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Z vs. Z

Flip on the TV these days and the odds are pretty good that you’re going to take a trip down memory lane with a show that encourages you to hearken back to the good old days.

The Speed Channel is rerunning NASCAR and F1 races from decades past, and automotive manufacturers have been getting lots of mileage out the word “retro” in their product releases.

Haven’t advances in automotive technology been significant enough that cars should stand on their own, to be regarded fondly from the future for what they have contributed today? Or have we come so far with cars that we need to wrap ourselves around to the past? Mazda was on to something in the early 1990s with the Miata, a car that followed the age-old recipe for a ragtop sports car. However, in recreating a traditional ragtop, Mazda gave it a distinctly modern flair.

Volkswagen fired the first overtly retro shot with the New Beetle, a car that has almost nothing in common with its predecessor except that very distinct, cute shape. Retro cues began to abound in cars: Chrysler offered the PT Cruiser, which does pretty well stylistically with a collection of nonspecific retro references. BMW’s MINI did an excellent job capturing both the look and the lightweight, nimble fun of the original Mini, but in all honesty, most of America doesn’t remember the old Mini.

Then we have Nissan. Datsun’s (now Nissan) Z cars were a fixture on the American automotive landscape from the 240Z’s 1969 debut through the final 300ZX imported for the 1996 model year.

Through several generations, the Z cars retained the same basic approach: a low-slung, stylish GT sports car with a six-banger up front driving the rear wheels. Nissan played with the formula a bit, exploring straight and V6 engine configurations, allowing the roof to come off in a T-top and, eventually, in a full convertible, and pressurizing the engine with both single and then twin turbochargers.

Suspensions became more sophisticated, carburetors gave way to computers, and power climbed from 150 horses in the 240Z to 300 in the last 300ZX Twin Turbo.

Early Z cars were affordable, starting with a sticker at $3526. But with each new generation and increase in complexity came a more substantial price tag. The final 300ZX cars sold north of $40,000 before Nissan pulled the plug on the Z’s North American market. A price tag of $40,000 is hard to call affordable, even accounting for inflation. Still, more than a million cars wearing the Z badge have been sold in America, making it the all-time best-selling sports car, according to Nissan.

Spicing Up the Image

Even though they have been without a halo car in the U.S. for a few years, Nissan has been in the news a great deal, thanks to the company’s reversal of fortunes. Because of Carlos Gohsn’s new business plan, Nissan has emerged from its late-’90s slump: New models are being released at a breakneck pace, and the company is beating its sales records quarterly. A new Z car was an integral part of Nissan’s plan; not taking advantage of the existing enthusiasm for the Z would have been foolish.

Sports cars have a way of spicing up a manufacturer’s image and creating loyal followers, and the first Zs sold like hot cakes, which is exactly the kind of thing Nissan would like to get retro about. In 1999, an early Z concept, with a long hood and many design cues taken from the 240Z, was shown in Detroit. A second version debuted in 2001, and later that year the production version of the new 350Z was unveiled. Has Nissan been able to recapture the spirit of the 240Z with the 350Z? Let’s find out.

240Z: The Original

Your average early-’70s sports car was direct and to the point. The rear drum brakes of the 240Z did not hamper braking too badly. The engine bay shows the straight six engine in plain view.

The Datsun 240Z wasn’t the first car of its kind on the planet, as it borrowed elements from other sports cars of the day. Look at the 240Z and you’ll see strong visual cues from cars such as the Jaguar XKE and Porsche 911. It’s worth mentioning that these are still considered among the most gorgeous shapes to ever to grace a road, so it’s not as though Nissan borrowed ideas from the wrong crowd.

The 240Z has an elegant shape, but with enough hard edges to distinguish it from the Jaguar, and a profile that is uniquely Z. The car’s SOHC straight six was nothing revolutionary, either, but the long engine fits nicely under the sensuous hood, displaces 2400cc (hence the 240 in the name), and generates 150 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 148 lb.-ft. of torque at 4400 rpm.

The first 240Z models weighed about 2300 pounds, meaning the great shape came with a favorable power-to-weight ratio. When these attributes were combined with a price that was half what the competition offered, Nissan had a smash hit—a modern sports car for the masses.

Datsun’s sports car may not have matched the finish of its upscale competitors, but Americans know a good deal, and nearly 10,000 240Zs were sold in the car’s first year in the U.S. Demand for the car was stellar, with dealer markups and waiting lists being the norm for early buyers, who happily paid and waited.

