July 21, 2024


Automotive to Us

The 2023 Nissan Z Is More Fun Than the Toyota Supra at a Cheaper Price

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Face it: You’re worried about the 2023 Nissan Z. You heard it’s nearly 200 pounds heavier than the 370Z. You read that it’s still riding on the 370Z platform, which itself was an update of the 350Z platform, a chassis approaching its 20th birthday. You’re wondering how the new Z can possibly compare to the Toyota Supra.

I was worried, too. But you and I forgot about Hiroshi Tamura. Officially, he’s a product planner at Nissan. To us, he’s Mr. GT-R — the brain behind the current-generation Godzilla, a car in its 13th model year that still blows the doors off exotics commanding twice the price. He’s the man who launched the new Z project in secret, then tap-danced his way through Nissan’s corporate hierarchy to get it approved for production.

Tamura’s theory, developed through years of tuning his personal R32 GT-R, is that street tires can predictably handle about 150 hp each. So, roughly speaking, that’s how much power today’s 600-hp GT-R NISMO sends to each driven wheel.

You’ll note that the new Z sends 400 hp to the rear wheels alone. An imbalanced equation.

Tamura likens the all-wheel drive, dual-clutch GT-R to a mechanical suit, a robotic exoskeleton that gives you superhuman powers. When you’re driving a GT-R, “you are the commander,” Tamura says.

The new Z? “It’s a dance
partner,” Tamura told journalists at Nissan’s launch event in Las Vegas. “Gorgeous. Elegant. Not chasing numbers, only human feeling.” He puts on a frantic voice, mimicking what car writers and Nissan fans have no doubt been asking him for months: “What is the Nurburgring time? Thank you for asking. We don’t know. I didn’t check.”

That’s when I knew we didn’t have to worry about the new Z.

Full disclosure: Nissan flew me to Las Vegas, put me up in a fancy casino hotel, and treated me to some top-notch meals at the embargoed media launch of the 2023 Z. The automaker rented out a portion of Las Vegas Motor Speedway for racetrack impressions. The money I lost in the casinos was my own.

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As Tamura explained to the journalists at the launch event, the idea for the new Z was hatched five years ago, clandestinely. At the time, Nissan had no interest in pursuing a new two-seater. Sports cars aren’t profitable. Historically, the U.S. has made up 75 percent of Z-car sales; today, Americans only seem to want crossovers and full-size pickups.

Tamura dipped into an animated whisper, the one his colleagues used when the bosses weren’t around. “Tamura-san, let’s do it! We have to have a sports car. Not super expensive. Accessible. It’s very important.”

Tamura went to bat. The bosses told him, sure, go for it — but only if the new car could take 80 percent of its parts from the 370Z. Tamura’s too polite to say it, but you and I know what that is: A “no” dressed up as “yes.”

Yes. The windshield, door windows, and hatch glass are identical. Nissan had a 370Z on display at the event; I checked the part numbers. The roof panel comes directly from the 370Z. Same for the engine start button, seat heater switches, trunk popper button, power window switches, and traction control button. The interior door panels are different, but the door handles, and the air vents ahead of them, are unchanged. The rear suspension geometry is pure 370Z, but with new dampers and bushings.

In all, 20 percent of the new Z’s parts are 370Z carryovers. Many of the rest are Nissan parts-bin items modified for sporting duty. The new 9-speed automatic comes from the Frontier pickup, but gets a lightweight magnesium case. The 6-speed manual is a tweaked version of the 370Z’s. The 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 is the same VR30DDTT found in the Infiniti Q50 and Q60, with aluminum block and heads, variable valve timing, direct injection, and twin water-to-air charge coolers, but the Z gets a new diverter valve to keep boost up when the throttle’s closed.

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Tamura got away with it. Over lunch, I asked him if he wished he could have started from a clean sheet, rather than adapt the 370Z. “I didn’t ask the executives for a completely new platform,” he told me. “Because my ideal target was an appropriate price — 3 liter engine, 400 hp, starting price $40,000, this was the big target for us.”

The Z’s styling is meant to evoke the legendary sports cars of Nissan’s past — and obscure the fact that the unibody is essentially 370Z with some extra bracing. The gloss black paint on the roof and hatch is a trick borrowed from the Ford Mustang Mach-E to fake a more elegant silhouette; the brushed silver accent stripe echoes the thin roof of the original 240Z. The creased, pointed beak and faux-bucket headlights are a pure nostalgia play; the ginormous grille helps feed the oil cooler, transmission cooler, and intercooler the 370Z never had. The old car’s goofy silver door handles have been smoothed (for aerodynamics) and color-matched (for style). The taillights are a direct nod to the Z32-generation 300ZX, last seen here in 1996. Mashing together elements of sports cars born 20 years apart was a bold move, but it works: The new Z avoids the cornball wish-I-was-back-in-high-school nostalgia of every retro-obsessed American muscle car.

