I just bought a 1990s Nissan 300ZX and here’s what I learned

The moment I laid eyes on this pristine Canadian-market example, I knew I had to save it.

By William Clavey Wheels.ca

Jul 18, 2023 9 min. read

Article was updated 2 months ago

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Nostalgia for 1990s Japanese sports cars is driving up demand and, of course, prices. A little over 5 years ago it was still possible to get your hands on vehicles like the Acura NSX, the Toyota Supra or the Mazda RX-7 at a reasonable price point, values for those models have since skyrocketed to unattainable status.

However, some iconic Japanese sports cars from that era haven’t yet fallen victim to such a phenomenon. The second-generation Nissan 300ZX (code-named Z32), sold here in Canada between 1990 and 1996, is a perfect example of this. While values are climbing, they’re nowhere near the ones of its main Japanese rivals. Why is that?

Because I was curious to find out, and because I have always adored that generation of the 300ZX, a car with which I associate several positive childhood memories, I set out to buy one for myself.

Japan’s Moment

Before I dig into my experience shopping for and buying a 300ZX, allow me to refresh your memory on what this car is and why it’s so important.

By the end of the 1980s, the entire automotive industry was undergoing an important shift. After years of strict emissions regulations and underwhelming performance, it seemed automakers had finally cracked the code as to how to extract horsepower and torque from their internal combustion engines.

The Japanese carmakers, notably, came out of the 1980s much stronger than when they had entered it, powered by a booming economy and a manufacturing sector that had more than doubled in size. Japan’s technological movement was spearheaded by fast-paced research and development. Such a furious industrial might pushed the Japanese carmakers to express their engineering knowhow through halo sports cars, each boasting the latest in go-fast hardware.

It's from that era that came what is regarded today by some as the “super” Japanese sports cars. Mazda had the lightweight, twin-turbo rotary-powered RX-7. Toyota brought over the almighty Supra and Honda unleashed the overachieving NSX. While Canadians never got the Mitsubishi 3000GT, its twin sister wearing a sexier name, the Dodge Stealth R/T Twin Turbo, made just as many ripples.

Factory Nissan 300 ZX 32
“The World’s Best Sports Car”

But while Nissan never officially sold its Skyline GT-R flagship sports car in our market until 2008, it had another ace up its sleeve for the US and Canada. That car was the second-generation 300ZX, sports coupe that, during its development, was given the goal of becoming the “world’s best sports car”.

Perhaps that was the kind of mindset Nissan needed to get its iconic Z car back on the world stage. You see, the first 300ZX, the one sold here from 1983 to 1989, was accused of having lost its way. Critics slammed it for being too big, too heavy, and too soft, further distancing itself from the Datsun 240Z original. Since it was now facing a market invaded by stiff homeland competition, Nissan desperately needed to reset the Z nameplate.

For the new car, Nissan gave considerably more freedom to its designers and engineers. It even increased its budget to equip its designers with better tools, such as the Cray-2 supercomputer, an innovation during its time. The Z32 was one of the first mass-production automobiles to have entirely been designed on a computer.

Such devotion from Nissan resulted in a sports car that was a lot more focused and in tune with the new realities of the 1990s. It was sleeker, rounder, and flatter, boasting a 0.31 drag coefficient and making it one of the most streamlined sports cars of its era.

It was also gorgeous. To this day, I still find the second-generation 300ZX to be one of the most beautiful sports cars to have ever come out of Japan. It’s so pretty, that Lamborghini borrowed its headlights for the Diablo. It’s also worth noting that today’s Z car draws its taillight design inspiration from the Z32.

Nissan also focused on the car’s driving experience. Out of the box, the car came standard with independent suspension at all four corners, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and a standard limited-slip rear differential.

All Versions Rocked

In all its forms, the 300ZX was a true sports car. Base cars were powered by a considerably overhauled version of Nissan’s VG30DE dual-overhead cam, 24-valve 3.0-liter V6 engine. But it was a lot different than its predecessor thanks to an all-new variable valve timing system, as well as a two-way air intake system, one for each head. The entire exhaust system had been retuned and the engine ran on a new type of ECU.

The result was 222 horsepower – 25 more than the turbocharged version of its predecessor - and 198 lb-ft of torque, all while maintaining a similar curb weight. All cars were real-wheel drive and came standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, while a 4-speed automatic was also available as optional equipment.

Nissan Fairlady Z

Of course, one can’t talk about the Z32 without mentioning the almighty Twin Turbo model. Thanks to a pair of Garrett turbochargers and twin intercoolers, horsepower rose to an even 300 (283 for automatic cars), while torque was rated at 286 lb-ft. The 300ZX TT also came with adaptive suspension, rear-wheel steering, beefier brakes, and wider rear wheels and tires.

Most examples sold here came fitted with removable roof panels. Some non-turbo cars did come with a solid roof Nissan called a slicktop, but very few of those were sold in Canada. A convertible was added to the lineup in 1993, while a longer, stretched version of the 300ZX called the 2+2 added a pair of extra seats in the rear.

