TG's Rowan Horncastle gives his take on the Nissan Z
Pssst! Let me let you into a bit of a secret – I saw the new Nissan Z nearly two years ago.
‘Who cares?’, you’re probably thinking. 'The whole world has now seen Nissan’s throwback rear-wheel-drive, twin-turbocharged 400bhp two-door coupe with a manual transmission'. But I’ve had to keep it – and my overriding disappointment – under my hat. Until now.
My secret meeting was before the 2019 Tokyo motor show, where Nissan's PR representatives shuffled us onto a bus without telling us where we were going or what we were doing. After a few dizzying laps of the expressway, we were spat out at Nissan’s design headquarters in Atsugi-shi, Kanagawa.
With our phone cameras covered and our mouths contractually zipped shut, Alfonso Albaisa – Nissan’s design chief – passionately gave us a rundown of Nissan’s future design plans and how his Cuban-American background and love for Japanese culture would dictate what they look like. We were then taken outside and saw a crystal ball of Nissan’s future portfolio. Cars we’ve now seen (Ariya, Qashqai, Patrol) and some we haven’t. But there was also the Z, standing out like a sore, slightly rehashed thumb.
I was immediately conflicted. Yes, in a wave of electric powertrains it was good news for fans of naturally aspirated engines and manuals. People like us. But after so much fanfare and expectation, I was ready for more.
Nissan had been campaigning a lot about e-POWER and its EV future, so I was braced and excited to see a radical new Z. But it didn't arrive. What we got was the old 350Z formula in some faded retro lipstick and cheap make-up. After all these years of hype, the new one isn't radical at all. It's a similar shape (one our brain now defaults to the more appealing Jaguar F-Type) as the past. And there's nothing truly new.
So given there’s nothing original on it, why wait so long? The car is theoretically already over ten years old and its predecessor needed a replacement yonks ago – when momentum was behind it. And nothing I saw at this exclusive sneak peek into a time-travelling Z replacement couldn't have come out years before. The engine has been Nissan’s family tree since Infiniti was a wee nipper, the interior doesn’t push the envelope and the gearbox is as old as driving itself.
But surely Nissan should have brought it out at the Tokyo show in 2018? Where it'd get headlines for not just being the Z car's 50th birthday, but also because it was a show void of enthusiast loving performance cars.
Here's my theory: it was a programme rushed through. Having dropped the ball on making EVs cool (remember how many Leafs were sold before Tesla even had a hashtag?), Nissan has been very busy trying to rectify it. Part of this speculation was there’ll be performance variants from the home of the GT-R, especially as it announced a 4WD Leaf on TE37 wheels. But they fired blank after blank. So its engineers had to knock something out quick. Something like the Z. It's an easy marketing win where you rely on looking in the rear-view mirror and heritage rather than what's in front. It’s frustratingly obvious that this Z hasn't had money or love invested into it like other Nissan cars. Cars like the Ariya. The cars that make money.
On the same day I saw the Z, I also saw an interior buck of the production-ready Ariya concept. It was leagues above any aspect of the reskinned Z. And I have a feeling it'll be the same story for development and dynamics. It doesn't feel like Nissan really dug their teeth - or the wallet - into this one and that's probably reflected in the way it'll drive. And it'll be up against stiff competition: Alpine A110s, Porsche Caymans, BMW M2s, Toyota Supras and the upcoming Lotus Emira.
So ultimately the new Z just feels like a facelift with a retro nod, not a new car. And with Nissan still lacking a sporting EV, it feels like an opportunity missed in my opinion. Maybe the tech just isn't there yet. But the Taycan has proved performance is possible, but maybe not in an affordable sports car package. As Tesla’s yet-to-be-seen Roadster attests. So we are still waiting for the first true alternative fuel sports car. And that next GT-R seems even further away now, doesn't it?
However, in the two years that I’ve been kept schtum, there has been something that may play into the Zed Car’s favour: the EV revolution. With more and more EVs flooding the market, the thought of a V6 engine and manual gearbox is appealing to people who like interaction and mechanical charm. Shame my money would go to the Lotus Emira – a V6 manual gearbox car that appears to have a bit more behind than a marketing team clutching for some retro low-hanging fruit. That's if I could get a Z Coupe, remember. It's not coming to Europe. And probably for the best.
- Rowan Horncastle