Nissan 300ZX ushered in performance car rebirth

The Nissan 300ZX led the performance rebirth of The Nissan 300ZX led the performance rebirth of the 1990s and proved just what this Japanese automaker was made of Photo Credit: AP

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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 manufacturers 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 its 300ZX.

In fact, the current 370Z is a direct descendent of the 300ZX, which was phased out in the mid-1990s.

Big boots to fill, indeed, for the 350Z and 370Z, since the 300ZX was the last in a quarter-century-long line of "Z-cars." When it rolled into dealer showrooms in 1989, it changed perceptions about the capabilities of Japanese 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 easily keep up with, and frequently outrun, many 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 240Z was replaced by the 260Z in 1974 and the 280Z the following year. Although both appeared similar to the original 240, they were no faster due to the extra weight of their reinforced bumpers and detuned six-cylinder engines, both a result of government safety and air-pollution laws.

Both the 260Z and 280Z offered an extended-wheelbase 2+2 version, which carried over to the 280ZX that arrived in 1983. It might have looked similar to the previous cars, but it was larger and considerably heavier. It had also lost some of the crisp handling and spunky behavior of the original.

The mid-1980s marked the beginning of the first-generation Nissan 300ZX, a restyled and more powerful successor to the 280ZX. The new model abandoned the previous straight-six engine in favor of a 3.0-liter V6 (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 inaugural version of the 300ZX 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 Z/ZX designs.

As with the first ZX, the new 300 offered both two-seat and 2+2 stretched body styles. In base form, the V6, equipped with double overhead cams, delivered a respectable 222 horsepower. But for an extra $5,000, the twin-turbocharged variant of the 3.0 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 faster than the non-turbo car, according to Nissan.

Either engine could be coupled to a five-speed manual transmission, or 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 came for about $35,000, which was cheap, really, when compared to similar-performing Porsches, Mercedes and even V8-powered Ferraris from that era.

Ordering the twin-turbo option also included Super HICAS, Nissan's nomenclature for its four-wheel-steering system. Designed to improve high-speed cornering, this computer-controlled feature turned the rear wheels to 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 available removable glass roof panels, which added even greater 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 350Z with more success as buyers once again began yearning for a little Z magic.

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