It’s been a tough few years for sports car fans. As the SUV craze continues to win over American buyers there have been fewer and fewer new options rolling into dealer showrooms — especially if you don’t have the cash for an exotic European import.
After an interminable wait, however, one familiar model is finally back in new form. Well, make that a somewhat retro form. And, yes, it’s simply going to be called the “Nissan Z,” despite long-standing rumors that the updated two-seater might be dubbed the 400Z, reflecting the output of its new, twin turbo 3.0-liter V-6.
There is no question that Nissan reached back into its past with the 2023 Z car, borrowing some of the most iconic details of models past. And there was plenty to draw from, starting with the original version launched 53 years ago as the Fairlady Z. Not exactly macho, the name actually came as a tribute to the Hollywood blockbuster of that era, “My Fair Lady.”
The name was mercifully shortened when it arrived in the U.S., and it quickly clicked with sports car fans. Worldwide, Nissan has sold 1.8 million during the last half century. But, with sales sliding, the automaker hemmed-and-hawed and took its time coming up with a replacement — indeed debating internally whether there would even be a next-generation Z car.
The final decision sees the 2023 model get not only more power and technology, but also moves the Z a bit upmarket. Its most direct competitor will be the Toyota Supra.
Is this the sixth-generation Z-car, as Nissan claims, or the seventh, as many in the media have been reporting, ever since the next-generation sports car made its debut last year? I’ll leave that for others to debate.
But I have to say that I came away impressed after spending a long morning driving the 2023 Nissan Z around Southeast Michigan. That included time challenging some of my favorite local roads through the appropriately named Hell, Michigan.
The new Z hews close to what Nissan designers call a “historic” shape. Like the Nissan Z Proto concept revealed nearly two years ago, there’s no way to ignore the familiar styling cues, starting with the long, sharp nose, sweeping roofline and short rear deck. But while the production car is instantly recognizable, it somehow avoids becoming a retro caricature.
The vehicle just getting ready to roll into showrooms has been under development for five years, an unusually long gestation. But Hiroshi Tamura, who oversaw product development, says designers at Nissan’s various global design studios worked up a full 414 different sketches, “five times more than normal,” before the final version was approved.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was learning that the new Z measures 5 inches longer than the outgoing sports car — though the wheelbase is the same as the outgoing 370Z.
In generations past, Nissan tried a number of different configurations with the Z and the added length might have tempted it to once again try a 2+2 layout. Wisely, it stuck with a classic two-seater.
For the moment, the 2023 Nissan Z will only be offered in classic coupe form. It pulled the plug on the 370Z Roadster in 2019. But there are some expectations a new droptop could be in the works.
In a number of instances, where Nissan designers aimed to give the new Z a classic touch, they introduced some very modern details. The semi-circular rings in the headlights — which harken back to the old Japanese market-only 240ZG — are now LED, for instance.
That balance of past and future can readily be seen in the cabin, starting with the new, reconfigurable 12.3-inch gauge cluster, as well as the decidedly modern touchscreen infotainment system. It proved reasonably easy to use, though I found the voice control technology misunderstanding a couple commands. I was pleased to see Nissan not go overboard on the tech touches. For one thing, there’s a knob for tuning and another three for the climate control system.
Leather upholstery and power-controlled seats are optional.
Another welcome feature picked up from the past: an optional 6-speed manual transmission. It’s an impressive short-throw gearbox that adds rev-matching on downshifts. The alternative is a 9-speed automatic.
There’s only one engine package, no surprise. But it’s a good choice on Nissan’s part: a 3.0-liter twin-turbo 6 driving the rear wheels that’s lifted, with only minor tweaks, right out of the Infiniti Q60 Red Sport 400. As noted, it pushes out 400 ponies and 350 pound-feet of torque. That’s 68 hp and 80 lb-ft more than the outgoing 370Z.
Among the key upgrades, Nissan had to develop a new cooling system, including a new radiator and intercooler, to handle the added stresses, along with a new method to coat the cylinders to reduce friction. The turbos, meanwhile, use new sensors to help spin them up faster.
Nissan could have made an even more aggressive choice, but it clearly intends to leave space between the new Z-car and its more extreme machine, the 565-hp GT-R.
Buyers can opt for a limited-slip differential on the Z Performance trim. It also adds upgraded brakes, 19-inch summer tires, and a sportier suspension tuning.
The twin digital screens are a welcome addition to the 2023 Nissan Z. The gauge cluster measures 12.3 inches. Buyers will have a choice of either an 8-inch touchscreen or, if they upgrade to navigation, a 9-inch display.
Satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard equipment, but you can also add a WiFi hotspot and a premium Bose sound system.
There is a long list of advanced driver assistance systems, as well, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, as well as blind-spot detection and backup auto braking.
I’d have loved to have gotten more time behind the wheel of the 2023 Nissan Z — which probably tells you a lot right there.
The new two-seater drives just like you’d expect of a Z. No, it’s not the fastest car out there. If you’re looking for pure performance you might want to start saving up for the GT-R. But raw numbers don’t always make for the best sports car. It’s all about how everything comes together. And here, the new Z just feels right.
The short-throw transmission made it great fun to row my own, especially when I got off the freeway. And the rev-matching on downshifts triggered the V-6 to let loose a delicious roar.
Steering is precise and predictable, you get plenty of road feel. More accurately, you feel directly connected with the road. And the suspension keeps you glued to the pavement, as I discovered on my excursion through Hell. The roads are a jumble of sweeping off-camber turns and torn-up asphalt, with the occasional straight allowing you to downshift and slam the throttle to the floor. Of course, you then have to put the brakes to the test as another corner appears.
I took it as a complement when a Nissan representative pointed out just how hot I got the brakes after handing back the keys to my metallic blue Z-car.
It has been a much-too-long wait for the sixth- (or seventh-?) generation Nissan Z. But, after spending a few hours flogging it hard, I came away with a smile on my face. I’ll be looking to get into another one soon — perhaps this time with an automatic gearbox to see how that shakes out.
The 2023 Nissan Z starts at $39,990 for the base car with either the 6-speed manual or 9-speed automatic. The Z Coupe Performance package comes in at $49,990. Nissan also has a Z Coupe Proto Spec Spec package for $52,990. But don’t expect to easily find one considering only 240 will be shipped to the U.S. Add $1,025 for delivery fees.
The new Z-car will reach U.S. showrooms this summer.