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The 100.4-inch wheelbase is identical to the 370Z. The track has been widened by 1.5 inches up front, 1.2 inches in the rear. Overall, the new Z is nearly 5 inches longer than its predecessor, which, coupled with the trompe l’oeil black accents on the roof and the side skirts, helps to stretch out some of the 370Z’s plumpness. It’s a simple, straightforward, and striking design. I think it looks fantastic.

If you ever see an Ikazuchi yellow Z with matching yellow brake calipers and bronze RAYS wheels, give the driver a righteous high-five: They bought one of just 240 examples of the Z Proto Spec, a delicious special edition that mimics the styling of the concept car we first saw in 2020. Knowing how these things go, the Proto Spec is probably already sold out.

Nissan’s media day started with lead-follow laps around the outfield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a dusty, dead-flat track where you’re frequently distracted by fighter jets taking off from Nellis Air Force Base down the road. It’s hard to learn much from a lead-follow lap, especially on an unfamiliar track in a car you’ve never driven before, but the Z was quick and composed. When left to itself in Sport mode, the 9-speed automatic always picked the right gear, snapping off downshifts to keep the revs high under braking and never fumbling in corners. The paddle shifters were a little less impressive. On most full-throttle upshifts, my fingers were completely off the upshift paddle before the transmission gave me the next gear, and above 4,500 rpm, any downshift request was steadfastly ignored. For track work, I’d take the six-speed manual. It’s a little balky on redline upshifts, but the shifter is firm and precise. Nissan was the first to offer automatic rev-matching on a stick-shift, all the way back in 2008. It’s utterly seamless on the new Z, a huge help for getting up to p
ace quickly on track. No wonder so many competitors have copied Nissan on this technology.

I asked Tamura if he was concerned with lap times for the new Z. “Quite frankly, sorry, no,” he told me. “It’s not such a big meaning for me […] My understanding is, 90 percent of [sports car buyers] don’t decide on 0-60 or lap time. The highest priority was styling, design. People love to talk about time attack, track days. That’s the image. Are you going to do track days every weekend?” For that rare buyer, Tamura says, the base-model Z is the best choice, since you’ll be swapping a bunch of parts anyway. “My philosophy for the street car is road comfort, nice limit handling,” he says. “And if you get on a canyon road, you should feel some nice driving pleasure.”

Right, then. To the roads!

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Nissan laid out a drive route from Las Vegas Motor Speedway up to the visitor’s center at Lake Mead, a 90-minute round trip that darted out of Vegas’s sprawl and quickly became exactly the kind of road Tamura was talking about: a fast, smooth two-lane with lots of sweeping curves and minimal traffic.

I need you to believe me here: The new Z does not feel 150-plus pounds heavier than the 370Z. It’s light on its feet. There’s a tiny smidge of body roll, just enough to give you an accurate sense of speed. The suspension settles immediately in a corner. It’s poised, confident. The steering — electric, unlike the 370Z’s hydro boost — is quick and precise. The car bounds into a turn, sharp and predictable.

Lots of work went into achieving this. The springs are firmer (to handle the extra weight, almost all of which is from the new twin-turbo engine) but the dampers are softer. The new Z uses monotube shock absorbers, which reduce friction and give a more refined response. Engineers added some positive caster angle to the front end, which makes the Z feel stable and planted at high speeds and, simultaneously, makes it more eager to rotate in a corner if you’re really hauling it. Over rough pavement, the ride is compliant and the body motions are perfectly controlled. It’s not a cushioned grand tourer, it’s a sports car that doesn’t punish you.

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The twin-turbo V6 is what makes this feel like a different machine from the 370Z. The old sports car was charming, but a bit truckish; that burly 3.7-liter was never eager to rev. The new engine pulls hard all the way to its 6,800-rpm redline. From the driver’s seat, it has a nice, if muted, growl, reaching to a delightfully high-pitched note at redline. In the manual, you can barely hear the engine when you’re cruising over 50 mph; in the automatic, you get a little more noise across the rev range, for complicated regulatory reasons. Maximum boost is 15 psi, a peak that, according to the gauge on top of the dashboard, comes around 5,500 rpm. From 4,000 rpm to the fuel cutoff is where this engine shines, with sharp throttle response and essentially zero lag. Nissan claims 400 hp at 6,400 rpm and 350 lb-ft of torque from 1,600 to 5,200 rpm — essentially identical to what this engine makes in Infiniti’s Red Sport models, but the engine feels more linear here than it does in the Infinitis, with sharper responses.

On the road, the 9-speed automatic is … pretty good. In Sport mode, it’s happy to keep the tachometer at a steady boil, but manual upshifts are just a shade slower than paddle-shift competitors, and the car straight-up denies aggressive downshifts more often than I’d like. Strangely, the auto box’s gears seem more widely spaced than other performance automatics. The six-speed manual solves all of these problems. Like most turbo engines, there’s a little bit of rev-hang on fast upshifts, but the turbos stay in boost, and it’s easy to drive fast and smooth.

Nissan has not given out a 0-60 time for either the manual or automatic Z; at the media event, I had no way to time it myself. I asked Tamura, and his answer was characteristically coy. “I don’t know,” he said with a smile. “If Supra is 4 seconds, we’re probably 4 seconds. We are heavier than them, with slightly bigger power. So I think it should be almost the same.” (Car and Driver tested a six-cylinder Supra at 3.7 seconds to 60.)

