Almost all brands have let their affordable sports cars fizzle out in Europe, but Nissan has poured more petrol on the fire Stateside

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The automotive world has changed a huge amount in the past two decades, especially when it comes to affordable sports cars.

It’s a shock to realise that it’s now 20 years since the Nissan 350Z was introduced, especially for those of us old enough to have have attended the original media presentation in California. Yet the new Nissan Z, which we’ve also met in the US, is only two generations removed from that car and much more similar than it is different.

The digital dash is crisply rendered and gives you the ability to configure the dials for different information. It’s reminiscent of the functionality Nissan pioneered with the R34 Skyline GT-R’s adjustable display 24 years ago.

Back in 2002, the 350Z felt like a renaissance car for Nissan, an affordable two-seat sports coupé that combined punchy V6 power with rear-wheel drive and a handsome exterior, this styled by a young designer from Leicester called Ajay Panchal. The driving experience lacked high levels of finesse, but the 350Z’s combination of strong performance and fun, tail-happy handling won it fans around the world.

But as times and tastes changed, the Nissan didn’t. The 370Z arrived in 2009, and although it was wider and had a slightly plusher cabin, the basics remained as before: a naturally aspirated V6 up front sending drive to the back. It sold well enough for Nissan to keep making it, and indeed to facelift it and create a hardcore Nismo variant, but never in volumes that would allow any significant investment in a substantial update. It lasted 12 years, with its retirement marking the end of the Z-car line in Europe.

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Not in North America, though, where Nissan has opted to throw the dice one more time. The general fall in coupé sales meant the company wasn’t prepared to stump up for an all-new model, so beneath the Z’s retro bodywork is much of the 370Z’s structure. The closeness of the relationship is borne out by the fact both share an identical wheelbase.

The big change comes under the bonnet, with the arrival of a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6, this sourced from sister brand Infiniti’s Q50 and making an impressively bristly 400bhp but adding about 80kg compared with the old V6. Buyers can choose either a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic gearbox, with the senior Performance trim also adding a limited-slip differential at the back.

The crisp lines of the retro exterior design work well, although the strangely large fuel filler cap at the back is further evidence of the need to bend new metalwork around the 370Z that continues to lurk underneath. Being a child of the 1980s, I really like the Z32 300ZX-style rear lights, too.

But the anachronistic impression persists when you get into the cabin. The Z has plenty of modern touches, including digital instruments and the mandatory touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, but the core architecture seems barely changed from that of the 370Z. That means awkward, hard-to-see rotary heating controls tucked low down and a trio of supplementary analogue dials on the dashtop, turned towards the driver. The seat-adjustment controls are still awkwardly positioned between the seat base and the transmission tunnel. A mechanical handbrake lever and high/off/low rocker switches for the heated seats add to the dated vibe.

Performance has definitely improved, though. The 370Z always had to be worked hard to give its best, whereas the Z’s new turbocharged engine has much more low-down muscle. The 350lb ft torque peak is fully present from just 1500rpm, and although there is some predictable lag at basement revs, enthusiasm builds rapidly and the engine gains a muscular voice as the rev counter heads towards the red. Peak power comes at 6400rpm, but the engine will happily go to its 7100rpm limiter. The shift action for the manual gearbox is light and a little lacking in feel but accurate once the knack is gained, and the Z has a switchable rev-matching function to smooth your downshifts.

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The chassis starts out well, too – certainly under gentle use. The Z’s steering has been switched to electric power assistance, the 370Z having used a hydraulic rack until the end. The new system has nice weight and delivers progressive, linear front-end responses. Grip from the Bridgestone S007 tyres initially feels promising, and the Z is keen to change direction and to hold onto an intended line.

Traction is also good:the car can be launched hard without drama. But upping the pace and moving onto rougher roads soon proves that the new Z’s dynamic polish doesn’t go very deep. Bumps make the chassis feel underdamped and bring the more worrying sensation of vibration in the car’s structure. The tyres’ enthusiasm fades quickly as loading increases, with the Z surrendering to understeer surprisingly early in tighter turns. It feels much more nose-heavy than I remember the 370Z being.

Adhesion levels at the back are equally limited, and it’s predictably easy to deliberately overpower the rear tyres with the stability control switched off. My test car was an LSD-equipped Performance, and it did feel stable and progressive when oversteering, but results in the open-diffed Sport model would probably be less elegant.

The continued ability to indulge in low-speed hoonery makes the new Z feel like a close relation of both the 370Z and the 350Z. The problem is that so does everything else. The new engine is definitely a step forward in terms of both punch and drivability, and the Z now feels up to 2022 standards in terms of interior technology, but beyond that, I’m really struggling to nominate any areas in which it feels like significant progress from its predecessors – and in several areas, it actually feels like a regression.

The Z has the odd distinction of feeling old even when it’s introduced, being well off the standards of the far more advanced Toyota GR Supra. At least it’s a disparity that Nissan implicitly acknowledges with some very attractive pricing.

The kick-off in the US for the Z Sport is $41,015 – $2525 less than Toyota wants for the considerably less powerful four-cylinder Supra. At $51,015, the Z Performance also looks like good value when compared with the Supra or the base Porsche 718 Cayman, although that does make it $10,000 more than the entry point for the V8-powered Ford Mustang.

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Yet the Z feels like a car that’s cheaper than its peers with good reason, lacking the dynamic finesse that normally comes as standard in this part of the market. Leaving aside the negative effect that importing it would doubtless have had on Nissan’s fleet-average CO2 emissions figures on this side of the Atlantic, Nissan is probably right to keep it away from Europe.

Mike Duff

Mike Duff
Title: Contributing editor

Mike has been writing about cars for more than 25 years, having defected from radio journalism to follow his passion. He has been a contributor to Autocar since 2004, and is a former editor of the Autocar website. 

Mike joined Autocar full-time in 2007, first as features editor before taking the reins at autocar.co.uk. Being in charge of the video strategy at the time saw him create our long running “will it drift?” series. For which he apologies.

He specialises in adventurous drive stories, many in unlikely places. He once drove to Serbia to visit the Zastava factory, took a £1500 Mercedes W124 E-Class to Berlin to meet some of its taxi siblings and did Scotland’s North Coast 500 in a Porsche Boxster during a winter storm. He also seems to be a hypercar magnet, having driven such exotics as the Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini SCV12, Lotus Evija and Pagani Huayra R.