The Nissan Z Proto is an old-school sports car for the modern era
Nissan unveiled their first new Z-car in a decade last night. Was it worth the wait?
Let's talk about the Nissan 370Z. Specifically, the fact that it's really very old. It went on sale in 2009, and hasn't recieved any major updates since. There was talk that Nissan might not replace it, but now, as Nissan starts to leave the dark ages of the 2010s behind, it has revealed a prototype of the next Z-car. And although they may call this a concept, don't be fooled: The white-letter tires with "Nissan Z" written on them are the only part of this entire car that probably won't make it to production. So, for all intents and purposes, this is the next generation Z-car. Here's what I think about it.
Because this is technically a concept car, Nissan haven't released many technical details, so most of what we have to go on involves the styling. And although I see a lot of car people complaining (as car people do), I actually quite like it. It's not New Ford Bronco levels of retro excellence, but it's a very nice design, and honestly, it's pretty much what I expected it to be. Most of the complaints seem to be centered around the large rectangular grille (see photo above), but I really don't mind the grille at all. In fact, I think it's kind of refreshing to see a happy (or at least neutral) looking car after an endless parade of new cars that all look like they want to murder you and dump your body in the Marianas Trench. Nissan has managed to make a car look sporty without making it look like it's about to boil over with petulant rage, and I think that's a good thing.
Obviously, the design of this car is extremely retro, which isn't to everyone's taste, but I think Nissan did a good job reinventing the Z, and it is what it needs to be. And unlike previous 21st century Zs, it isn't just the 240Z that they're drawing inspiration from (although obviously that's the biggest inspiration. The back end of the car (see photo below) is clearly inspired by the Z32 generation 300ZX, probably the greatest Z-car alongside the 240. Also, I love the yellow paint and the bronze-colored wheels with white-letter tires. I think the color and wheel design will probably make it to the production model, but sadly I think the white letter tires wil probably remain confined to the concept version. It doesn't seem like it would be very difficult to make special white-letter tires as an option for the production car, so it could happen in theory, but I wouldn't hold my breath
The interior of the Z looks good too (and very production-ready), with a simple, driver-focused layout. I LOVE the separate gauge cluster on top of the dashboard; it's a really cool design touch, and I also think the lime-green accents on the seats look really nice. But the most significant piece of the interior, and also one of the few confirmed engineering details, is what's between the seats. Yes, it's got a manual, and while there is no way they won't offer some form of automatic as well (after all, the current 370Z has an automatic option), it's great to see that Nissan understands that a compact, not-overly-powerful 2-seat sports car needs to at least have the option of a manual (cough...Toyota...cough). Honestly, the only part of the interior I don't like is the large center screen, but I can't really single out the Z for that, as everyone else is doing it, and at least it looks like they still left a few knobs and buttons in there to control key functions.
As I've said, we don't have a lot of details about the engineering of the production car, other than the fact that it will offer a six-speed manual transmission. However, we do also know that it will have a twin turbo V6, which means it is basically a given that it will have the 3.0 liter, 400 horsepower twin turbo V6 used in the Red Sport 400 trim of the Infiniti Q50 and Q60 (yes, Infiniti is amazingly still a thing). It will probably be called the 400Z in its production form for that reason, even though all previous Z-cars have gotten their prefix from engine displacement, because if they went by the displacement metric they would have to call it the 300Z, and 300 is less than 370 (and thus a step backward in the eyes of people who don't really understand how cars work). Or, you know, they could just call it the Z (no prefix), which would spare us this whole nonsense about needing a pointlessly bigger number that means nothing with every generation, but this is the same company that decided to name one of their cars the "Maxima," so they're not great with names. As for what platform it will be on, there are three logical possibilities. The first is a completely new platform, which is possible, but not very likely given the low sales volumes of cars like this. The second possibility is that it could ride on a significantly reworked version of the 370Z platform. The problem is, the 370Z platform is in turn a heavily reworked version of the 350Z platform, and that platform is over 15 years old. That said, Dodge still uses a 35-year old Mercedes-Benz E-Class platform in the Challenger and Charger, so it could happen in the Z, but I think it's less likely given the Z's greater emphasis on handling prowess.
The third possibility would be to use a modified version of the Infiniti Q60 (formerly Infiniti G coupe) platform, and since that's what the 350 and 370Zs did, it would appear to be the most likely option. The problem is, the G35 and G37 that the 350 and 370Z (respectively) were based on were renowned for their sharp, sportscar-like handling, and were considered to be as good (or better) dynamically as the BMW 3-Series, so Nissan already had a great platform to work on. The Q50/Q60 are considered to be the dullest and worst-driving cars in their segment, and in fact, the Q50 was considered to be the dullest car in its segment when it came out. That was seven years ago, and it's only gotten more uncompetitive as time goes on. Could Nissan turn that platform into a true sportscar platform, with the dynamic capabilities that are expected of a Z-car? Perhaps, but the point is they really have their work cut out for them this time, and it won't be as simple as just taking the basic platform and tweaking the suspension and steering, which I think is basically what they did with the last few Zs. They would have to completely re-engineer the entire platform from the ground up to even have a chance of competing with rivals like the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Toyota Supra, or even the less expensive Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ and Mazda Miata. That said, I still think this is the most likely option, but it's not a great one.
There are a few things about this car that we don't really know yet, and the most major one is price. The current 370Z starts at around $30K, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the new one will probably be more expensive. However, I would say it still absolutely MUST have a starting price of under $40,000 at least, and preferably closer to $35K. The problem with the Toyota Supra, for instance, is that even though it's intended as a competitor to something like the Porsche 718 (in which context it looks like good value), I feel like a lot of people view it as a competitor to the Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro (in which context it looks like bad value, starting at around $15K more than a base Mustang GT while offering less power and being automatic only). The Z cannot make the same mistake; it needs to be competitive, in both price and performance, with base-model V8 versions of the Mustang and Camaro (400 horsepower for a base price of around $35K is close enough to the Mustang and Camaro to be competitive in my opinion, especially if the Z can make up the power deficit in the corners). Obviously, the Z's popularity will be limited in comparison by the fact that it will either have no back seat or an unusable one like the Toyota 86, but I still think it could do reasonably well with a combination of name recognition, good driving dynamics, and value for money.
I can't make a final judgement on the new Z-car yet because obviously there's still a lot we don't know, but based on what we do know, I think the Z looks very promising. I love the design, and it seems to have all the right ingredients of a great sports car, including a manual. Obviously, the price and the way it drives are two key things that we don't know yet, and probably won't for some time, but I'm optimistic (for once) about Nissan getting those right, based on what we've seen so far.