June 19, 2024

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2023 Nissan Z First Drive: Reinventing An Old-School Favorite

2023 Nissan Z First Drive: Reinventing An Old-School Favorite

2023 Nissan Z
The 2023 Nissan Z builds on the architecture of the old 370Z, but it wraps major tech updates and a big bump in power in a retro-modern form that touches on lots of classic Z tropes while looking muscular and contemporary. Alex Kwanten

Automakers are focused intently on SUVs and electrification this decade, and Nissan is no exception, as seen with the impending arrival of the Ariya EV. But the Japanese automaker still has room for an old-school, tire-smoking, manual-transmission hooligan sports car, and that’s exactly what the reinvented 2023 Nissan Z is.

Nissan invited me to sample the new Z on the road and racetrack in Las Vegas last month, and to get a firsthand account of how it was created from GT-R, NISMO and Z chief product planner Hiroshi Tamura. He’s a living legend, known to Gran Turismo gamer fans and classic Nissan Skyline junkies alike as “Mr. GT-R” for his longtime involvement with the Skyline, GT-R and Z lineups. 

That there would be another Z was no sure thing when Tamura, in March 2017, roped Nissan design boss Alfonso Albaisa into an internal campaign to redesign the car for a seventh generation. There was some corporate resistance, Tamura said at the drive event, as the Z is not a hugely profitable enterprise.

Sports cars don’t sell like they used to, and in 12 model years, the old, circa-2009 370Z did not sell as many copies as the ancient (Datsun) 280ZX did in 1979 alone. In 2021, the entire crop of such cars, from the humblest Mazda MX-5 Miata Sport to the AMG GT R, moved only 82,000 cars combined, according to data from Motor Intelligence. And that was up 14{7b5a5d0e414f5ae9befbbfe0565391237b22ed5a572478ce6579290fab1e7f91} over 2020.

2023 Nissan Z rear
The new Z is about five inches longer than its predecessor but no wider, though you’d never know from these muscular haunches. Alex Kwanten

But even if they don’t sell like they did when Donna Summer and Van Halen topped the charts, sports cars are still powerful symbols of a company’s talent and culture, with very passionate fanbases, points which all helped Tamura’s argument.

Because of its low volume and the economics of car building, Tamura and co. would have to use what they had on hand to remake the Z. Though only the most eagle-eyed Z fan would be able to tell at a casual glance, the new car builds on the bones of the old one and even retains its Z34 chassis code. But the transformation is profound, inside and out.

In the 2023 Z, Nissan has built a car for Z fans. Albaisa’s teams, after 414 sketches, created a retro-modern shape that draws inspiration from all the past Zs. The headlights and C-pillar Z badging are drawn from the original 240 (called the Fairlady Z in Japan), the taillights from 1989’s Z32 300ZX. It isn’t retro in the same way a VW New Beetle is, but it remixes the coolest elements of past Zs into a new whole.

Similarly, while it shares some of the 370Z’s bones, the changes under the skin are nearly as profound as those on the surface. Tamura says 80{7b5a5d0e414f5ae9befbbfe0565391237b22ed5a572478ce6579290fab1e7f91} of the car is new, even if some parts are only tweaked, and the difference is palpable behind the wheel.

2023 Nissan Z Badges
The little Z badges on the Z’ chunky C-pillar panel, and the accompanying splash of silver, are meant to recall the original 1970 240Z. Nine color combinations are available, six with black roof two-toning. Alex Kwanten

Building a Better Z

The 370Z built upon the earlier 350Z’s architecture, and the new Z repeats the pattern, but it doesn’t feel the same. The shell has been strengthened, and Nissan claims a 10.8{7b5a5d0e414f5ae9befbbfe0565391237b22ed5a572478ce6579290fab1e7f91} increase in torsional stiffness with only a 40-pound weight gain. Overall, the Z is about 150 pounds heavier and 5 inches longer than its predecessor model for model.

 This is the most powerful Z ever, driven by a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 (shared with the Infiniti Q60 Red Sport) belting out 400 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. All that power is channeled through a redesigned version of the 370Z’s six-speed manual or a new nine-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

There are two basic trims, Sport ($41,015 including a $1,025 destination fee) and Performance ($51,015), with important mechanical differences.

Sports make do with 18-inch rims shod in 245mm-wide rubber and cast-iron, 2-piston brake calipers. Performance models get 19-inch wheels with 255mm tires upfront and 275mm in back, but they also get larger brakes with aluminum 4-piston front calipers and a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSD). The Performance also gets SynchroRev Match on manuals and launch control on automatics.

2023 Nissan Z Proto Spec
The Z Proto Spec ($54,015 including destination) features special gold RAYS rims, yellow calipers and yellow interior accents to resemble the first prototype shown to the public, but is otherwise a regular Performance Z. Alex Kwanten

The Z on Road and Track

Such major mechanical upgrades make a material difference in how the Z drives, and I got to sample seven of them (and one 370Z) on road, track and a makeshift drag strip. The emphasis, Tamura says, is on fun, with outright performance dominance reserved for the semi-exotic GT-R.

