In many cases, if a current vehicle has a long history, it must walk the line between market relevance and honoring tradition. Vehicles like Fiat’s recently launched 124 Spider are carefully designed to evoke memories of a bygone era in which the original Italian roadster of the same name dominated market sales. Other cars, like the 2017 Nissan 370Z, borrow from the original but continue to evolve, garnering new fans but often stranding traditionalists along the way.
The Z’s history spans nearly five decades. Launched in the fall of 1969, the first-generation Datsun (as Nissan was once known in the U.S.) 240Z was introduced to the market and single-handedly established the Nissan brand in America. The 240Z combined superb performance and handling, excellent fuel economy and appealing comfort with sports-car curb appeal. Wise marketing and thoughtful production yielded an affordable vehicle that proved reliable in real-world operating conditions.
Thanks to Nissan’s commitment to building a world-class sports car, the 240Z proved to consumers that the Japanese manufacturer was ready for prime time.
First-Generation: 240Z, 260Z and 280Z
The Datsun 240Z debuted in 1970 as a two-passenger sports car. Powered by a 151-horsepower 2.4-liter inline six-cylinder engine and governed by a four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission, the original 240Z was a lightweight purpose-built sports car praised for its excellent driving dynamics and real-world usability. The 240Z featured a sports-car design with sheet metal that bore influences from Jaguar and Ferrari.
Two significant updates expanded the weight, engine size, horsepower and seating of the original Z.
The first took place in 1974, when emissions standards led to the creation of the transitional 260Z model. The 260Z featured a 2.6-liter version of the inline six-cylinder engine and introduced an additional 2+2 model that included a tiny rear seat.
The final refresh in 1975 bumped up engine displacement to 2.8 liters and added oversized bumpers to meet new federal safety standards. Known as the 280Z, this model also featured electronic fuel injection that allowed the sports car to meet rigid emission standards.
Second-Generation: 1979-1983 280ZX
Longer, heavier and more luxurious than its predecessor, the second-generation Z car was known as the 280ZX, and it arrived in 1979. The 280ZX was developed with an eye on fuel economy, safety, comfort and drivability. The exterior shared the basic lines and drivetrain of the first-generation Z, but not a single body panel from the original.
The 280ZX featured a plush interior, complete with overstuffed seats and abundant soft-touch surfaces. It was much quieter than its predecessor, since Nissan engineers had increased the car’s sound-deadening materials and added thicker carpeting. A T-top roof was introduced in 1980. The glass panels could easily be removed and stored in the rear hatch area for an open-air ride that didn’t compromise the vehicle’s rigidity.
In 1981, Nissan launched the 280ZX Turbo. The turbocharged version of Nissan’s 2.8-liter inline-six engine upped the car’s thrill quotient by improving acceleration.
Third-Generation: 1984-1989 300ZX
Initially, Nissan chose to badge cars with the Datsun name in the United States. By the early 1980s, Nissan began using both Nissan and Datsun nameplates on U.S.-spec vehicles, and the automaker deserted the Datsun name altogether in 1985.
The third-generation Z, called the 300ZX, was launched for the 1984 model year. Unlike the transition from the first to second generation, the 300ZX represented a definitive design change. With the 300ZX, Nissan had completed the vehicle’s transition from a true sports car to a softer grand tourer. The differences were much more than cosmetic.
Under the hood, Nissan installed an all-new 3.0-liter V6 engine. The normally aspirated version produced 160 horsepower, and a turbocharged version of the V6 created 200 horsepower. The new 300ZX was available with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Performance was good for the era. Straight-line acceleration, especially in turbocharged models, was decent, and while the 300ZX was heavy, driving dynamics were strong. Later models would see a modest increase in power and slight cosmetic upgrades.
Fourth-Generation: 1989-1996 300ZX
For many, Nissan’s second take on the 300ZX was the brand’s best effort at returning to the excitement and energy of the original 240Z. The fourth-generation Z appeared in 1989 and was powered by a 222-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine and five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed automatic was optional). It was available as a two-passenger coupe or a four-passenger 2+2 model. In 1993, Nissan added a convertible model, and it was the first Z to have a full retractable soft top. Enthusiasts would delight in the all-new twin-turbo intercooled version of the 3.0-liter V6 engine that produced 300 horsepower and 283 pound feet of torque.
Thanks to its modern design, creature comforts and incredible performance, the fourth-generation Z was loved by consumers and the media when it was initially on the market. Today, prices for clean used versions of this model have seen a resurgence. Unfortunately, Nissan added equipment to the Z that raised the base prices beyond what the market could handle, and the 1996 model was the last Z car before a seven-year hiatus.
The Z is Reborn: 2003-2008 350Z
In 2003, the Z returned to the market as Nissan introduced the 350Z. The excitement that surrounded the return of Nissan’s beloved sports car was palpable.
The 350Z was powered by a 287-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and a standard six-speed manual transmission. A five-speed automatic with overdrive was optional. Later versions of the V6 boosted output to 306 horsepower and 268 pound feet of torque. The lineup included a two-passenger coupe and a soft-top convertible, but four-passenger versions would not see the light of day. Trim levels included base, Enthusiast, Touring, Grand Touring and a sport-tuned Nismo model.
Today’s Z: 2009-Present 370Z
Nissan’s latest version of the Z, the 370Z, was launched for the 2009 model year. Nissan has taken styling cues from the original first-generation model, and the Z DNA can be seen more clearly and easily in the current Z than any model since the 280ZX in 1983.
The 370Z is available as a two-passenger coupe or a soft-top roadster, and coupes are sold in base, Sport, Sport Tech, Touring, Nismo and Nismo Tech trims. Soft-top convertible versions are limited to Base, Touring and Touring Sport. Powered by a normally aspirated 332-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 engine and six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmissions, the 370Z provides enough power for spirited daily driving. Driving dynamics are excellent. The steering is precise, braking is good and the suspension is firm but forgiving.
Although Nismo models see a modest bump in power, the Z’s power plant has started to seem a little anemic. Base versions of the pony cars from Ford and General Motors provide comparable performance numbers. Enthusiast models like the Ford Mustang GT350 and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 best the Z by 200 horsepower or more.
Still, the current Z shines in the area of value. With base prices starting just under $30,000, the 370Z is one of the most affordable sports cars with more than 300 horsepower. Base models come nicely equipped, while higher trims add features, but also raise sticker prices significantly.
Most experts predict a new Z is on the horizon, but Nissan has given little evidence to corroborate any claims. The recent announcement of a 2018 Nissan 370Z Heritage Edition proves we won’t see anything truly new until at least the 2019 model year.