Nissan 300ZX Z32 at 30. The Nissan 300ZX arrived in the US to take on American V8 iron, revitalise Nissan's image and beat Porsche. Here's how it achieved all three – but still failed to capture the sales it richly deserved. Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Nissan, Veloce, Magic car pics.
30 Years of the Nissan 300ZX Z32 The car that took on Porsche and won – but it wasn't enough. Nathan delves into its development history.
NISSAN’S AMERICAN DREAM
If you were to think of a Nissan to celebrate in 2019, you'd probably go for the Skyline GT-R R32. It’s a performance legend, a tuner icon. All very true, but we’re seeing it through the prism of endless nights on the PlayStation playing Gran Turismo.
But the 300ZX Z32 is a more critical birthday. This was the car that not only vanquished American sports coupe iron, but dealt Porsche a bloody nose – twice. It was conceived to elevate Nissan from a producer of worthy but dull machines, to attract younger buyers and grab a major slice of the American coupe market. The car was a triumph, and prompted Toyota to ditch its nearly ready Supra MkIV and start again from scratch.
'IT WAS COMFY, FAST AND MORE FLEXIBLE THAN A 944 TURBO'
The 300ZX proved to be a critical car for Nissan, but for all the wrong reasons. The consequences are being felt to this day. But it begins over 40 years ago. Nissan (or Datsun, as it was in the 1970s) had made its mark with the 240Z with buyers loving its performance and looks.
Over time, the Z's sporting fervour had become muddied with complexity and weight. Considering the other products were largely as exciting as naked Ryvita, this was a problem if Nissan was to regenerate its customer base.
Newly installed president Yutake Kume had been an engineer and the head of research and development and felt Nissan should lead in technology and design. In 1984 he set up Programme 901 with the aim that Nissan would be number one for technology by 1990.
Key was the new Z car, which would act as a technological showcase to prove the 901 concept. But it wasn’t just a gizmo-fest – Kume firmly believed all Nissans should provide driving pleasure.
Under Shigeyuki Yamaoka, the team considered a mid-engined layout, but this was dropped as the new car was for every day use, and luggage room and rear seats dictated a front-engine layout.
Deliberations continued over the engine – even in the Japanese-market four-cam, 24-valve form, the VG30 V6 turbo in the Z31 300ZX wasn’t enough to challenge the then newly launched 944 Turbo. The choice was a modified, 3.0-litre version of the VG30 or the VH45 4.5-litre V8 from the Infiniti Q45.
At the time it was thought a V8 would be seen as wasteful, and to keep the desired low body line, the V6 was chosen. While it allowed more variants (for naturally aspirated and turbo models), with the benefit of hindsight and, given this car was to tempt Americans out of their Camaros and Mustangs, the V8 might have been more successful. BMW knew this when they went for the American jugular with the E90 M3 15 years later.
But the 300ZX’s twin-turbocharged V6 wasn’t without thump – 300bhp. Though the starting point was the VG30DE, the quest for more power meant it was very nearly a brand-new engine by the end of development. There was a forged crankshaft, new pistons and connecting rods, modified cylinder heads, direct ignition and variable valve timing.
Rather than using one big laggy turbo, two smaller turbos would provide better low and mid-range response, and each used the Garrett T25 air compressor and the Garrett T2 turbine.
An ATTESA E-TS electronic torque split four-wheel drive system was considered, but was quickly discounted. ‘Tyres are improving all the time,’ Yamaoka said in an interview with Ray Hutton for his book, Nissan 300ZX: The Enthusiast's Companion. ‘We knew that thanks to good weight distribution, we would have good traction.’ Fitting the driveshafts would raise the nose by 2in, which would ruin the design language.
The limited-slip differential is viscous, much like that in a 4x4 RS Cosworth; something that raised eyebrows as viscous systems were deemed slow to react, but Nissan wanted a progressive action. There was multi-link suspension front and rear, which coupled with the Super-HICAS four-wheel steer system, provided sharp turn in (marginally tighter on US-market cars due to a different steering rack). Seam rather than spot-welding led to 20 per cent stronger torsional rigidity and 35 per cent increase in bending rigidity over the Z31.
Perhaps the biggest departure was the styling. The Z31 was clearly a derivation of the 240Z, but the Z32 was to be all-new and smaller. Two design teams fought for final consideration, and both spent time on the USA's West Coast soaking up the culture. Isao Sono, exterior design manager at Nissan’s Studio 1, believed it needed a strong character that would dominate the wide US roads.
