Nissan 370Z 2020 nismo (5yr)

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ABC to Z: A quick guide to the iconic Nissan Z-cars

A look back at six generations of Z

In late 1969, Nissan underwent a step-change. It introduced the first-generation Z-car known as the Datsun 240Z or Nissan Fairlady Z depending on where you lived.

As time went on, the Nissan Z-car went on to become one of the most successful sports car families of all time.

Now that legacy is set to continue with the Nissan Z Proto. This concept car has been designed to provide some insight into what the next seventh-generation car is going to offer us.

We thought it would be only fair to do a quick recap on the six generations of Z-car that have come before.


Generation 1: S30

The first S30-generation Z-car launched in 1969. It was the product of two legendary Japanese executives – Yoshihiko Matsuo, the chief designer on the Fairlady Z project, and Yutaka Katayama, the president of Nissan USA at the time.

It's Katayama, informally known around the traps simply as 'Mr. K', who is credited as being the father of the Nissan Z-car.

It was with his influence that he pushed the brand into the risky decision to produce the S30 – a decision that ended up paying off in spades. Almost overnight, Nissan's 'made in Japan' origins went from taboo to accepted in the US market.

It was a complex car for its time, making use of independent suspension on both the front and rear axle. All iterations of the S30-generation Z-car were powered by the glorious L-series engine family, which has its cylinders arranged in-line. Displacement initially started at 2.4 litres, and grew as high as 2.8 litres in some markets.

Later 260Z models introduced a 2+2 body type, which was essentially a stretched-out four-seat version of the regular car.

What's to love: Iconic styling. To some, the prettiest car to ever come out of Japan.


Generation 2: S130

1978 saw the debut of the new second-generation car known to us as the 280ZX.

The ’80s were imminent, and they struck early with this particular version. The 280ZX shifted into more of a grand touring (GT) car, becoming more refined, more comfortable, and more universally appealing in the process.

Its styling was in keeping with the first car, only now more sharp, jagged, and thus less organic than before. Gone were those beautiful, sweeping ’60s curves.

Underneath, the car was all new. The biggest change was found out back, as this new car adopted a semi-trailing arm suspension system in lieu of the previous Chapman-style A-arm and strut rear design as found on the earlier 240Z.

The two main themes that were carried over to the new S130 version were the continuation of 2+2 four-seat variants as per the later 260Z from generation one, and that buttery-smooth L-series engine. That was about it.

In Australia, we were sadly lumbered with a non-turbo 2+2 version only. We did, however, benefit from the Targa top; a novelty that was introduced to the Z-car range with the 280ZX.

What's to love: Radical ’80s styling, open-air motoring.


Generation 3: Z31

Pop-up headlights. You've gotta love them. Even if they're semi pop-up, like the ones found on the third-generation Z-car.

Most significant to this generation was the new set of engines shoehorned under the bonnet. The majority of cars around the world, including every example delivered to Australia, were powered by a new VG family of V6 engines.

With this new V6 engine, Australia received its first, and last, taste of official turbocharged Z power. On top of that, all Z31 models delivered here new featured a targa top as standard.

As for options, a cool digital dash was one of them. Underneath, the Z31 was similar to the previous car. It wasn't until the later Z32 where things began to evolve quite heavily.

Fun fact: The Z31 generation was the last time we saw straight-six power in a Nissan Z-car.

A special edition, called the 200zr, employed a 2.0-litre turbocharged Nissan RB straight-six engine. This RB-generation engine was ideally suited to the car, as it was the spiritual successor to the legendary L-series that powered all Z-cars before it.

What's to love: Pop-up headlights, locally delivered turbocharged version.


Generation 4: Z32

Have you ever played a PlayStation game called Gran Turismo 2? Of course you have. That's why when I say 300ZX, you think of this particular car and not the one that came before it.

On the topic of computers, Nissan engineers used the most powerful supercomputer at the time, a Cray Research Cray-2, to aid the design process of the Z32.

They used this machine to analyse the size and weight of each component of the body structure. Why? So they could then identify where the best savings in weight could be made if they were to employ other materials such as aluminium, advanced polymers and high-tensile steels.

They also simulated crash tests, too, using a Cray-2 supercomputer.

Advancements in general technology saw the Z32 move back to its sports car roots more so than the two generations that preceded it.

Adaptive dampers debuted with twin-turbo models, as did Nissan's rear-wheel-steering technology called 'Super HICAS' (Super-High Capacity Actively Controlled Steering).

The same VG family of engines was used; however, now they were topped with double-overhead-cam cylinder heads and a rudimentary form of variable valve timing.

In Australia, we only received a naturally aspirated version over a production period of six years, from 1990 to 1996. Once discontinued, the flood gates opened with many privately imports, including twin-turbo versions, finding new homes here in Australia.

What's to love: Back to being a genuine sports car, fantastic quad-cam V6 engine.


Generation 5: Z33

If you want a refresher on what made the 350Z so good, watch the official Nissan promotional film above.

The 350Z was introduced to the world in 2002, and to us, in the metal, in February 2003.

Making those magical sounds in the film above is Nissan's latest VQ series of V6 engine, which now displaced 3.5 litres and made 206kW.

As a testament to its quality, the VQ engine family made it onto the prestigious Ward's 10 Best Engines list consecutively for 14 years straight. No small feat.

Like the current Z Proto concept car, Nissan heavily mentioned the original 240Z in its 350Z press material of the time, stating that it developed "a perfect combination of performance and handling, value, design, and durability", as per the original first-generation car.

MORE: 2007 Nissan 350Z specification & pricing

You didn't need to listen to the global PR team waxing lyrical about connections between the original car to see them for yourself.

Cues such as its elongated front, three-angle cabin design, and arch-shaped roof all sing from the same Z-car songbook as the first car did.

Inside, small touches are aplenty, including a triple-gauge array that instantly draws continuity between itself and the first-generation 240Z.

Later in 2007, a facelift landed in Australia that featured a hopped-up version of the same 3.5-litre V6. These models can be distinguished via a large power bulge on the bonnet.

What's to love: Z's gone pretty again, late-model HR versions sounded incredible.


Generation 6: Z34

If you're feeling all romantic after reading through this brief history piece, then don't stress – you can still go out and treat yourself to a new Z-car right now. A whole 11 years after its launch, the Z34 370Z is still offered in our market as a brand-new car.

Despite the Z34 being virtually all new when compared to the previous car, it almost feels like a pretty serious facelift. Styling remained similar, the cabin looking evolutionary compared to the past, and they even drove quite similarly, too, in fact.

One of the main things conveying this sense of commonality between them is the powertrain, no doubt.

The naturally aspirated V6 has reached its final form in the 370Z. Still the same VQ family, only now up in capacity to 3.7 litres, up in terms of compression ratio at 11.0:1, and packed full of clever engine tech including the brand's variable valve-lift system.

The 370Z also marks the last naturally aspirated Z-car, as the new Z Proto is set to be twin-turbocharged.

Regardless of whether you opt for an early 2009 build or a brand-spanking 2020 version, all will feature a 245kW version of this fantastic engine. That's unless you decide on a Nismo variant, in which case you'll be treated to 253kW coming courtesy of a new exhaust system and engine tune.

I'll end with a quote from my colleague, Rob Margeit: "Nissan, with the Nismo iteration of the 370Z, has finally built the car it should have been all along".

Do you own a Nissan Z-car? Share your stories with us in the comments section below.

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