The 240Z proved it was a real sports car soon after its release, as John Morton piloted one to the SCCA’s 1970 C Production national championship. A second title followed in 1971, and Bob Sharp continued the tradition of 240Z C Production dominance in 1972 and 1973. Sales were phenomenal, and the 240Z laid the groundwork for the success of future Z cars.

Looking at a 240Z with a critical eye, one of the most striking things by today’s standards is the simplicity of its design. Open the forward-hinged hood and there’s a significant amount of space in the engine bay, especially considering the car’s narrow track. The brake master cylinder occupies the driver’s side firewall, and the battery is located on the passenger’s side, helping to minimize its weight impact. The engine sits centerlined in the bay and nestled against the firewall, with the two carbs and the headers jutting from the narrow block.

With the hood open, everything is within reach, inviting a tinkering hand to get dirty. It’s refreshing to see only paint on the underside of the hood, as there is no sound-dampening material to add weight on the nose and subtract from the inline six’s delicious noises. On the passenger side, a handy, detachable under-hood light is a welcome reminder that people used to be interested in seeing what was under the hood.

The car’s underbody doesn’t hide any fancy aerodynamic tricks or particularly tidy packaging, only a simple suspension that looks almost delicate. Still, it did a good job of keeping the tires on the ground, allowing the 240Z to generate cornering forces in the low- to mid-0.7g range on its original tires.

The front-to-rear balance is right where it belongs for a front-engine, rear-drive layout, making the car a joy to drive at the limit, thanks to the beauty of throttle-induced oversteer. MacPherson struts are coupled with lower lateral arms, compliance struts, coil springs, tube shock absorbers and an anti-roll bar at the front of the car, while the rear uses Chapman struts with lower A-arms, coil springs and tube shock absorbers.

Steering is rack-and-pinion, which provides a more direct feel than the recirculating-ball type common on other cars in the early ’70s.

Inside the 240Z, visibility is good to the front and sides and adequate to the rear. The driver sits fairly low and far back in the car, with that beautiful hood curving off to the nose. Immediately in front of the driver, set deep into the dash, are the tachometer and speedometer, both highly visible.

In the center of the dash, canted slightly toward the driver, three mini-gauge pods report fuel, oil, temperature, amperage and the time, all in white-on-black analog fashion. Basic heating/ventilation sliders and a radio occupy a common location high in the dash tower between the seats. The wheel is large and somewhat thin by today’s standards, and the shifter’s throws are long, but they get the job done and are performed with a great wooden shift knob. Another trick design cue is the location of the inside door handle—near the floor, where it makes perfect sense when you’re sitting low in a car.

On the road, the 240Z has no real tricks up its sleeve. It’s a perfectly honest driving experience. The car is simply too basic to mask anything, so you get all the noises and sensations a sports car should provide. The engine has a thick power band that pulls the light car with addictive ease, the car pitches with pedal and wheel inputs, and the grin on your face gets bigger the more you play.

By today’s standards, the 240Z’s clutch is heavy, while the gas pedal offers too little resistance. On the plus side, the gas pedal’s long travel gives great control over the available torque. The engine feels like a turbine, spooling up predictably and offering an excellent sensation of thrust.

On the road, the 240Z does not feel like a new car. There’s no power steering, so the steering feels heavy at low speeds. Compared to a new car, the controls seem almost delicate. This delicacy increases the sensation that the driver is a participant in the act of motoring, not simply driving a fast appliance.

The 240Z really shines at highway speeds, where the long legs of the straight six can catapult the car from 40 to 100 mph in a very linear, satisfying fashion.

The lack of power steering isn’t a problem at speed and actually shows off the beautiful balance of the car. The driver is almost sitting on the back axle, a position that is not commonly found in modern cars. Despite the rear drum brakes, the car stops beautifully, with a strong pedal and terrific feedback.

The car is a piece of cake to drive, and it even excels as a long-distance touring car, returning adequate fuel mileage and carrying a remarkable amount of stuff in its functional hatchback. The stock springs are fairly soft, which results in moderate body roll but a fantastic touring ride. (GRM’s own Joe Gearin drove his 1973 240Z from Denver to Daytona Beach a couple years back when he came to beg for a job, and he still praises the car’s performance on the long trip.)

