This article originally appeared in the March 1989 issue of Road & Track.
I've just driven one of the best sports cars in the world; one that's refreshing in style, balanced in feel and exhilarating in performance. And, curiously enough, this sports car has the same name as a handsome boulevardier of note, the Nissan 300ZX.
A little history may put things in perspective. Way back in 1970 there was another sports car from the same company, then known as Datsun. The 240Z was a milestone design showing the world that sports cars didn't have to be stark, open, impractical or, for that matter, even British. Its next iteration in 1974, the 260Z, was essentially one of engine displacement. But then softening of the arteries set in, as the 280ZX went sporty-car in 1978 and the 300ZX became positively boulevardier in 1983.
A very nice boulevardier, mind: Diluted though the 300ZX had become, for a while there it attracted customers at a rate of 5000/month, far and away the best selling Z of the lot. It was not, however, the sort of machine to stir the souls of hard-core sports car enthusiasts.
Even, for example, enthusiasts within Nissan. And, as you may have noticed these enthusiasts have been busy of late infusing new excitement into that corporate giant. Witness the 240SX, the Maxima and the car described in this very magazine. This one, here, now.
Examine the new 300ZX and you will see some Z-car heritage, but only hints of it. Compared with the previous Z, the car is shorter (by 3.9 in.) and wider (by 2.6 in.). Yet its wheelbase is 5.1 in. longer, with the result being less overhang and increased chunkiness. What's more, there's a new proportion of nose to rear deck with the cockpit farther forward, giving a suggestion of mid-engine potency to the car's front-engine/rear-drive nature.
And along with this styling analysis there's a story to tell, one that shows just how responsive Japanese automakers can be. In the first draft of this article, I wrote, "Less successful to my eye is the front end, dominated visually by that overly large emblem in the panel between the headlights. I'd have swapped it, corporate pride withstanding, for something more subtle..." Well, you can see the emblem in our accompanying photos, but you won't see it when cars go on sale. Even as this article was being prepared, Nissan called to let me know that two suggestions from journalists had already been adopted: A seatback release lacking on the prototypes had been added, and that emblem had been removed. Huzzah for the power of the press and for Nissan's responsiveness.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the car's rear three-quarter view is particularly attractive, the way the taillights are crisply ensconced in their blacked-out panel. And I really love that side window, an arc of decreasing radius that suggests a classic car shape yet is still so fresh.
These are elements of pure form, but there is excellent engineering here as well. The headlamps, for instance, use new optical technology allowing the lenses to be raked at a 60-degree angle to vertical. A lot of Cray super computer time went into CAFV, computer-aided flow visualization, of the car's front end, a critical region defining not only air penetration but also engine cooling and ground clearance. The wheels are set flush with the bodywork for reduced drag. Overall, the car's Cd works out to 0.31, quite respectable in light of its lift characteristics being superior to the Porsche 944 Turbo's or Chevrolet Corvette's, two of its evident targets.
There's another interesting aspect of the bodywork; this one, characterized by what's not there. The rear bumper panel is abbreviated, all the better to give enticing little glimpses of virile exhaust system, suspension components and differential.
The unibody structure, completely new, is 35 percent stiffer in bending mode and 20 percent stronger in torsional respects than the one it replaces. Continuous arc welding of some pieces, reinforcement of other panels with thermosetting resins and use of high-strength steel all enter into this. One payoff is rigidity equivalent to that of a closed coupe, despite the T-roof configuration of all 300ZXs destined for our market. (Alas, no full convertible is envisioned.)
Crashworthiness and repair also profit from clean-sheet (or is it now blank-screen?) design. Modular replacement, for instance, reduces the costs of collision damage and, one would assume, of insurance. And, even as fender benders are prudently avoided, the 300ZX's corrosion resistance is enhanced by widespread use of a new 2-side-zinc/nickel-coated steel.
The extreme stiffness of chassis gives suspension engineers a stable platform on which to mount their hardware. Though not really active in the pure sense (and not 4-wheel steer—more on this anon), this suspension fits the term "reactive" to a T. That is, in reacting to loads of cornering, accelerating and braking, it adjusts itself optimally to give enhanced stability, maneuverability and driver feel.
At each front corner, a lateral link and tension rod define the kingpin's lower pivot point. Its upper pivot depends on another 2-piece linkage, one that is rather unconventional: First, there's an upper arm angled forward, outward and upward from a relatively high chassis pickup point. Second, an intermediate link curves downward and inward connecting this upper arm with the kingpin. The point of all this is to separate optimization of the many constraints typically tangled up in a more conventional layout, things like camber, caster, anti-dive, anti-squat and steering offset. The coil spring, shock absorber and anti-roll bar act off the intermediate link, giving them an efficient 1:1 ratio of control.
