of a porker, it was highly entertaining to push hard.

I still miss that car.

In the 70s the most envied car in my small Nevada town was a 240 with 3 deuces. The car was beautiful and off the charts fast and this pimply high school freshman was eaten alive with envy. I still love the 240 and would put it at the top of the line. I own an 87 300zx with almost 190k miles. I still drive it out of town and get 27 MPG averaging over 70mph. I love the car. Plus all of the electronics work, which with that electronic dashboard is probably a rarity.

As someone who owns a 240Z & a 260Z, my choice is a S30. I would get a S130 only as a turbo with a 5 speed.

Today was the final day of the Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty 2010. Peter Brock (founder of Brock Racing Enterprises and a fantastic car designer) was grand marshall. Of course, there were plenty of Z cars, 510s, and roadsters on hand to rack and to show in order to mark Mr. Brock's success in SCCA racing with Datsun products.

If one of the writers of Car Lust wants to do a fantastic post, research the Mitty. It's a great mix of car show and historic racing.

I have an affection for the 2nd generation.
My Dad had a 79 in blue and grey, Turbo.
He also has a gold and black one of similar year. Also a turbo.

I think they were both automatic, but still a hoot.

I owned the original Z and would own another in an instant were it fully restored. Thanks for those pics...that original Z still wins in the looks dept. Loved it then. Love it now.

I learned how to drive (stick, no less) in my sister's 1985 300ZX, so I have a soft spot for the least-loved generation of Z-cars! =)

It was a 2-seater, white with red interior (looked like an autopsy) in a velour-like fabric. It had t-tops and the Digital Dash/Electronic Climate Control package, which was very entertaining to a 15yr old kid in 1989 although the the bright lights were distracting when I was behind the wheel! Coming out of the 80s and more than a decade of tragically-underpowered cars being called sports cars, the 160hp 3.0L V6 felt like a BEAST! And it sounded great, too!

Some day, I hope to buy a 1986 300ZX Turbo with low mileage and good, original condition! The 1986 models had a look of their own with a some exterior tweaks compared to the identical-looking '84-'85 models and the dull-as-dishwater looks of the '87! One of the most obvious visible changes for '86 are the new wheel designs, with the Turbo having a unique turbine design while the lesser models had unattractive alloys that I don't even know how to describe??? Still, I dream of owning an '86 Turbo, 5-speed manual and with all the oh-so-'80s digital and electronic gadgetry!

I sold my 73 240Z last year. It was needing restoration. I didn't have the time or the resources to restore it again(did once 20+ years ago). I've sold many cars that I've missed afterward but that is one I'd buy again. The only car with that distinction. Fast, light, good handling, moderately comfortable, easy to work on, surprisingly roomy(for a sports car) and good economy. At some point I will likely own another.

Thank you, highly used, cheaply repainted, almost-restored Nissan 240Z, for being there when I needed to borrow a friend's car to go on my first real date with the woman who became my wife almost a quarter of a century ago. It was magic.

Some guy was on the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" episode today trying to sell a 10th Anniversary 280ZX for some ridiculous amount of money... $16k or more. No sale. Not sure about a 10th Anniversary, but nice ones around here go for $5k, tops.

240/260 Z's only ones worth mentioning!
280 on, just lead sleds caught in J. Carters years of angst!
Moving on to 21st Century Nissans: why would anybody want a Madison Ave. created "Z" when they build the "GTR"?
Oh, wait! These are the "car lust" guys, including the "instadork",
who tho't an '80 something TransAm, 400hp.

Previous comment was edited by some unknown "dork"?
After '80 something TransAm, the comment read:
who tho't an '80 something 200hp TransAm was superior to an early 70's 400hp+ TransAm.

Mike, four things:
1. Nobody edited your comment. Even had we wanted to edit it, there's no way we could have done it that quickly, and we wouldn't have changed it to that.

2. No politics - and what would a 1996 300ZX Twin Turbo or a 2003 370Z have to do with Jimmy Carter anyway?

3. I'm guessing you're talking about this:

I love both cars. If I could only have one, I'd probably prefer the SD-455. It was the first Trans Am I reviewed on Car Lust, and to me it's still the quintessential T/A. What I actually said in the post was that the turbo Trans Am (another cool car) was faster. Not better. Not more awesome. Just faster, and that's not an opinion, it's factually true.

4. You were right about the dork thing, though. I'll wear that badge with pride.

My wife had two 240Zs when I met her and was an organizer of the Northern California Z Club. We later bought another Z in Germany from a serviceman who had taken it there. The 240Z was magic on the autobahns. But for real fun, we'd drive it along twisting mountain roads, feeling like James Bond. It held onto the road in curves like a dream.

The 240Z was, as mentioned, far different from the 260Z (most Z drivers considered it an underpowered failure) and the 280Z (with all the anti-smog stuff and ugly bumpers). The 240Z was just about the best performing sports car for the price that anyone was likely to get.

I had a 1975 280Z that I purchased used in 1983.It was dark silver with a black interior.I put chrome spoke wheels on it shortly after purchase with blackwall tires. It was simple and elegant in appearance and I still think that it was the most beautiful car I have ever owned ( too many to list .) I ended up leaving it, missing the wheels/tires and the new hood and front quarter panels I had put on it just a month prior to the electrical wiring harness burning out for the third time in 6 months, in the back lot of the local dealership that had installed the first two harnesses!!! However, when she was running right, she equalled any degree of fun I got out of driving anything including my one time owned '67 Hemi Cuda,'68 442 Cutlass, and a bud's '69 Vette...loved doing exit ramps above the posted speed limit for the highway I was getting on /off of!!! I would buy a restoration of a'75 280Z in a heartbeat ( especially that I am now in Fl and no longer need to worry about New England winters rotting off the subframe rails!)

Well, seeing as I just bought a new 370Z about two weeks ago, I'm incurably biased. This car is the greatest thing I've ever owned, and anyone who suggests its sublime beauty is inferior in any way to the 350Zs more mundane appearance should gouge their own eyes out in shame and banish themselves to forever walk the wilderness alone (you know who you's the only decent thing to do... Mr. Hafner)! And all who speak to the importance of performance in informing their choice should really take a new 370Z for a test drive and experience the new Z's performance first-hand before assuming there is a superior alternative on that list. I think my sales guy almost crapped himself in fear, but one drive was all it took to sell that car. My heart was racing, I started laughing out loud from sheer exhilaration, and I knew I just HAD to have one.

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