In the early ’70s, most 240Zs tested in the seven- to eight-second range for zero-to-60 bursts and would trip the quarter mile in 16 or so seconds at 85 mph, give or take a mph or two. While these aren’t supercar numbers for 2004, remember that in the early ’70s, the Z was the only car in its price range to offer that kind of acceleration packaged with style, handling capability and good brakes.

In 1974, to mark an increase in engine displacement from 2.4 to 2.6 liters, the Z received its first name change, becoming the 260Z. Despite the bump in combustion volume, horsepower dropped to 139 in order to meet emissions regulations that were leeching the grunt out of almost every contemporary engine. (The 1973 switch from gross to net horsepower readings affected the quoted numbers, too.) In 1975, an increase in displacement to 2.8 liters and the addition of a Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system returned the horsepower rating to 149, just one shy of the original 240’s output.

With more impact-resistant bumpers—also government mandated—and a growing list of features and options, weight climbed steadily through the years. In 1977 the car received an overdrive five-speed transmission and horsepower jumped to 170. The last year of the original bodystyle would be 1978, and in 1979 the 280ZX debuted to record sales. By 1980, Nissan had sold 500,000 Z cars.

Retro Chic—and PR-Speak

A glance at any of Nissan’s literature on the new 350Z will reveal a number of words that aren’t, such as “Z-ness” and “Z DNA.” These words are used to imply that the engineers charged with creating the new Z car were able to, almost scientifically, build a car that captures the spirit (and, Nissan hopes, the success) of the earlier Zs.

It’s hard not to have an allergic reaction to some of this PR-speak, since it conjures up an image of a focus group sitting in front of a dry-erase board, blurting out responses to the question written in red at the top of the board, with double underlines: “What makes a Z car great?” Can a shifter be said to be oozing with “Z-ness”? We’d rather not think about it.

Fortunately, we care more about the cars Nissan builds than the brochures they publish, so let’s step out of the Wayback Machine and into the Z for the new millennium.

350Z: Design Cues Aplenty

The first thing you’re bound to notice about the 350Z is the styling, because it’s simply jam-packed with it. The 350Z has design cues from most of its predecessors, as well as a few of its own, such as the triangular lights at both ends, which are reminiscent of the Lexus SC430’s rear lamps, and the recurring theme of threes, evident in little accent marks inside and out.

The tires are pushed to the outside corners, giving the 350Z a very aggressive stance. Long, dark horizontal slats in the grille echo the 240Z, as does the rear hatch treatment. The roofline curves above the otherwise billet shape like a pompadour. Love it or hate it, the 350Z is not afraid to stand out in a crowd. Still, parked next to the time-tested shape of the 240Z, the 350Z seems a bit gimmicky.

Underhood, the 350Z is a dramatic departure from the 240Z’s inviting, accessible layout. The engine bay is tightly packed, and all that’s visible from above is plastic and aluminum, with a tidy and sturdily mounted adjustable strut-tower bar arcing over the engine. The brake cylinder and compact battery are in the same location as in the 240Z, but in the 350Z they are hidden under plastic covers. As with so many modern cars, design won the fight against accessibility underhood, which is disappointing in a sports car.

Put the 350Z on a lift, and an impressive display of engineering awaits. The car has a double-wishbone setup in the front, but the lower arms are handled independently. The end result is two separate lower pivot points. Subframes are used in both the front and the rear, to help isolate the dreaded NVH monsters from the driver (“Noise, Vibration and Harshness,” for those of you who haven’t been subjected to a sales pitch recently). Even the drive shaft is cool, made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. The underbody is actually the most interesting part of the car, since you can see what’s going on and appreciate the complexity and intended function.

Inside, the 350Z’s high beltline is terribly obvious, and the cockpit would be good for panicking the claustrophobic. Visibility out of the front is adequate, but good luck seeing cones over the 350Z’s high nose at an autocross. Rearward visibility is poor, partly because Nissan chose to emulate the form of the 240Z hatch (without considering the different driver position, it seems).

The seats, which are individually molded to suit the different needs of the passenger and driver, are very comfortable and provide great support against g-forces in all directions. The rear strut-tower bar is way too elaborate and large to be just a bar; it’s more like a great bridge that takes up half the useful space in the hatch. The car’s rigidity is remarkable, but the cost to usable space seems high.