As an example of the elegant engineering embodied in this front end, let's look at one implication of the angled upper arm: its effect on camber control. Ideally, for maximum stability and grip, the tire should stay at a right angle to the road under all conditions. Traveling in a straight line over bumps and dips, you'd like as little camber change as possible in response to suspension travel. And, if this were the only constraint, you'd choose an upper arm of roughly the same length as the lower arm; this, to approximate a parallelogram action of zero camber change.
Alas, but you'd like to go around corners too, wouldn't you? And in cornering, you want camber change so that orientation of the tire, particularly the heavily loaded outside one, will account for body roll and remain more or less upright. For this, you'd like the upper arm to be shorter than the lower one.
What's a suspension engineer to do?
If he's at Nissan, he devises that upper link angled forward from its chassis pickup. Then the arm's effective (albeit sometimes imaginary) length is determined by where its axis of swing intersects the wheel's centerline. So, when its wheel is pointed straight ahead, the link's lateral image can be as long as required for straight-line stability. Yet, when leaned on in a corner, the arm's shorter length gives the desired amount of negative camber, thus help ing to keep its wheel upright as the body rolls. Notice that this cornering argument works only in favor of the outside wheel, but not to worry. The inside wheel, essentially unloaded, has the easy job anyway. Neat, eh?
The rear suspension of the 300ZX uses a multilink layout similar to the Nissan 240SX's. Each hub is located by a lower A-arm, another lateral link angled farther back and a pair of upper links that just miss forming an A of their own. As with the front suspension, this multiplicity of links frees the design of entangling compromises.
The lower A-arm's chassis pickup points are angled with regard to the car's centerline and, what's more, they reside in bushings that are supple axially but stiff in the vertical direction. When loads of cornering or braking are applied, this compliance causes the entire A-arm to shift backward and inward slightly, and the lateral link likewise rotates to the rear. The result is toe-in of the rear wheels, just enough to enhance stability under these conditions.
The twin upper links characterize an imaginary kingpin axis that angles inward from top to bottom. This inward slant produces the same degree of toe-in in response to either form of braking, be it driver-induced (which acts at the tire patch) or the engine-induced kind (which acts at the wheel centerline).
Collectively, these links and arms define planes, arcs and axes going every which way, each with carefully calculated purpose and each the product of a great deal of computer-aided design. Viewed from the side, for instance, rear-wheel travel defines an arc that's centered just barely rearward of the ideal point of zero-squat/zero-lift. That's to say, any tendencies of excessive lift or squat have been engineered out of the ZX's suspension.
Its steering has had any bad habits excised as well. The 300ZX has rack-and-pinion, but what makes it special is a novel twin-orifice road-speed-sensitive power assist, developed to counter what Nissan engineers saw as inherent tradeoffs of previous speed-sensitive units.
First, some background: One approach to speed-sensitive assist is to vary the steering pump's flow rate inversely with road speed: The faster you drive, the less flow through the pump, the less flow through the system's control valve, or orifice, and the less assist. This works fine until you give a quick stab of the wheel at high speed, an emergency maneuver, for instance. Then it's all too possible for a flow-rate system to "catch," that is, to find it self momentarily low on fluid through the orifice and, thus, low on boost.
Another approach is called hydraulic reaction control. As its name implies, this one varies hydraulic pressure at the control orifice to augment the system's mechanical resistance, its steering feel, typically provided by a built-in torsion spring. At low speed, only a little hydraulic resistance is added, and the driver experiences full assist. As speed increases, fluid at higher pressure provides additional resistance, generating added feel. This approach is more amenable to fine-tuning than is its flow-rate counterpart. However, it has tradeoffs too: complexity and, what's worse, a tendency to ward jerky response, especially just off center.
Nissan's solution, an entirely new one, is to have two separate control orifices in the system. At low speed, the flow is routed through both orifices, which together are sized to produce the desired full assist. Then, as speed increases, a drain valve gradually diverts flow from one of the orifices, ultimately leaving only the other orifice to control the assist. And this latter one is sized to provide optimal assist for high speed.
To say the brakes are conventional is only in contrast to the 300ZX's suspension and steering. They too are high in technological content, with 4-wheel vented discs, opposed- piston calipers of aluminum for reduced unsprung weight and ABS as standard equipment. The wheels of the ZX have an open spoke pattern; this, for at least two reasons: assuring maximum airflow for cooling the discs—and as styling statements, giving tantalizing views of the discs and caliper assemblies. This is a car that's proud of its mechanical nature.
But what about under its hood? Here, the only holdover from the previous ZX is the numerical designation representing its almost 3.0-liter displacement, 2960 cc, to be exact. Cylinder heads and block, valve gear, crank shaft, intake and exhaust are all new for this quad-cam 24-valve 60-degree 222-bhp V6.Downstream of its centrally mounted air cleaner and airflow meter, for example, are separate intake and exhaust tracts for each bank with tuned intake runners, aerodynamically tapered ports and dual exhaust. Each cylinder has its own separate ignition as well, in a system similar to those pioneered by Saab and Buick. Connected directly to each spark plug is a compact coil that gets its trigger signal from the engine-management computer. Another refinement owing its origins to another auto maker, this time Alfa Romeo, appears in the valve gear. NVTC, Nissan Valve Timing Control, uses hydraulic means to rotate a helical gear connecting the camshaft and its drive pulley. Basic timing is tuned for high-speed efficiency, but at low to medium rpm and light load, orientation of the camshaft and its drive pulley is shifted causing the intake valves to open and (more critically) to close sooner. This effectively shifts the 198-lb-ft torque peak to lower rpm and lessens the tradeoffs inherent in valve timing of the fixed variety.
