First Drive: The 2023 Nissan Z Is An Instant Sports Car Classic
Turbo power and stylish design distinguish the exceptional new Nissan Z.
The first time I ever heard of a Nissan Z, I was 13 years old and sitting on my porch with my mom’s boyfriend. I liked him as much as I could like any man dating my mother, which wasn’t much. But I was willing to hear him out.
Here’s the story he told:
I was hitchhiking in the middle of Illinois one night in the summer of ‘72. It was late and I was so tired I would’ve fallen asleep standing up if it wasn’t pouring rain. There wasn’t a car on the road, and I knew nobody would stop for me even if there was. But then these round headlights appeared, and a little sports car pulled over in front of me. It was a brand new 240Z.
The second I closed the door, the driver floored it. Faster than I’d ever been in a car and ever have since. I realized I was trapped with some psycho with a death wish who wanted to take me with him. Pretty soon we hit a wide curve in the road going over a hundred, and a concrete embankment appeared right front of us. I knew we were done.
But then, he started slamming the brake pedal over and over with his foot––BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP-BAP––like manual anti-lock brakes. He brought it to a hard stop a few yards from the concrete.
“How did you do that?” I asked him.
“I’m a professional racecar driver,” he said.
I leaned back in that bucket seat, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. And I don’t think I’ve slept better since.
Now, whether that story was true, or just a man trying to win over his girlfriend’s adolescent son, it didn’t really matter. After that story, the guy was alright by me. And the Nissan Z has had a special allure for me ever since. So, when my contact at Nissan called me and asked if I wanted to test out the new Z, my answer was, “As soon as possible.”
A Brief Zistory
In 1961, Nissan’s president was visiting the US and went to see the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which was wildly popular at the time. He named his new sports car line “Fairlady” with hopes of capitalizing on that popularity. Two generations of Fairlady roadsters were made before the classic closed-body design we recognize as the Z was launched in 1969 as the Fairlady Z 432 in Japan and the Datsun 240Z in the US.
When the Z went on sale in America in 1970, it defied the beefy American muscle cars of the era, like the Dodge Charger, Pontiac Firebird, and Ford Mustang. Yet it was a massive hit, undercutting sales of American and European sports cars to the point that you had to get on a waiting list to buy one. One of these first-gen models sold recently for $800,000 at auction. In 1979, Paul Newman raced a 280ZX that recently sold for mid-seven figures. This new model, which would blow the doors off any that came before it, can be had for $50,000.
The profile of the 2023 Nissan Z is what best captures the soul of the original design. Whether you’re gawking at it like a teenager or just catching it in the corner of your eye, it gives you a feeling that you know you’ve felt before, only this time it’s just a little bit better.
There are specific throwback details like the rear spoiler and the dual-strip taillights that are direct interpretations of the originals, but the overall effect is greater than the sum of any individual design cues.
The interior is comfortable and modern without forgetting its roots—a mix of touchscreen convenience and analog gauges on the dash. Given the reasonable asking price, I was pleasantly surprised that it felt much more luxurious than utilitarian. I could’ve done with a little more headroom, but not at the cost of marring the Z’s elegant profile. It’s surely comfortable enough for a daily driver or for a road trip with minimal luggage.
With 400 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque in a two-seater this size, you’re going to notice very quickly that this is not a normal, average thing to drive around in. The power comes early in the RPMs and the center of gravity is so low that you just want to push that traction-to-power ratio at every stop and turn.
The last Nissan I drove was the GTR, which is a totally different animal but an interesting comparison. While the GTR is still the performance king of the Nissan lineup, the Z gives you turbo power earlier in the RPMs and keeps things exciting on the roads you drive every day, as well as when you get it on a track or a well-paved country road.
It’s just enough overkill, but not so much that you feel like the car is judging you for obeying traffic laws. And the engine sound is wonderful—as if the Nissan engineers managed to audibly mirror the vintage spirit of the design.
Years ago, I interviewed automotive designer Camilo Pardo, the chief designer of the 2005 reinvention of the Ford GT—a masterpiece of a modern car with vintage influence. He told me that design is not linear, but a constant cycle of old to new and back again, and that iconic cars are a result of a perfect alignment of design with zeitgeist.
Sometimes the cycles hit at just the right moment. It seems to me that this happened with the 2023 Nissan Z. A car in which the synchronicity of performance, design, and the tastes of the moment we are in have clicked in a way that makes it an instant classic.
For $50,000, I don’t think anything else can touch it. As for who this car is for, I’m sure Nissan would say anyone. I would say that it’s for anyone who wants to have an experience in their car, however long or short the drive.
And if you ever find yourself dating someone with a 13-year-old son you’re trying to win over, take it from me—get yourself a Z.