He also suggests that some journos should lighten up about certain statistics. “What is the zero-to-60 time? What is the Nurburgring time? You’re welcome to ask, but we don’t know.” More important, he says, “Is how the ‘fair lady’ behaves as a dance partner.” 

While Tamura and Nissan won’t quote a zero-to-60 time, and we did not have the chance for an instrumented test, the low-to-mid four-second range seems accurate. That’s slower than the Toyota GR Supra or BMW M240i, but much faster than the Subaru BRZ/Toyota GR86, Miata or even some higher-buck four-bangers like the Porsche 718 Cayman. 

The Performance automatic will be the fastest, as the nine-speeder can shift faster than any human, and launch control helps you blast off the line perfectly every time. With traction control off it’ll still chirp the tires from first to second. The manual, with a new lightweight casing and changes to the shifter mechanism, feels smoother and more direct than before.

2023 Nissan Z taillights
The 2023 Z’s glassy taillights recall 1989’s Z32 300ZX, currently the darling of the Radwood set. The car has cues from every Z generation if you look hard enough, and Nissan queried clubs and owners alike during the design process. Alex Kwanten

Fatter front tires boast a 20{7b5a5d0e414f5ae9befbbfe0565391237b22ed5a572478ce6579290fab1e7f91} larger contact patch, the suspension geometry is changed considerably, and the monotube shock absorbers are new. So is the power steering system, which banishes the 370Z’s over-assisted feel in favor of much more direct feedback and better weighting. The Z’s brakes, returned to feel more like the GT-R’s, feel strong and direct, without much fade even on the track. 

The steering is precise, but even the lightest Z weighs a half-ton more than a Miata, 600 pounds more than a BRZ and 400 more than a base Cayman. It’s also a little more front-heavy, too. The Nissan is lots of fun to thrash, but definitely not as lithe as these others.

On the other hand, there’s a lot more power, though competition gets stiffer at the Performance’s price point. For maximum value, a 450-horsepower V8 Mustang costs less than the Z Sport and is faster and as capable on the track. That said, the Z’s playful personality offers plenty of fun per dollar and a taste of the “analog experience” many enthusiasts clamor for.

The Z has loads of grip. Its handling limits are high, but it trends a little towards understeer and will let you know when you’re pushing too hard. As Tamura suggested, it has good rhythm, nice moves and doesn’t leave you hanging. Unless you want it to break away. In that case, turn off traction control and you can pretend to be Keiichi Tsuchiya. (Don’t do this at your local Cars and Coffee meetup).

Grand Touring

All of the Z’s performance capability remains on the road, but the redesign has yielded other benefits that make it a better day-to-day experience than before and more pleasant companion than some other sports cars.

A frequent question with cars like this is, “Can I fit?” The 370Z was a roomy car for a two-seater, but the new Z is even better, ergonomically. There’s plenty of room for even a tall (think six-foot-four) driver to sit comfortably all day or don a full helmet on a track day. That isn’t possible in a Miata RF or Jaguar F-Type. 

The seats are supportive and comfortable without being too aggressively bolstered. They were grippy on the track, but also relaxing and comfortable in regular street driving. The steering wheel telescopes now, which makes finding a comfortable position, and one for better control, easier. A new steering wheel, patterned on the one in Tamura’s personal 1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R, feels just about perfect in your hands.

Luggage space is no better than before, but the Z fits enough gear for a long weekend for two.

2023 Nissan Z Interior
The view from behind the wheel at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Alex Kwanten

The old car’s primitive infotainment system and dated instrument panel, which looked ripped from a 2003 Murano, are long gone, banished in favor of modern touchscreens and a pretty digital instrument display. Sports gets an 8-inch screen, Performance models a 9-inch unit, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard if you don’t like Nissan’s interface. The digital display is full of crisp animations and comes with full instrumentation, including an oil temp gauge.

You can still see elements of the old car inside, like the big brace between the rear wheels and certain plastic bits, but the cabin is vastly improved.

For the first time there are active safety features. Sports car people may feign disinterest, but in a low-slung car with poor rear visibility, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts are useful. So are automatic emergency braking and intelligent cruise control. Both are even included on manual Zs, which isn’t true of some rivals.

2023 Nissan Z digital drivers display
2023 Nissan Z infotainment screen
2023 Nissan Z interior
The Z’s interior is comfortable, modern and colorful. There are some bits that might look familiar, but they’re generally not things that needed changing or which are directly in the drivers’ line of sight. Nissan

When Can I Get One?

The Z was supposed to be on sale this spring, but delays seem to be an inevitable part of 2022. The Nikkei reported last month that Nissan production in Japan has plunged 44{7b5a5d0e414f5ae9befbbfe0565391237b22ed5a572478ce6579290fab1e7f91} in Q2 due to semiconductor shortages, but this won’t hold back Nissan’s “A to Z” product offensive for very long. 

Expect the A (for Ariya) and Z, both built in the same factory at Tochigi, to arrive this fall.