Here’s what I can tell you: At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nissan set up a mini drag strip on a straight, flat section of the big oval, with both manual and automatic Zs available to test. The 9-speed automatic spins the tires through first gear, rips them loose in second, and chirps into third. In the manual, your best launch comes with plenty of wheelspin. The Performance package brings a clutch-type limited-slip differential, as well as Launch mode, no matter which gearbox you choose. In the manual, Launch mode lets you select an automatically-held launch rpm; it also allows for no-lift upshifts, the ECU dropping revs between gears for smoother upshifts. As with most modern performance cars, the automatic feels quicker to 60 mph, but the manual is way more fun getting there.

The Z loves to light up its tires. In the manual, from a roll, as soon as you hit 4,000 rpm in first gear, you’re leaving stripes. In second, a hard whack of throttle at basically any engine speed will smoke ‘em. A Nissan engineer quietly confirmed to me that the stability control never fully turns off, but traction control goes away with a single push of the button on the dash. With traction off, it’s kind of hard to get going quickly without hazing the rear tires — and harder still to avoid the temptation to roast them everywhere, all the time. The brake pedal isn’t overly firm, but it’s progressive and predictable, easy to modulate mid-corner.

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The Z’s interior is, no joke, an insane improvement over the 370Z’s. It had to be — that car was practically the last brand-new vehicle you could buy without a touchscreen. The new dashboard has one of those confounded glass rectangles, but it’s smartly laid out and within easy reach. Even better, the HVAC and stereo controls are still handled by physical buttons and knobs. There is also, finally, a second cupholder, something 370Z owners could only dream of — though you have to slide the center console lid back to reveal it. The seating position is basically unchanged from the 370Z, which is good and bad: The car offers plenty of room for taller heads, longer legs, and broader shoulders and elbows, but you still sit slightly crooked, the steering wheel about an inch to the right of the seat’s centerline. There’s a new digital instrument panel, and it might be my favorite in the business, simply because it’s buried so deep in its binnacle, the sun can never wash it out.

You know what else? With the seat adjusted where I like it, I could turn my head to the left and get an unobstructed view through the window. I’m six-foot-nothing, and when I look left in a Supra, most of what I see is headliner.

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Which brings me to the Supra. Man, that thing. Quick? No doubt about it (and the Supra feels quicker than the Z, though we’ll have to wait for actual numbers to prove it). Grippy? Absolutely. The six-cylinder Supra dives into a corner with an eagerness that can take you by surprise. It’s twitchy, and switchy: the brakes are grabby, hard to modulate; the steering is quick but utterly dead in your hands. It’s undeniably fast around a track, but getting there feels rote rather than playful. On a freshly-surfaced backroad, a Supra generates gobs of pace; throw in any kind of imperfect pavement, and the Toyota’s stiff suspension becomes punishing. It’s fast, but certainly not smooth. It feels like someone took a competent grand tourer and tuned it to feel “sporty” to normies. Hmm.

Then you have to live with the thing. The Supra makes it hard to see anything that’s not dead ahead, whether it’s through the windows or the mirrors. And it’s impossible to drive with the windows down.

I’d take the new Nissan Z over the Toyota Supra every day of the week. The Z is just more pleasant to live with. It’s easier to drive smoothly, slow or fast. It’s more powerful. It gives you more feedback when you’re hauling it and less harshness no matter how you’re driving. A no-option Z Sport gives you 400 hp for $39,990; the cheapest new Supra is $3,500 more expensive, and then you’re stuck with a mooing four-cylinder and an automatic. The Z Performance adds $10,000 and gives you the limited-slip differential, bigger brakes, 19-inch RAYS wheels with Bridgestone Potenza S007 tires, power leather seats, a premium stereo with a bigger touchscreen, and a rear spoiler (this was the model I drove). That’s still cheaper than the roughly $52,000 you’ll spend on a Supra 3.0, which won’t be available with a six-speed manual for another several months.

The new Z is traditional in the best sense. It’s a true sports car: Engine up front, two seats and a stick shift in the middle, drive wheels out back. It’s not a track-obsessed, numbers-over-everything machine, but the most important numbers — 400 hp and a $40,000 price tag — are plenty impressive. It’s a delight on back roads, and perfectly livable when you’re on your way to that favorite curvy squiggle of pavement. It’s a revamped 370Z that’s more than the sum of its parts.

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The sun is setting on internal-combustion sports cars. When we look back on this era, we won’t remember the Nurburgring lap times, the tenth-of-a-second-quicker 0-60s, the incremental horsepower wars. We’ll remember the cars that moved us and moved with us. The ones that asked us to dance.

We’ll remember cars like this Nissan Z.

The 2023 Nissan Z Sport starts at $39,990; the Z Performance starts at $49,990, and the Z Proto Spec is $52,990. All prices exclude $1,025 destination and handling fee. Nissan says the Z will go on sale in Summer 2022, which reflects some unexpected production delays.