1990 – 1996 Nissan 300ZX - Part 1

By Gregg Kerber

“Finally, a Japanese sports car that can run with the big dogs”.

“A world class sports car”.

“One of the most alluring cars to appear on the U.S. market in years”.

These are just a few of the accolades written by the automotive press regarding the Nissan 300ZX upon its debut in 1989.

The 1990 through 1996 300ZX (Z32) is the 4th generation of the famous Nissan “Z-car”. The first generation was the 240Z which first appeared in 1969. The 260Z and 280Z followed completing the very successful run of the original car. The second generation was the 280ZX in 1978 and was a move away from the traditional sports car theme to a personal luxury GT. The third generation became the 300ZX (Z31), appearing in 1983, was a further development along these lines.

In 1986 Nissan changed direction due to a sagging market share in their domestic and foreign markets. Yutaka Kume, an engineer in charge of research and development, took over as president in 1985 and promised Nissan’s image would change. His aim was to be the number one automobile manufacturer in advanced design and technology. The 1987 Tokyo Motor Show provided many concept cars that represented the future of Nissan. These cars included the ARC-X (a predecessor to the Infiniti Q45) and the Mid-4 sports car with a twin turbo charged V6 and all wheel drive. Many of the features from the Mid-4 are found in the 300ZX.

The 300ZX started out as “Project UZ”. The basic premise was to return to the ideas that made the original 240Z a sensation 15 years earlier. This was easier said than done given the ground rule to make the “world’s best sports car”. The mid-engine design of the Mid-4 was scrapped for the UZ project because it was considered to appeal to a smaller cross-section of potential buyers than a front engine-rear drive layout. The other important consideration was to offer a 2+2 version. Nissan considered the Porsche 944 Turbo as a target, but did not want a Japanese “copy” version.

To achieve their goals, Nissan estimated the new car would need 250-300 bhp. The choice was between a new, or heavily revised (from the Z31 300ZX), V6 around 3 liters, or the recently developed 4.5-liter V8 slated for the Infiniti Q45. They decided on the V6 because it was more compact allowing a lower hood line and most sports cars did not exceed 3-3.5 liters. So a new development program was started on the VG30 which ended up as virtually a new engine. The choice of the V6 meant they could offer a normally aspirated and turbo charged engine.

The all-wheel drive technology in the Mid-4 was considered but decided against because improved tire technology and good weight distribution would provide adequate traction. Besides, the all-wheel drive system would have added two inches to the hood line, which was deemed unacceptable by Nissan.

So Nissan went to work developing concepts for the new 300ZX. Hundreds of sketches and renderings were developed. From these, 11 were selected and worked into 1/5th-scale models. From these models, three were selected and built as full-size mockups. Of these three choices, the final choice was the most radical design. It was chosen because it placed the driver at the center of the car between the front and rear wheels. The steeply raked windshield and unusual head lamps added to its personality.

The windshield and the head lamp design posed some challenges of their own. Ferrari and Lamborghini produced cars with windshield rakes less than 25 degrees, but with distortion as a consequence. Nissan achieved a 26-degree rake without distortion, which was quite an accomplishment. For the head lamp design, the supplier developed a new glass-pressing process.

Good aerodynamic performance was also a primary goal for the 300ZX designers. Many hours were spent in a wind tunnel to achieve a target coefficient of drag (Cd) of around 0.3 without impacting the styling of the car. A Cd of 0.31 was achieved for the normally aspirated car, but the higher performance levels of the turbo car would require a lift coefficient close to zero, front and rear. To achieve this, a deeper front apron and rear spoiler were specified, at the expense of a slight increase in drag. While accepting the functional requirement for the turbo model, designers preferred the form of the non-turbo car. The 300ZX Turbo ended up with a Cd of 0.32.

Originally, a convertible version was not considered. Removable roof panels were accepted which resulted in the side windows having no upper frame. Two-seater and 2+2 versions were planned all along. Designers once again achieved success by having a close visual similarity between the two versions (the 2+2 added 5” between the trailing edge of the door and the rear wheel arch).

Inside the car, ergonomics was addressed from a clean sheet of paper. Large, easy-to-read analog gauges were employed with all essential switchgear placed at the driver’s fingertips. It was decided that the steering column and instrument pod would be fixed with careful attention to the placement of both in relation to the driver.

As a part of the “clean sheet” design approach, Nissan decided to have an extensive overseas test program (a first for Nissan). The reason was to be able to test their new flagship car in the environments it would be driven in. To test the 300ZX with adequately trained drivers, Nissan sent a select group of test drivers to the ADAC Rennsport race driving school at the old 14-mile Nurburgring in Germany. There they developed their judgmental skills by driving a variety of high performance cars at the limit on this very demanding circuit. They also drove Porsche 944s and 928s at high speed on the Autobahn. They were then sent to Laguna Seca and Willow Springs in California for further training in a different environment with different target cars.

