For more than 50 years, the Nissan Z has remained one of automotive history’s most iconic and successful sports cars, generating a cult following that’s as strong as the day it first swept driving enthusiasts off their feet in 1969. Originating from a defunct joint project with Yamaha in the early 1960s, the Z endured through six generations, with the last tying the second generation 300ZX (Z32) as the longest-running series at 11 years.
Uncertainty loomed for the Z after the last generation, though. Nissan has dealt with some corporate turmoil recently, and the automotive world is moving headlong away from internal combustion toward electrification. To put it simply, Nissan allowed the 370Z to stagnate in a fast-evolving automotive landscape.
But with Toyota reviving its famed Supra, there wasn't a chance in hell Nissan would let its legendary sports car succumb to a perennial rival. The Z now returns for a seventh generation, and it has some big shoes to fill. Often likened to being Japan’s equivalent of the Ford Mustang or Porsche 911, the Z serves as an archetypal sports car template, providing a solid foundation not just for pure sports car lovers and driving enthusiasts but for tuners and motorsports racers alike.
On paper, the Z is all there as its original creators intended: two doors, rear-wheel drive, a front-mounted six-cylinder engine, and a long-sloping fastback design. It’s a formula that defines the Z as an icon in the world of sports cars, much in the same way that Porsche’s signature is keeping its engine mounted aftward.
But many questions remain: have increasingly stricter regulations, technology, and changes in consumer demands watered the Z down to another appliance and a shadow of its once glorious past?
As the early spring sun beamed down hard on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, exacerbating the sting of the arid desert air, our caravan of auto journalist-packed air-conditioned NV3500 vans arrived at its infield. In the distance, a line of 10 or so pre-production prototype 2023 Nissan Z’s came into view, ready for their ultimate test on the road and track at the hands of some of the world’s strictest car critics.
Nissan didn't stray far from the Z formula
At a first quick glance, it’s easy to think that the Z hasn’t really changed much. Nissan’s own engineers even admit that much of the core platform is shared with the outgoing “Z34” 370Z. But that’s part of its allure, much in the same way how nearly all Porsche 911s look the same. The template is unmistakably preserved— indeed, this time around, designers made sure to pay greater homage to the original 240Z’s aesthetic.
The dimensions are nearly the same as the 370Z all around, except for a few additional inches in length fore and aft and a profile more reminiscent of the Z’s of yonder years. Specific details hark back to the days of the original Datsun “S30” 240Z, such as the daytime running lights mimicking the shape of the 240Z’s chrome headlight surrounds, the more raked roofline and muscular shoulder line, and a squared-off rear, featuring taillights paying homage to the 1990’s cult classic, the “Z32” 300ZX. The overall result is sleeker, more refined, and far more elegant exterior design than the outgoing car.
Nissan gave the Z's interior some key upgrades
Entering the new Z is equally familiar, though the differences are all in the details. You still sit low and snug inside the cocooning cockpit, thanks to its raked roofline and two-seater layout. This, of course, means finding a comfortable seating position can still be a challenge for those six feet or taller, but the newer seats make it less of a chore than the 370Z.
Gone is the once-unified telescoping gauge cluster that moved with the steering column, as is the bulbous center console and recessed its infotainment system. In its place, a much larger flat screen and cleaner control interface yield a more fuss-free layout. Three auxiliary analog gauges at the top of the console measure turbo speeds, pressure, and battery charge, all of which are angled towards the driver for ease of use and readability, and a significantly more cohesive layout.
The New Nissan Z definitely performs better
The day began testing the Z’s powertrain at a roughly quarter-mile straight just adjacent to the Motor Speedway’s starting grid. Two new Z’s were up at bat – a base Sport model with a six-speed man al and a top-spec “Performance” with the company’s latest nine-speed automatic — and behind, a final-model-year 370Z for comparison's sake.
Under the long, sloping hood lies the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter VR30DDTT V6 lifted straight from Infiniti’s Q50 and Q60 Red Sport models, but retuned and tweaked to fit the Z’s performance-oriented persona. Output is rated at the same 400 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, making it one of the most affordable cars with that amount of pop. Being a descendant of Nissan’s “VR” family of V6s, it can even be loosely described as a detuned variant of the GT-R’s legendary VR38DETT, granting many Z fans the opportunity to boast even more about what's under the hood.
But this engine features a new water-cooled intake charge cooler, which help keeps inbound air temperatures down for the turbos, resulting in quicker throttle response. The snails are mounted outboard and integrated into the exhaust manifold, rather than in the valley, shortening the travel distance for exhaust pressure to keep said turbos spooled. A new boost recirculation valve also aids in maintaining pressure, essentially eliminating lag off the throttle.
It may produce the same amount of power as the Infiniti Red Sport 400 applications, but the Z’s version feels far more responsive and energetic in its motions. Nissan hasn’t published official acceleration times, but engineers on-site claimed the 0-60-mph dash is certainly around the four-second range for the manual — depending on how well and quickly you shift — and even quicker with the automatic.
But the new Z may not be quite as engaging as the old one
Although vastly quicker and more powerful than the 370Z, I found myself missing the old VQ’s naturally-aspirated throttle response and high redline. That setup makes one work for the engine’s peak power, an experience favored by those who prioritize driver engagement over seat-sucking forward progress. The engine note is unfortunately muted on the new model due to the forced induction, and its noise is artificially manipulated through the car’s sound system.
But nonetheless, in a classic evolutionary fashion, the new Z is plenty quicker than the old Z — quick enough to satisfy those wishing to give their A90-generation Supra friends a run for their money.
While the size and shape resemble that of the outgoing car, underneath, it boasts an 11-percent increase in torsional stiffness and is nearly 24 percent more rigid. And the results speak for themselves. Around a nearly two-mile closed road course, the new Z felt considerably more predictable and less of a handful than the old car, yielding far more grip, high-speed stability, and mid-corner composure.
However, the steering weighting and road feel — something the old 370Z had in spades — leave something to be desired after the shift to electronic power steering. But it’s still plenty accurate, with a point-and-shoot feel. Combined with the new large-diameter monotube shock absorbers and increase in caster angle, the new Z has a far more confident and agile feel behind the wheel, without any compromise in ride quality around town and on the highway.
The All-New Nissan Z: The Verdict
Simply put: the Nissan Z is back. It's faster, more agile, newer and much improved over the outgoing 370Z. It's an undeniably greater car that's more than capable of challenging the latest Toyota Supra.
But there's some give and take with the newfound refinement and modernity. The aging 370Z felt long in the tooth, but it still had that old-school feel that the Z's of yore provided, which you'll be hard-pressed to find in the new model. Progress always comes at some cost.
The 2023 Nissan Z
Powertrain: Twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6; six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 350 lb-ft
Starting Price: $39,990