And isn't it refreshing when an automaker takes concepts of another manufacturer and refines them. So often, a Not Invented Here syndrome prevails, where folks waste considerable time and effort dodging around someone else's good idea, only to come up with something truly mediocre.
Even the 5-speed gearbox admitted some redesign. Analyses of many transmissions, for instance, showed that shifts into 2nd or 3rd tended to require increased effort, the result being an unbalanced feel. Nissan's response with the 300ZX is to fit new double-cone synchronizers for these gears. Shift-lever orientation was another area of study, with short stroke of an upright lever deemed optimal. So engineers devised a floor-mounted shifter remote from the transmission whose short actuation is enhanced by a support rod connecting the point of pivot with the transmission housing.
Other controls in the 300ZX cockpit show similar care in development. There's a unity of form and function that's evident to anyone familiar with Nissan's Arc-X concept car, its new Maxima or the 240SX. Soft contours, interesting textures and free-flowing panels predominate. The driver's environment is centered on an instrument cluster, thankfully large, readable and analog, rimmed by control pods. To the driver's right are controls for heat/vent/air conditioning and wipers. To the left are lights, cruise-control master switch and rear-window heat. And each of these controls is Honda-esque in execution (high praise). There's well nigh perfect engineering of feel, just the right actuation effort, stroke and response feedback.
To some eyes, though, there's an esthetic tradeoff: The dashboard is perhaps not quite as smoothly integrated as that of the 240SX. But a design goal with the 300ZX was to have all the important controls within driver's reach with out having to take one's hands off the steering wheel, and the dual pod layout certainly accomplishes this.
Well, we've examined the new 300ZX from front to rear, from top to bottom. But enough of examination already.What's it like to drive?
As I noted at the beginning, it's one of the best sports cars in the world. I realize this may sound more than a little premature, based as it is on admittedly brief experience—and all at Nissan's Tochigi test facility. But I believe the opinions of my colleagues and, even more telling, of future customers will bear me out.
For instance, Tochigi's Country Road circuit is a twisty two-lane, with an off-camber here, a decreasing radius there, and more than a few bumps designed to upset a car's composure; the sort of place where "oops" is a bad word. Around there, the new 300ZX could be driven with a level of confidence bordering on bravado, even before you remind yourself which way the road goes. Pushed to your comfortable limit, the car still has some reserve. And this word applies in two distinct senses, "reserve" as in having some untapped performance remaining, and also in the sense of being generally benign. The new 300ZX is a car that simply never snaps back.
Its steering communicates very well, with nary a kickback but plenty of information about grip at the front tires. At the car's evidently high limits, however, this steering seems to spend a good deal of its time communicating a single word—understeer. On the other hand, trading comments with Nissan folks, I sensed that this is precisely what they want: suspension tuning that gives predictable handling, more than a good dose of forgiveness—and absolutely no unpleasant surprises.
The brakes, ABS-invoked or otherwise, work just fine, with the sort of pedal that makes trail-braking artful.
Straight-line performance is in keeping with a car of this character, 0-60 mph in the low 7-second range, I'd guess. And around Tochigi's high-banked oval I settled in for a drama-free tour at an indicated 130 mph. Even had the T-roof panels out for a while there, with plenty of wind noise but surprisingly little buffeting.
And if you're a particularly patient sort, let me tell you about another new 300ZX I drove, the Turbo. It has twin turbos and twin intercoolers and 300 bhp. And its suspension adds a new HICAS variation, Nissan's latest production iteration of 4-wheel steer with just a twitch of counter-steer to enhance yaw response at turn-in. Responsive though the normally aspirated car is, the Turbo makes it feel positively tame. Expect the Turbo to reach 60 in the mid-5s. (I recorded a hand-held low-6 sec without lots of ordeal.) Expect it to give a wonderfully GTP-like whooop-whooop-whooop from its wastegate as you run up through the gears. And, alas, expect it to be October or so before you can buy one.
By contrast, the normally aspirated 300ZX had its world introduction at the Chicago Auto Show in early February. It's expected to be on sale by April, with a 2+2 version following in three months, or so. If I could pin down prices, I'd be able to make regular killings on all the international monetary markets. But we can bet Nippon-logical competitive pricing will obtain, perhaps $25,000, say, for a normally aspirated 2-seater. Whatever happens to the dollar/yen relationship, I'd aim these new ZXs at other real sports cars of the Stuttgart/Bowling Green variety. And isn't that a funny geographical linkage?