Values Explained

If the Z32 was such an important car, then why are values on the classic car market lower than those of its direct Japanese rivals? Simply put, the Japanese sports car market during the 1990s offered better alternatives.

While it was plenty quick and agile, the 300ZX had a reputation for being heavy and complicated. Critics put it more in the grand touring category. It was also expensive, less reliable and its drivetrain was complex.

While it’s true that the 3.0-liter V6 is a solid unit, the engine bay itself is very cramped, making it a nightmare for mechanics. That engine also runs with a timing belt, not a chain, meaning the belt must be serviced every 100,000 km or every 4 years. And it’s one heck of a job to change. Furthermore, TT models have garnered a reputation for overheating, and they are hard to diagnose.

A Classic Will Always be a Classic

Albeit all that, there’s no denying the 300ZX’s status as a classic car. This is why values for well-kept examples have nonetheless begun appreciating in recent years. Some classic car experts agree that the reason for this sudden spike in demand is due to deep nostalgia for anything built during the 1990s.

So, although the 300ZX had its share of flaws, it still ranks among an exclusive category of cars. And since NSXs, Supras and RX-7s are now out of reach, many are flocking towards the more affordable 300ZX.

Twin Turbo models with a five-speed manual are the rarest and the most sought after, with values for clean ones ranging anywhere between $20,000 and $30,000 depending on condition and mileage.

The value of non-turbo 2+0 models also recently underwent a spike, now valued anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000. Below that, you’ll find 2+0 non-turbos with an automatic transmission, followed by the convertible. At the bottom of the evaluation spectrum sits the 2+2. Automatic cars tend to hang anywhere between $8,000 and $12,000, while some well-kept 2+2 manuals will knock at the door of $15,000.

Many argue that the 1990 model year is the most sought after because it marks the beginning of the entire generation, but also because the cars had no badging on the front bumper. They also had no airbag, yielding a smaller, sportier steering wheel. Early cars also ran on the simpler and more reliable OBD-1 electronics architecture.

Finding a Good One

Finding a Nissan 300ZX on any popular marketplace site isn’t all too hard. What’s difficult is spotting a good 300ZX.

There are several reasons for this. First, the production run for the cars was limited, especially for the Canadian market. Nissan only shipped 2,830 examples this way during its 7-year run.

Then there’s age. Even the most recent 300ZX is 27 years old. That, along with the fact that many of these cars have been neglected or involved in accidents, has driven down the number of available candidates.

Finally, there’s a phenomenon I like to call the “Fast and the Furious” era. In the early 2000s, when Fast and the Furious hit the big screens, street racing and tuning, especially with Japanese sports cars, was flourishing. The 300ZX was a popular target for these kinds of activities.

This all means that when shopping around, you’ll typically find relics of that era. Cars fitted with aftermarket body kits, headlights, taillights, spoilers, or modified audio systems are common. Salvaged cars are also frequent, so are resprays and US imports. Add to that a strong wave of right-hand drive imports from Japan in recent times, and the availability of an original, Canadian-market example has become slim.

The Black One on Marketplace

I found my car through an ad on Facebook Marketplace. While not twin-turbocharged, the near-mint black-on-black 1990 300ZX caught my attention due to its clean title and Canadian-market status. It was also a 2+0 with a manual transmission and only 124,000 kilometers on the odometer. The car had always been garaged kept, never winter driven and the owner mentioned a fresh new paint job in the ad, done by him since he owned his own body shop. He was asking $16,500.

1990 Nissan 300ZX

Excited to have finally found a good 300ZX after weeks of searching, I immediately messaged the seller. I offered him a $1,000 refundable deposit if he took down his ad to give me time to see it. He gladly accepted.

A few days later and after scanning the clean Carfax report, there I was standing inside a body shop in Quebec’s Beauce region, admiring a car that I remember lusting over as a kid. The moment I laid eyes on its low, flat wedge shape and flat seal beam headlights, I immediately remembered the times dad and I would drool over a 300ZX during the 1990s. The car hasn’t aged one bit. If anything, it looks even better than back in the day due to how new automobiles appear so massive and blocky next to this.

1990 Nissan 300ZX

Except for some minor details, like a ripped leather driver’s seat, a growling differential due to improper care and a minor leak from a failed power steering hose, the car checked out. I figured this was the best I could find for my budget. Since the car needed a few repairs, I bargained the price down to $15,000, including the car’s original set of wheels.

Since then, I’ve flushed out most fluids, including what was in the differential and I’ve replaced the broken power steering hose. The car will eventually need a new differential, but otherwise, my 300ZX runs and drives great and I never shy out to taking it out for long drives.

1990 Nissan 300ZX

What my experience with the car has taught me so far, driving it, fiddling with it, and joining online communities, is that non-turbo Z32s are considerably more reliable and easier to work on than the TT. However, if you’re interested in these cars, know that parts are hard to find and that they can at times be expensive, or worse, discontinued! Thankfully, the rising appreciation and respect for these cars means there’s a lot of support out there to help you keep the car alive and strong for many years to come.


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