The Nissan Z: History, Generations, Specifications
Nissan Z Essential History
Grab the popcorn and make sure the keg is full—a new (okay, radically revised) Nissan Z has been unveiled. What better time to revisit the previous generations of the Z?
First Generation (S30)
The decades-long Z Car legend starts with the original Datsun 240Z, which entered production in October 1969 as a 1970 model year vehicle. Produced as something of a response to Toyota’s 2000 GT sports car, the Yamaha proposal for which was passed over by Nissan before it became a Toyota project, the 240Z would ultimately be far more successful, with more than 160,000 of the two-door, two-seat, rear-drive sports cars sold in just four years of production in the United States. With a 151-hp 2.4-liter straight-six engine paired with a four-speed transmission, fully independent suspension, and an affordable $3,526 MSRP, the 240Z was seen as a performance bargain, with 0-to-60 mph times in the 8.0-second range and a 125-mph top speed.
The 240Z was sold in four unofficial series. Series 1 240Zs include the earliest cars built in late 1969 through mid-1971, identifiable by two ventilation grilles below the rear hatch and “240Z” badging on the C-pillar. These early cars are typically the most desirable to collectors, although the vents, removed from Series 2 cars, would allow exhaust fumes to enter the cabin when parked or at low speeds. Production of the 240Z ended in September 1973.
The 260Z launched for the 1974 model year to replace the 240Z, and as its name suggests, displacement from the straight-six was stroked to 2.6 liters. U.S. emissions regulations initially forced the automaker to detune the larger engine’s output to 140 hp, but by mid-1974 the full 165 hp that the 260Z made in the rest of the world was available to American buyers. The 260Z’s interior was significantly revised from the 240Z, the chassis was reinforced for greater rigidity, and a rear anti-roll bar was added as standard, while the four-speed manual transmission carried on, with an optional three-speed automatic available. From the outside, 260Zs were identifiable by larger bumpers, new taillights, and a new, longer-wheelbase 2+2 variant. While the 260Z was sold for several years in most markets, the U.S. had just a single year of production before moving on to the 280Z, which bumped engine displacement to 2.8 liters (and output to 170 hp) to help guard against ever-tightening emissions standards.
Other changes to the 280Z included a switch to Bosch electronic fuel injection (another emissions-friendly change) and new, heavy U.S.-spec 5-mph bumpers. Models from the 1977 model year were given the option of a new five-speed transmission, a space-saver rear tire, and a larger fuel tank, which cut into cargo space. The 280Z continued in both short- and long-wheelbase models into 1978. All told, by the time first-generation Z car production ended, Nissan and Datsun had sold over 520,000 examples worldwide.
Second Generation (S130)
An all-new 280ZX entered production for the 1979 model year with the revised purpose of being more of a grand touring car than a focused sports car. As such, the 280ZX was larger, more luxuriously appointed, and inherently heavier than the initial S30 cars that it replaced. The change in ethos must have been deemed a success at the time when we named the 280ZX our 1979 Import Car of the Year.
While the suspension was a similar MacPherson strut front, semi-trailing arm rear setup, tuning was optimized for comfort over road feel, but disc brakes were found at all four corners and aerodynamic studies had brought the 280ZX’s drag coefficient down significantly from the old platform. High-speed stability improved as well with a longer wheelbase for both two-seat and 2+2 models, but acceleration suffered. With just 135 horsepower now available from the 2.8-liter engine, taller gearing for fuel economy purposes, and more weight to carry around than ever before (nearly 3,000 pounds in 2+2 form), acceleration fell to sub-240Z levels. A T-top-style roof was also available for the first time and proved to be popular in the U.S.
In 1981 the 280ZX Turbo variant arrived to restore lost power—output from the 2.8-liter turbo was an impressive 180 hp and 203 lb-ft of torque. The rear suspension was revised to give sportier handling in the turbocharged model, and 1982 brought a mid-cycle refresh with a slightly more powerful naturally aspirated model and the first availability of an American Borg Warner five-speed manual transmission in the Turbo. Zero-to-60-mph acceleration for the 280ZX Turbo fell to 7.4 seconds, quick enough to embarrass many more expensive cars of the era. More changes also came to the Turbo’s suspension for 1982, which significantly tightened up the chassis with firmer suspension tuning. Production ended in 1983 with over 331,000 second-generation Z cars sold.
Third Generation (Z31)
The first 300ZX debuted as a 1984 model and was the first Z car to feature a Nissan/Datsun badge, as Nissan began to phase out its U.S.-specific Datsun branding, completed in 1985. Externally, the 300ZX continued its evolutionary aesthetic changes with a more squared-off, less curvaceous body style and the swapping of fixed lights to pop-up units that allowed a lower, more aerodynamic nose. Mechanically, the changes were more significant with a switch from a straight-six to a V-6 engine configuration for improved weight distribution and efficiency.