The gauges recall those of the 240Z, but instead of two gauges in front of the steering wheel you get three, with a terrific center tach and flanking speedo and fuel/temp pods. Three more gauges occupy the same central position as in the 240Z, with oil and voltage meters joined by a multifunction LCD readout that has some amusing features. Our test car featured a tire-pressure readout (very cool, though only the front or rear can be displayed at one time), adjustable shift light (up to 8000 rpm, which seems optimistic), the instantaneous/average mileage and range programs that are now standard on many cars, a speedo (which disagreed slightly with the analog gauge) and a stopwatch.

The steering wheel, another heavy-on-style item, feels good regardless of how it looks and is complemented by a genuinely delightful shifter, one of the highlights of the interior in both looks and feel. Overall build quality seems adequate for the price range, but certain items seem frail, such as the sliding door over the center storage space (where the optional navigation system goes) that was already shuddering in its dance to lift and retract—this with about 10,000 miles on the car.

Driving the 350Z

Turn the key and the 350Z comes to life, although at idle there’s not much indication of anything at work. Only the shifter feels alive; the wheel displays no vibration, and engine sound is almost nonexistent. The clutch grabs readily, and under way, it’s hard not to appreciate the advances in engine technology from the first straight six to this performance-tuned VQ-spec mill. The gas pedal, which is electronic but offers excellent feel, is addictive in any gear and at any engine speed. Remarkable thrust is readily available above 2000 rpm all the way to redline, and 287 horsepower and 274 lb.-ft. of torque move the car with authority, despite our 350Z’s as-tested weight of 3273 pounds.

That’s pretty heavy for a sports car, and given the abundant use of weight-saving materials, it’s confusingly massive. We managed a best of 5.96 seconds in the scamper to 60 on a typically hot, humid Florida afternoon, with most runs around 6.1 seconds, even with two people in the car. Shift action is great just cruising around town, with very deliberate feedback as we rowed through the gears, but that same feedback hampers quick shifts, requiring a kind of tug-TUG to shift quickly.

The 350Z has a great engine, and the car’s sound was given as much attention as everything else. You don’t get much noise, just the exhaust notes Nissan wants you to hear at lower revs, accompanied by some intake noise at higher rpm.

The complex suspension does its job of keeping the car level under heaving braking, lateral g’s, and acceleration, with just enough pitch and roll to let you know what the car is doing. Steering inputs are executed the instant you make them, but the 350Z doesn’t throw much at you in the way of communication. The design team did a remarkable job of masking the weight and filtering the inputs coming to the driver down to just what they thought you wanted to feel. After a while you begin to wonder what you’re missing out on.

One bumpy stretch of Florida’s A1A caused the car to get into a bouncy pattern, but otherwise the 350Z makes every road surface feel smooth. The brakes, which are aided by Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist, have immense stopping power and are another highlight of the car. Short of dropping an anchor into the asphalt, it would be hard to imagine a more effictive braking system.

A Soul of Its Own?

In the end, the 350Z feels like a kind of synthetic driving experience. Knowing how much effort Nissan put into every aspect of this car, from the way it sounds to the old-Z elements it’s supposed to target and recreate, you wonder if any of the sensations you’re getting weren’t on a dry-erase board somewhere.

The 350Z is certainly quick, and is fairly inexpensive considering the performance and options, but in an attempt to emulate the soul of earlier Zs, Nissan may have missed the chance to create a car with a soul of its own. Side by side, the oldest and newest Z cars illustrate the advances that have been made in the past few decades, but the 240Z still gets our vote as the superior package, taken in the context of when it was created. While the 350Z will leave a 240Z in the dust performance-wise, the 240Z pilot will have a big, dusty grin.

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Comments

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bangorgreg
bangorgreg None
10/25/10 6:59 p.m.

Loved my 73 and wish that still had that red car!

reflexr
reflexr New Reader
2/17/11 11:05 a.m.

I had an Orange 73, it was a gem, injected 175 horse, 5 speed, 3.91 gears, urethane suspension(ahh the old P-S-T days), and KYBs. Loved it!

gearheartshirts
gearheartshirts Reader
7/27/11 10:17 a.m.

I'll be damned if this isn't perfect timing for this story to come up again... I just put a shirt like this on sale :) http://gearheadshirts.com/products/129225-z-car-generations-shirt

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