By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
(CNN) — The new Nissan Z is one of the most important models in the car maker’s recent history — not for any concrete business reason (two-seat sports cars aren’t big sellers), but because even a car company needs a soul.
Nissan’s been through some rough times in the past four or five years. Former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was arrested in 2018. Its business had been suffering under an aging product line-up, largely driven by Ghosn’s focus on fleet sales rather than consumer excitement. The company’s head designer, Alfonso Albaisa, said last year that he was “disgusted.” Even Nissan’s then-CEO, Hiroto Saikawa, was forced to admit in 2019 that the company had hit “rock bottom.”
But Nissan has been launching a comeback with fresh vehicles like the new Pathfinder and Rogue SUVs. The Z, with its focus on style and excitement, promises to be a sort of spiritual center of that revival effort. Creating this new car, with its lines reminiscent of Nissan sports cars of the past, was something that helped rally the company, Albaisa told me at the new Z’s unveiling last year.
I recently had the chance to sit in its driver’s seat for hundreds of miles on highways and twisting backroads. The new Z proved to be a surprisingly likable long-term companion providing genuine comfort on the long, dull stretches but excitement when the road invited it.
Once a year, four of my brothers, three of whom own classic cars, gather somewhere for a few days of driving. As often as I can, I join them. I’d been planning for months to meet them this year at a small town in Maryland’s northwest corner. Just a week before our Airbnb reservation was to start, I got an email from Nissan that a Z, one of the pre-production cars, would be available for me to test drive but it was available for only one weekend. That weekend.
Sometimes things just happen to line up perfectly.
Soon, I was driving down I-95 toward Baltimore where I would turn west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Z was a comfortable cruiser with a roomy interior for two people and a good amount of cargo space. Almost the first thing I noticed, though, was that the steering wheel seemed oddly large in diameter for a sports car. Also, it didn’t quite offer as much feel of the road during that freeway drive as I’d expected from a sports car.
There was ample power, though. The Z’s 400 horsepower turbocharged V6 loves to go fast and feels better the more it revs. I had to work not to let it hit its 7,000 RPM limit in first gear as it just felt so good to let run, pulling the car faster. My car had a six-speed manual transmission with a nice stubby shifter. A 9-speed automatic is also available.
When I pulled into the driveway at our Airbnb in western Maryland my brothers came out to see the Z (and also, me, hopefully, but the car received most of the attention.) We agreed it was an excellent design, capturing the feel of the classic in a modern shape. The front end, with its pointed nose and rectangular grille, clearly resembles the early ’70s 240Z the originator of the line. The taillights recall the blocky back lights of the much later 280ZX and 300ZX.
On the road
We spent Saturday watching vintage car races at Summit Point Motorsports Park across the river in West Virginia. On Sunday, we drove out to Shenandoah National Park to drive the famous Skyline Drive that twists along the mountains.
The Z felt at home, the steering better in the curves than I’d expected. The short shifter made switching gears in the manual transmission quick and easy. Pressing a button near the shifter turned on rev-matching technology that automatically matched engine speed to the gear I selected, allowing for smoother shifts. I preferred leaving it off.
The Z whipped through curves and blasted out onto the straights. At road speeds, the car’s weight felt nicely balanced while the driver’s seat felt like I was riding just slightly behind the car’s center of gravity. The V6 made a fantastic sound whenever I had the chance to let it run hard, the turbocharger’s whirr being drowned out by the roar of internal combustion as power increased.
The Nissan Z Performance I was driving would cost about $50,000. The least expensive version of the Z, the Z Sport, has a price around $10,000 lower, but the same engine and transmission choices as the car I drove. (These sticker prices don’t include mark-ups dealers will almost certainly add.) While I was parked at an overlook, someone who told me she had just ordered a Toyota Supra asked me which I liked better. Since it had been a while since I’d last driven a Supra, it was hard to say. Also, Toyota recently added a manual transmission as an option on the Supra, which evens things up more. In terms of style, at least, the Z wins easily, in my opinion.
A couple of years ago, I did a similar trip in a Chevrolet Corvette which has more horsepower and its engine behind the seats, like a supercar. It also costs more than $10,000 more. While the Corvette offers amazing performance, the Z, with its simpler controls, was a nicer long-term companion and easier to imagine driving every day.
Even as Nissan is preparing to take its next big step, releasing its first electric SUV, the Ariya, the Z provides a welcome look back. With its internal combustion power, sharp handling and relatively accessible price, it recaptures a sort of excitement, for Nissan and for all of us, that may be about to drive away over the horizon.
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