The goal of the chassis and suspension was to provide a blend of world class handling and stability, and a comfortable ride. It was decided at an early stage that MacPherson-strut front suspension and semi-trailing-arm rear suspension would not be good enough for the new 300ZX. Nissan was developing other powerful front engine, rear drive cars – the 200/240SX, the new Skyline, and the Infiniti Q45 – all of which faced similar challenges. A multi-link rear suspension was suggested similar to that being used by Mercedes Benz. This suspension first appeared on the ARC-X and Mid-4 concept cars and made its production debut on the 200/240SX in 1988. The 300ZX took this suspension layout one step further by using a Cray X/MP supercomputer for complex mathematical solutions. This helped narrow the choices down to a few options to be built as prototypes. This prompted the development of the STB, or Suspension Test Bed. This was a vehicle that resembled a dune buggy in appearance, but the similarities ended there. The STB consisted of three modules – a turbocharged V6 and front and rear suspension modules. The suspension modules could be changed or adjusted very easily for different geometry, wheelbase, track, and weight distribution. The STB was also used for durability testing on open roads to avoid spy photographs. The final configuration for the 300ZX was a multi-link set up front and rear. Further road testing of the chassis and suspension would be done with a prototype chassis with previous generation 300ZX body panels tacked on.

Although all-wheel drive and active suspension were rejected for the 300ZX, engineers decided to incorporate rear-wheel steering into the new car. They called it Super HICAS (High Capacity Actively Controlled Suspension). In short, it is a limited rear steering designed to improve stability and behavior in high-speed swerve maneuvers. It was specified for the Turbo model only.

All told, the UZ program took three years to complete and involved 190 prototype cars and 1.25 million miles of testing. In fact, the European-spec 300ZX Turbo lapped the Nurburgring in 8 min 40 sec – 6 seconds faster than Porsche’s top test driver could manage in a 928GT. In the end, the designers and engineers were satisfied that they had produced a world class sports car that could meet the various market demands around the world. This is supported by the fact that there are eight different specifications for spring rates, damper type and setting, tire size and type, and electronic control of Super HICAS. Another example of unique market-driven specifications can be seen in the Turbo model. The US version is a 2-seater while the European markets were given a 2+2 version.

So the 300ZX was ready. The US launch was scheduled for the 1989 Chicago Auto Show where it was labeled a 1990 model. When it went on sale in May 1989, only the normally aspirated 2-seater was available. The 2+2 followed in June with the Turbo in September. Australia was introduced to the 300ZX (non-turbo) in November and the Turbo 2+2 model made it to Europe in spring 1990.

Initial production was set at 5000 units per month, with more than one half destined for the US. The car was an immediate hit around the world. The automotive press got right to work comparing it to cars such as the Porsche 944 and the Corvette.

Motor Trend magazine named the 1990 300ZX Turbo their Car of the Year and said ‘Dollar for dollar, the 300ZX is the best damn sports car in the world’.

Car and Driver magazine named the 300ZX one of its Ten Best Cars every year of its production. Writers were quoted as saying “ How could anyone resist a package that looks this good and performs this well.”; “For the purest kind of driving satisfaction on the perfect road on the perfect day, the Nissan 300ZX Turbo gets our vote as the perfect car.”; “The 300ZX Turbo puts 300 horsepower at your disposal and presents that power in a package so pleasant to occupy that we found ourselves saying over and over that we could not believe a high-performance coupe could be this good and the smooth. Believe us, it can.”; “There’s so much to like about this car that finding a starting point is easy. You can start anywhere.”.

The 300ZX was so well designed and accepted that it remained basically the unchanged for each of its model years with only minor cosmetic, engine, suspension, and brake changes. Its popularity spawned many “copies” by other car manufactures (Mitsubishi 3000GT/Dodge Stealth, Mazda RX-7, and Toyota Supra). This, however, saturated the market for sport coupes. This, coupled with the fact that mini vans and sport utilities were becoming increasingly popular prompted Nissan to stop exporting the 300ZX to the US after the 1996 model year. Another reason for the demise of the 300ZX in the US was new federal emissions regulations (OBD II) that would have driven the cost of the Turbo model up even further. Nissan still produces the 300ZX in Japan. The 1999 model received many exterior body changes.

There are rumors that a new “Z” car is slated for the US market in the 2000 model year. It has been reported that it will be heavily based on what made the original 240Z a success story.

Stay tuned…