The Evolution of the Nissan Z

Nissan was a relatively small automaker when it entered the international market in the 1960s.

When the first-gen Nissan Z came out, it was under two different names. In Japan, it was known as the Nissan Fairlady Z, and it was exported to North America as the Datsun 240Z. For Nissan, the Fairlady was a risk. Little did they know that this high-performance, low-cost sports car would be integral to their success.

First Generation: The 240Z (1969-1974)

Fair lady z

Though they shared many components, the Japanese Nissan Fairlady and the American Datsun 240Z were a little different under the hood. The Fairlady's 2.0L inline 6 produced 130 hp, while the 240Z's 2.4L inline 6 pushed 151 hp.

Released as a 1970 model in October of 1969, the 240Z emphasized affordability over performance, but the performance wasn't too shabby. Its long nose and trademark rear hatch looked reminiscent of a Jaguar E-type, and the 240Z went 0-60 in 8.2 seconds.

In 1974, the 240Z became the 260Z due to engine displacement increasing to 2.6L. Unfortunately, new emission and bumper regulations dropped horsepower to 140 and curb weight increased.

Second Generation: 280Z/280ZX (1975-1983)

Datsun 280zx

Another engine change - this time going to 2.8L displacement and 149 hp - meant a new name was in order. While the Fairlady moniker was kept in Japan, the next-gen Z car was dubbed the 280Z in the US.

The Datsun 280ZX was introduced in 1979. It maintained the same general appearance as the 280Z, but the new model had some notable changes, including a new five speed manual gearbox and interior improvements such as cut-pile carpet and color coordination. The 280ZX was the most successful Z car ever, selling 86,007 units and nabbing Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year award in 1979.

In 1980, the 280ZX was available with a removable panel T-top as well as other luxury options such as leather upholstery and automatic temperature control. 1980 also marked a decade of the Z car, which Nissan celebrated with a black and gold 10th anniversary edition.

1981 brought power back to the 280ZX, thanks to a turbo, which cranked out 180 hp. The turbo 280ZX was even faster than a Corvette at this point, making the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds compared to the Corvette's 16 even.

Third Generation: 300Z/300ZX (1984-1989)

300zx z31

Though the 280ZX started out with strong sales, they began to lag toward the end of the second generation. Plus, the segment was heating up with competition from the Mitsubishi Starion, the Mazda RX-7, and the Toyota Supra. It was time for a change.

The Datsun name was officially dropped by the third generation, which made sense because Nissan completely redesigned the Z car. From the base 300Z to the 300ZX Turbo, the vehicle was completely changed. Under the hood was Nissan's all-new 3.0L V6 engine, which put out 160 hp (or 200 hp for the 300ZX turbo). On the outside, the 300Z/ZX featured standard T-tops, a wedge shape, and sharp pop-up headlights. It was the ultimate 80s car.

In 1984, the Nissan 300ZX was the best selling sports car in the US, with over 73k sold. Following a slight redesign in 1986 though, sales began to decline thanks to both price increases and more competition from other automakers.

Fourth Generation: 300ZX (1990-1996)

Z32

Nissan's goal with the fourth generation Z car was for it to become the world's number one sports car, so it was once again completely redesigned.

While previous generations were compared to Mazda's RX-7 and Toyota's Supra, the new 300Z was on par with the Corvette and Porsche 928 S4 in terms of handling and performance. The 4th gen Z car had all the makings of a race car: large wheels, wide tires, performance brakes, improved handling, and 222 hp from its new DOHC V6.

The 1990 300ZX Turbo received even more performance improvements with oil-and-water-cooled twin turbos that gave the car a top rating of 300 hp. The 1990 300ZX Turbo received rave reviews and accolades from major automotive publications including:

  • Design of the Year, Automobile
  • 10 Best, Car and Driver
  • 10 Best, Road and Track
  • Import Car of the Year, Motor Trend

In 1993, thanks to pressure from independent shops offering conversions, a convertible model was introduced. It outsold the Turbo model, but high prices signaled the end was near for the Z car. By 1996, the dollar-yen crisis brought the price of even the base model over $30k. There were also new side impact federal regulations set to go into effect in 1997 which spelled trouble for the Z car, as it would have to be completely redesigned.

Nissan decided 1996 would be the Z car's last year, and the last 300ZX was inducted into the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Fifth Generation: 350Z (2003-2008)

350z

By the time the Z car re-emerged in mid-2002, Americans were more than ready for the return of Nissan's global hit.

The 350Z was a 2-seater that packed a naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine, larger wheels, and a tapered tail end. With the 350Z, Nissan hit the sweet spot between affordability and performance that made the original Z a hit.

As a result, the popularity of the Nissan Z grew again. A 2005 35th anniversary edition featured an upgraded engine, a manual transmission, and 18-inch alloy wheels. The 2007 and 2008 model years had a 3.5L engine that produced 306 hp and was standard on all models.

To usher out the fifth generation, Nissan introduced the Nismo 350Z and produced only 1500. This 2007 limited-edition addition had plaque on the center console with a serial number. This version of the sports car offered more than just a pretty badge though as it also included a redesigned bumper, improved suspension, and a new hood.

Sixth Generation: 370Z (2009 - Present)

370z

The latest iteration of the Nissan Z is better in nearly every conceivable way, starting with the 3.7L V6 which provides 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque and increased stiffness in the chassis. In 2009, this generation Z car lost 100 pounds on its base model, shaved 3.9 inches off its wheelbase, and 2.2 inches from its overall length.

Not only does the 370Z have a one-of-a-kind look, but it has remained attainable in the face of its Porsche and BMW contemporaries. In all, the latest in a series of wonderful sports cars plays off its roots as an affordable beauty that delivers in power and performance.