Like before, both two-seat and 2+2 configurations were available, the suspension was MacPherson strut front, semi-trailing arm rear, and two engines were available, both SOHC 3.0-liter V-6 units. A naturally aspirated version produced 165 hp, while the turbocharged engine made 200 horsepower. A five-speed manual or four-speed automatic were the two transmission options. Turbo models built in 1987 and onward finally received a limited-slip differential. Proving that Nissan had well and truly moved into the 1980s, a computerized vocal alert system was optional which warned the driver about issues like an open door or low fuel level. A 50th anniversary edition was launched in a two-tone silver and black color scheme for the first year of production with a digital-style dashboard that monitored lateral g-force among other things, along with adjustable dampers and unique leather seats. Some 329,900 third-generation Z cars were built globally by the time production ended in 1989.
Fourth Generation (Z32)
With the all-new Z32 300ZX for the 1990 model year came a renewed focus on Z car performance and the most remarkable styling transformation the model had yet seen. Wider and with a longer wheelbase yet again, the 1990 300ZX had slippery new bodywork with faired-in fixed headlights and a rakish, almost exotic appearance. Still, the 300ZX remained a two-seat or 2+2 coupe with a lift-up hatch for cargo storage and T-top roof, by then just about ubiquitous to the model.
Nissan continued with a 3.0-liter V-6 engine for the Z32 300ZX, but with dual-overhead cams, variable valve timing, and other improvements to coax an impressive 222 horsepower from the naturally aspirated version. Enthusiasts with larger wallets stepped up to the 300ZX twin-turbo, which as the name implies featured twin Garrett turbochargers for a whopping 300 horsepower in a model year when the base Chevy Corvette made 245 horsepower. Performance from the twin-turbo car was world class, with a 5.0-second 0-60-mph time and a 155-mph top speed. Handling was also praised, especially with the twin-turbo’s Super HICAS four-wheel steering.
Changes to the Z32 through the years in the U.S. were relatively small. For the 1993 model year a convertible was produced (only available with the naturally aspirated engine), the special titanium ignition keys Nissan produced were canceled by the end of 1994, and in 1996, the model’s final year in the U.S., variable valve timing was removed as it would no longer meet emissions requirements Stateside. Production in Japan continued until model year 2000, but sales were roughly half of the previous generation’s global tally at 164,170. This was largely because of the 300ZX’s steadily rising price that pushed the Nissan closer to market space dominated by prestige models like Chevy’s Corvette, Porsche’s 968, and even Acura’s NSX.
Fifth Generation (Z33)
For U.S. buyers, it would be six long years—including a three-year wait after seeing the 1999 Nissan 240Z concept at that year’s Detroit auto show—before a Z car hit our shores again. In late 2002, for the 2003 model year, the new Nissan 350Z revived Nissan enthusiasts with a car closer to the Z car’s roots. Styled by Nissan’s California-based design team and launched as a coupe, the 350Z used Nissan’s naturally aspirated 3.5-liter VQ-series V-6 engine producing 287 hp and a healthy 274 lb-ft of torque. Both six-speed manual and five-speed automatic transmission were available, and in 2004, a convertible variant made up for the lack of a T-top roof style. Five different trim levels were available including Base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring, and Track. The latter included such performance features as a limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes, an aerodynamic kit with front and rear spoilers, traction control, and 18-inch wheels.
In 2005, Nissan announced Track edition and new 35th Anniversary edition 350Zs with manual transmissions would receive an up-rated version of the existing VQ engine making 300 hp, but slightly less torque at 260 lb-ft. In 2006, all 350Zs were given a subtle facelift with new taillights and some interior changes, and in 2007 all 350Zs were given another revised engine (the VQ35HR), now with 306 hp, 268 lb-ft of torque, and a higher 7,500-rpm redline. This engine necessitated more space under the hood, resulting in a subtle bulge to clear the intake plenum. A Nismo 350Z was marketed in the final two years of production, 2007-2008. Far more than a sporty appearance package, Nismo editions were seam-welded for rigidity with Yamaha-tuned suspension, unique four-piston front, two-piston rear Brembo brakes, lightweight Rays forged wheels in staggered 18-inch front/19-inch rear sizing, and a special Nismo exhaust system. Some 1,607 Nismo 350Z models were produced for the North American market, a fraction of the nearly 150,000 350Zs sold in the region in total. Global production numbers are elusive.
