Some would consider the 1980s the “lost years” of performance. If that’s the case, then the 1990s ushered in a rebirth. The decade proved many things, first and foremost that bread-and-butter automakers had what it took to build world-class sports cars.
Dodge would build its first Viper, after not producing any real performance hardware since the early 1970s. Acura would carve its NSX from a block of titanium and aluminum alloy, a tribute to its Formula One racing success. Mazda would bring light weight and turbocharged rotary power to its pinnacle with the RX-7. Chevrolet was just putting the finishing touches on its 375-horsepower ZR-1 Corvette. And Nissan? Nissan started the whole ball rolling with the 300ZX.
When it rolled into dealer showrooms in 1989, it changed perceptions about the capabilities of Japan-based automakers: that they were for real and completely capable of building whatever they wanted, from economy runabouts to exotic performance icons. The 300ZX was living, breathing and optionally-twin-turbocharged proof. And it was a serious threat.
It looked every bit as exotic as a big-buck German or Italian sporting machine, but at a more down-to-earth price. And it could outrun some of them.
The introduction of the 300ZX didn’t just take the automotive world by storm, it signaled that the company had finally abandoned the aging 240Z-based shape that had been around since the early 1970s. The original Datsun (a Nissan brand name) Z-car had been a styling and sales triumph when first introduced, proving that a great-looking, great-performing GT-class car didn’t have to have a sky-high sticker price.
The mid-1980s marked the beginning of the first-generation Nissan 300ZX, a restyled and more powerful successor to 1975’s 280ZX. The new model abandoned the previous inline-six-cylinder engine in favour of a 3.0-litre V-6 (available in turbocharged and non-turbocharged form) that brought back the power and the passion of the original Z. The only problem was that the body design, which continued to emulate previous Z-cars, looked dated. To Nissan’s credit, though, the car enjoyed brisk sales in its five years on the market.
The dawn of the 1990s heralded the arrival of a second-generation 300ZX, a thoroughly modern styling masterpiece and a radical departure from previous designs.
As with the first ZX, the new 300 offered both two-seat and 2+2 stretched body styles. Base models came with a 3.0-litre double-overhead-camshaft V-6 that delivered a respectable 222 horsepower. For an extra $5,000, the twin-turbocharged variant packed 300 horsepower, which was enough to push the 3,470-pound car to 60 mph in a quick-ish 5.5 seconds, 1.3 seconds sooner than the non-turbo car, according to Nissan.
Either engine could be coupled to a five-speed manual transmission, or an optional four-speed automatic. Serious performance fans opted for the manual gearbox since the automatic used smaller turbochargers, which reduced horsepower to 280.
All this wondrous speed and agility cost about $35,000, which was cheap when compared with similar-performing Porsches, Mercedes and even V-8-powered Ferraris from that era.
Ordering the twin-turbo option also included Super HICAS, which was Nissan’s nomenclature for its four-wheel-steering system. Designed to improve high-speed cornering, this computer-controlled feature turned the rear wheels a maximum of one degree while the car moved through a turn, gradually straightening out once the maneuver was completed.
One year following its debut, Nissan made removable glass roof panels, which added some open-air appeal.
As good as the 300ZX was, sales of Nissan’s super-fast, near-exotic were simply not strong enough to justify maintaining production. Even the introduction of a convertible model in 1993 was not enough to nudge the 300ZX out of the doldrums and the car was cancelled at the end of the 1996 model year.
Six years later, Nissan again attacked the two-seater market with the successful 350Z. It was followed by the 370Z for the 2009 model year, and it appears there will be a modern replacement based on the Z Proto concept that still draws on Z-car DNA.
Time marches on, but the 1990-’96 300ZX will be remembered as the car that helped the Z-brand make the transition to modern design and technology.