The cars we loved.
1989 marked the beginning of the evolution of the 300ZX from overweight luxury sports GT to a nearly all-out sports car. It would be an understatement to say that the 300ZX along with Toyota’s Supra were the high points of Japan’s relentless march to performance oriented mas market supercars. The new Z car was radical and familiar at the same time, but making the 88 model look downright dated by comparison. The only thing the new 1989 300ZX shared with the previous year’s car was the name and the size of its engine. The design was completely new with only trace elements of lineage to previous Z cars, but with a Godzilla-like look of aggression that could have only come from 90’s era Japan.
The 300ZX established Nissan almost overnight as the maker of modern supercars in America for those too young to remember the 240Z. For well over a decade US buyers had only the memories of high performance Nissans in the form of the early Z cars from the mid 1970’s. With each new version of the Z car, its dimensions grew and its mission changed to more luxury than sport. The 1989 300ZX fulfilled the promise of performance hinted at through various turbo models during the dark chapters of Z car performance history. Now the 300ZX had twin Garret turbos and was a supercar in its own right with a sophisticated suspension and cutting edge technology.
The Z32 (as it was called in Japan) represented a number of important milestones for Z cars and the automotive industry in general. Although not the first car designed using computers, it was one of the first cars to use the Cray supercomputer in all aspects of its initial design and development. The resulting tolerances afforded by computer precision saw refinements to features like flush side windows and hyper efficient packaging of the 3.0 engine in a tight low slung engine bay.
The media went crazy upon the cars initial release. The twin turbo version landed on top ten lists or was called one of the best cars in the world by Motor Trend and Car & Driver magazines. With a 155 mph top speed (computer govern) and a 0 to 60 time in the low 5 second range, it was easy to see what all the excitement was about. The 300ZX offered some stiff competition to V8 powered pony cars like the Mustang and even more expensive and exotic machines like the Corvette and Porsche 911. Sales were great in the early years as Nissan could hardly ship enough to meet demand. In 1990 sales reached 1 million units, marking a sales record for sports cars.
The 300Zx was a technological tour de force. Nearly all of Nissan’s advance technology was used in this car, including four-wheel steering, direct ignition and a quad cam V6 with variable valve timing. The big news was the twin-turbo V6. By using two smaller turbos with matching twin intercoolers instead of a larger single turbo, Nissan was able to avoid turbo lag, a problem with many turbo cars during this time. Over the course of production only two engine options were offered, twin turbo or normally aspirated V6. The output from twin turbo car’s 300 hp was managed by the limited slip differential at the rear wheels. The non-turbo car produced a respectable 222 hp and had many of the handling traits of the more expensive turbo. Two transmissions were offered: a five speed manual and a four sped automatic.
Many of the twin turbo cars were manual, but overall the automatic transmission became the most popular choice, especially in the convertible. The two engine choices could be used in a variety of configurations including a convertible, longer wheelbase 2+2 (the original car was strictly a two-seater). In an odd throwback to Trans-Ams of the 80’s, nearly all coupes had t-tops with removable panels that could be stowed in vinyl bag in the trunk. Rare was the car with just a basic hardtop (a few were made), even when moon roofs were becoming more commonplace. The T top would persist until the end, making it difficult to tell which version you were looking at casually. The visual differences between the turbo cars and the others were very subtle. Turbo cars could be spotted by their quad exhausts, rear spoilers and higher performance 225/50 ZR16 tires. The non-turbo cars could be ordered with the turbo’s spoiler; otherwise they were similar looking at first glance. They were exactly the same inside, save for the boost gauge in the dash display.
The snug interior two opposing control pods broke up what would have otherwise been a dash based on curves and organic shapes. A rising center stack gracefully ended in the center of the dash filled with the Bose CD Stereo and stowage areas. The controls were well laid out and were a textbook example of good Japanese ergonomic design. All the controls and safety features expected in a car of its caliber were included including an optional passenger air bag.
The ride was well controlled thanks to a multi-link rear suspension designed to adjust toe in and braking conditions to keep the car stable and the ride smooth. Nearly everything about the cars independent suspension featured some unusual touch by Nissan, from the variation on the front wishbone design to placement of coil springs, many suspension parts were modified from Nissan’s parts bin just for the 300ZX.
With so much technology, the 300ZX was not cheap, but considered a bargain by those cross shopping Porsches and ZR-1 Corvettes. Sales remained strong for much of the car’s seven year run in America, until swings in the market to SUV and unfavorable dollar to Yen exchange rates pushed the cost of a twin turbo car from around 30k in 1990 to close to 50k by 1996. Nissan decided to end sales in the US, but in Japan and other markets the 300ZX continued on with small changes until 2000. The 1989-96 300ZX remains a popular car in America, garnering modern classic status among fans of Japanese iron. The current Z cars have eclipsed the 300ZX in performance, while staying true to some basic aspects of its design, but are nowhere near as popular. Either way the late 300ZX will go down as one of the greatest mass-produced performance cars of the 1990s if not all time.