Sixth Generation (Z34)
The sixth generation of the Z, the 370Z, began production in late 2008 as a 2009 model, and despite looking quite similar to its predecessor, an increase in lightweight materials and shorter, wider, and lower dimensions versus the previous Z33-series 350Z meant tangible changes behind the wheel. Nissan stuck by its VQ-series V-6, but increased capacity again to a naturally aspirated 3.7 liters good for 332 hp and 270 lb-ft, enough to drop 0-60-mph times into the 4.7-second range. Though redline remained at 7,500 rpm, the new engine did have one drawback: its notably coarser feel. Though Z cars from the late 1970s forward never had a reputation for light weight, the 3,300-pound 370Z was at least some 88 pounds lighter than a comparable 350Z, with a new front subframe, rear hatch, and doors made from aluminum.
A Nismo 370Z was quick to arrive in the summer of 2009, but without the seam-welded chassis that the Nismo 350Z boasted, likely due to the 370Z’s already inherent increase in structural rigidity. Still, engine output was bumped to 350 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque, while usual suspects like 19-inch Rays wheels, stiffer suspension components, larger brakes with four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers, and a front spoiler were included on the build sheet. Nissan’s SynchoRev Match manual transmission feature for automatically rev-matched downshifts also launched on this model before expanding to all manual-equipped 370Zs later.
A roofless Z car was again on offer when the 2010-2019 370Z Roadster and several special edition models came to America. A 370Z 40th Anniversary Edition arrived in 2010 with a 1,000-car production run commemorating the anniversary of the original 240Z. These cars were distinguished by a manual transmission, front and rear spoilers, sport brakes with red calipers, 19-inch Rays wheels, unique Graphite paint, and plenty of special badges. In 2019, a 50th Anniversary 370Z arrived with Rays wheels, Alcantara interior upholstery, and special graphics that harken back to the Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) 240Z race cars of the early 1970s.
Sixth Generation Part 2 (Z34)
Nissan finally retired the 370Z after more than a decade on the market. In its place comes the 2023 Z. That’s right Z, just Z. While it still rides on the same chassis as the old 370Z (and thus retains the Z34 internal code), the new Z packs fresh styling inspired by the designs of Zs past. It also packs a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 under its long 240Z-like hood. The 400-hp engine mates to either a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic transmission. Inside, the new Z welcomes modern technology such as a standard 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a standard 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, with a bigger 9.0-inch unit also available. Although the 2023 Nissan Z isn’t the all-new Z35 we hoped for, it appears to be a thorough enough upgrade to truly excite us.
Nissan Z Highlights
One of the rarest and most desirable production Z cars produced was never sold in the U.S. market. The JDM-only 1970-1973 Nissan Fairlady Z432 was essentially an uprated 240Z (called Fairlady Z in Japan) with the twin-cam 158-hp 2.0-liter straight-six engine from the Skyline 2000GT-R replacing the standard single-cam 2.4-liter six. The “432” designation stood for “four-valve, three-carburetor, two-camshaft” and the model boasted other uprated components like a five-speed manual gearbox, limited-slip differential, and lightweight magnesium wheels. Around 420 of these special cars were sold over four years at a cost double that of the standard Fairlady Z. Even rarer was the Fairlady Z432R, a motorsport special with a de-contented interior along with lighter doors, hood, and glass that saved over 200 pounds in total. Other changes included a 100-liter competition fuel tank and a few power-producing engine modifications. It’s thought that as few as 50 of these Z432R models were built, again for Japan only.
Nissan Z Buying Tips
With literally millions of Nissan and Datsun Z cars sold over the past 50 years, finding one for sale is not difficult in the least. What can be difficult is finding the right car for you. With such a large production range filled with various engines, transmissions, colors, special editions, and so on, finding the exact specification of Z car that you’re looking for in the right condition at the right price can take some time. While a buyer’s guide spanning all six generations is beyond our scope for this article, we can generalize by saying that first-generation 240Z models from 1970-1973 are generally considered to be among the most collectible and desirable, with fourth-generation 300ZX Twin Turbo models also finding strength in recent years. Second- and third-generation Z cars have the least number of collectors clamoring after them, while fifth-generation 350Z and sixth-generation 370Z models are still “just used cars,” with limited collector interest for now. Given that no generation of Z was immune from enthusiastic owners’ aftermarket upgrades, finding an all-original example of any used Z car is a rarity and usually will command a premium asking price.
Nissan Z Quick Facts
- First year of production: 1970
- Last year of production: Ongoing
- Total sold: Over 1.7 million (est)
- Original price (base, 1970): $3,526
- Characteristic feature: Nissan’s perennial sports car, the Z in all its iterations promised fun, reliability, and accessible performance for the masses.
Nissan Z FAQ
● How much is a Nissan Z?
We expect the 2023 Nissan Z to sticker for just under $40,000.
● Which Nissan Z is the best?
This will depend on who you ask. Many enthusiasts prefer the original Datsun 240Z, while the fourth-generation 300ZX Twin Turbo models have many fans as well.
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