Most of the world’s leading automotive brands have dabbled in producing sports cars at some point in their history. However, aside from some relatively low volume players, none of these cars have ever been core to the business of these brands. They typically sell in low volumes compared to other models in the lineup, yet manufacturers persist because they can create a halo and excitement for the entire brand. One such example is the Nissan Z.
It’s now been nearly 51 years since the original Z, the 240Z (sold as the Fairlady Z in Japan) hit the market. Aside from a brief interruption from 2000 to 2002 (the interruption in North America actually started in 1996 when 300ZX was dropped here), variations on the Z theme have been with us ever since. The current generation 370Z has had a good run starting in 2009, but as is often the case, sales have been fading in recent years.
It’s time for Z reboot and that’s exactly what Nissan is previewing with the new Z Proto. Aside from maintaining the basic form factor of a rear-wheel-drive two-door coupe (with occasional convertible availability) powered by a front-mounted six-cylinder engine, Nissan has rarely resorted to retro design for the Z. Each subsequent generation has had a look of its own. The original took clear inspiration from the Jaguar E-Type, but after that, the Z followed its own path that wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but at least stood out from the crowd.
Now five decades later, the Z Proto is starting to draw on some of its own past. The long hood, cab rearward proportions are sports car classics.
“Our designers made countless studies and sketches as we researched each generation and what made them a success,” said Alfonso Albaisa, head of design at Nissan. “Ultimately, we decided the Z Proto should travel between the decades, including the future.”
The most obvious callback is in the headlights. None of the successive generations ever duplicated the round bucket lamps of the 240Z which were themselves borrowed from the E-Type. The Proto doesn’t exactly take them either but the tear-drop shaped LED lamps were evidently inspired by the the Japanese-market 240ZG which was a homologation special which was created to gain entry into Group 4 racing.
The 240ZG differed from standard 240Zs of the era with covered lamps and a longer, more aerodynamic nose. Those clear headlamp covers would create two semi-circular reflections when the lights were on. That look has been replicated with LEDs for the running lamps on the Z Proto.
The overall profile of the Z Proto reflects the original with a low tail. Along that back panel, the rear lamps draw on the look of the third-generation 300ZX of 1989. Like that edition, a black panel spans the tail with elongated oval taillamps at the corners that are now executed with LEDs.
Modern elements include carbon fiber trim along the lower edges and of course 19-inch alloy wheels. Inside, the gauges are rendered on a 12.3-inch digital display as is now common. The yellow paint of the exterior is also hinted at on the inside.
While most of today’s highest performance machines now eschew manual transmissions in favor of some sort of self-shifting variety, usually a dual-clutch transmission, Nissan has stuck with the classic approach. Three pedals and a driver only operated shift lever to row through six forward gears have pride of place here.
Nissan isn’t ready to discuss detailed specifications yet, but they do acknowledge that a twin-turbocharged V6 lies under the hood. Given that volumes will likely be modest, and the Z has always been meant to be comparatively affordable, it’s unlikely that an all-new powerplant will be used. Instead, this is almost assuredly a variant of the 3.0-liter twin turbo V6 offered in the Infiniti Q50 and Q60. Nissan may offer both the 300-hp and 400-hp variants. If the new Z is lighter than its predecessor, even with 300-hp, it may offer better performance than the 332-hp naturally aspirated 3.7-liter currently available.
At 172.5-inches, the Z proto is 5-inches longer than the 370Z and about 1/4-inch wider and lower. That also makes it almost exactly the same size as it’s chief competitor, the Toyota Supra. Now if we can just convince Mazda to launch a new rotary sports car, we’ll be right back to the glory days of Japanese sports cars in the early 90s before sales collapsed.