The winning design, penned by Sono And Toshio Yamashita, was the most unconventional of the three final concepts, and survived pretty much unchanged into production. Though the car was shorter, the wheel base was 5.2 inches longer than the Z31. ‘We wanted to place the driver at the centre of the car, between the front and rear wheels, to achieve visual balance,’ Sono told Hutton. But there was a design philosophy, as head of the sports model department Fumio Yoshida explained. ‘We were seeking a form that would convey the impression the driver was a person of action. We found a shape that projects a feeling of intense power, similar to that of a stalking animal.’
Much like a stalking animal, the hunt took them deep into the target’s lair. Development and testing was extensive, with benchmarking against the Porsche 944 and 928 on the autobahn and the Nürburgring – it was the first Nissan to have such an overseas programme. In the end, getting an Eifel of its competitors at the track proved dividends – independent magazine testing pegged the 300ZX as six seconds faster around the 'Ring, in 8min 40s than a 944 Turbo. Time was spent at Willow Springs and Laguna Seca in the US, checking performance against the Chevrolet Corvette. ‘What we learned from[these] target cars was not about technology, but about product philosophy,’ said Motoo Yanagawa (talking to Hutton), who led the testing programme. ‘We concluded a sports car should have safety as a pre-condition and, based on that, should always respond faithfully to a driver’s input and meet his expectation.
We [also] saw no reason to compromise on things like ride comfort and noise. High output engines used to concentrate on top-end power. We thought [a modern sports car] should offer high performance, good handling and stability, and a comfortable ride.’
When the car was released in 1989, the balance of power was already shifting. The Honda Accord had become America’s biggest selling car, and there would be further challenges, with the Honda NSX, Lexus LS400 and Mazda MX-5.
The Z32 was a sensation among the motoring press in its most important markets, topping end-of-year lists at Car and Driver and Road and Track. Over in the UK the response was good, but there were reservations. Those hours pounding the Nürburgring and autobahns had made for a very swift, fast GT to rival the 928, but it was a little too sanitised for some. It was comfy, easy to drive fast, and with more low-down flexibility than the 944 Turbo, which CAR loved. But the Porsche was seen to offer more thrills and was more frugal – not a problem in the States, but sub-20mpg was an issue here. Also, its mid-£30k price made it the most expensive Japanese car in the UK ever.
It was still £7000 cheaper than a 944 Turbo, but we Europeans were stuck in Our ways. Porsche’s advertising tagline at the time was ‘Building on achievement’, and with jokes about Datsuns ringing loudly, the ZX was never well here. However, in the US and with the 944 Turbo winding down production and American rivals outclassed, the 300ZX should-have been a winner. But despite strong early sales, it didn't happen. At the time, all cars were more expensive relative to family income than in any time in the previous 22 years. Epic deductions across the industry were common – the list price mere fiction. Even something as popular as the MX-5 had deductions. With anything up to 15 per cent off a Japanese car, and factoring in import duties, this left margins tight. Behind the scenes there was chaotic managerial malaise, and haphazard marketing. And all this during a slow-burning US recession, too.
The car became too expensive for its target audience, thanks to the growing strength of the yen relative to the dollar. What was a $30k car in 1989 had turned into a $50k one by 1996. Perhaps the audience was changing, too – the rise of the supersaloon meant that much of the performance of a big sports GT could be achieved with four doors, and all the family-friendly practicality that entailed – the target customer of the late 1980s now had families to deal with. Coupes were still popular in Europe, but in much smaller, fuel-efficient form. Sales had dipped to 1600 across the whole of the US by the end of 1996, and it was costing more to import than it was bringing in with sales. It was culled from the US market.
The effect on Nissan was profound. The showrooms were largely filled with stale saloons. The Skyline had yet to make its mark – Nissan was about as sexy as your gran’s thermals, and sales nosedived as debts grew. In the end, Renault – led by a certain Carlos Ghosn, who you may have heard about recently – stepped in to buy a significant stake in Nissan.
The era of engineer-led product design had ended, and many lost their jobs as rabid cost-cutting took hold. Many feared the Z badge had died, but the smaller, cheaper 350Z was on its way.
The 300ZX carried on until 2000 in Japan, a few years after it left the UK. It looked too big and too extreme, which put off the golf club set. When it became a cheap, fast car modding took hold and then it was the usual story: neglect, rust and scrap page. Today there are just 352 left. Yet this is the car that helped kill off the 944, 928 and the 968. And while those have accelerated in value past £15k-£20k, the best manual Z32 comes in at £10k.
The Nissan 300ZX is an unsung gamechanger and provided a new take on the GT game. It showed how usability at 15mph was as important as what it did at 115mph. It also proved Nissan could take on Porsche and win. And not for the last time, either...