Face Off--Nissan Z-Cars
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 Vizu.com has ceased operations.]
First Generation--Datsun 240Z, 260Z, 280Z
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Datsun 280ZX
- Nissan 350Z
- Datsun 240Z
- Nissan 300ZX Turbo
- Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
- Nissan 370Z
Price no Object
- Datsun 240Z
- Nissan 350Z
- Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
- Datsun 280ZX
- Nissan 300ZX Turbo
- 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.