Vintage Reviews & Commentary: 1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo – “Porsche Likes Luxury”

Don’t let the headline fool you.  The “Porsche” in this case doesn’t come from Stuttgart, but rather the bayous of South Louisiana.  But this post will cover one of the best sports cars to ever be imported to the U.S. from Japan (plus a comparison test with a real Porsche thrown in for good measure), along with sex, money and a soupçon of scandal.  So buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a ride.

Actually, J P Cavanaugh is responsible for this.  His recent post on this 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham, along with the commentary on “adulting,” got me thinking about my second cousin Steven.  In 1979, when Steven was in his late twenties, he had landed a good job as a hospital administrator and decided the time was right to get a more “grown-up” car as befitting a successful young executive.  Steven’s Silver Supreme slicktop sported Super Stock wheels, black pinstripes, body-colored mirrors and the corduroy-upholstered “loose pillow” Brougham seating in black.  It was a good looking car and still an on-trend choice for an upwardly mobile professional at the time.

The 1980s proved to be a decade of enormous transitions, both for Steven personally and for the American car market.  Steven got married in 1981, bought a house, and continued building his career.  When the time came for a new car, Oldsmobile was no longer a fashionable choice for an image-conscious yuppie, but Honda was.  Like so many Americans at the time, Steven traded in his domestic for an Accord, getting a very nice LXi sedan.  It was one of the “just right” cars of the 1980s: handy size, abundant amenities, strong value, superior quality, refined performance and impressive efficiency.  A safe, smart choice for a safe, smart buyer.

However, despite the pitch-perfect 1980s trappings of success, all was not rosy for my cousin.  Sadly, while his career flourished his marriage crumbled, and by 1989 it was over.  There were no kids involved, which made it easier, but Steven’s ex got the house and he moved to an apartment.

And then he got seduced by a Porsche.  Or to be more exact, a Portia.  Which is pronounced “Por” “Shuh” just like the car.  And in this case, she was a vixen that set her sights on Steven as she sought to improve her lifestyle.

Portia looked an awful lot like the character Susan Atwell (played by actress Sean Young), the ill-fated mistress in the movie No Way Out.

By way of temperament and taste, Portia was reminiscent of Alexis Carrington Colby, as played by Joan Collins in the TV series Dynasty.

Portia was quite successful sinking her impeccably manicured talons into the newly-single Steven, and word of her exploits raced through my family like a wildfire tearing up a tinder-dry California hillside.  She quickly convinced Steven to buy a new condo for them at Beau Chêne, the upscale country club development in Mandeville, Louisiana across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans.

Steven’s parents, my Pop’s cousin Bob and his wife CeCe, were pretty taken aback by the speed, intensity and price tag of their son’s new relationship.  When they pressed Steven on the wisdom of so thoroughly indulging the fine tastes of his brand new live-in lover, his only reply was “well, you see, Portia likes luxury.”  That priceless phonetic line, “Porsche likes luxury,” became family shorthand for Steven’s arriviste girlfriend.

On the automotive front, as you might imagine, an Accord wasn’t going to cut it for Portia.  But the fashionista femme fatale didn’t want an actual Porsche—there was something even trendier to be had.  While we think of the premium German “establishment” brands as virtually untouchable in snob appeal today, they were actually under pressure as the 1990s began, when an onslaught of top-tier Japanese products was challenging assumptions about which companies made the best sports and luxury cars.

For the 1990 model year, the totally redesigned Nissan 300ZX looked to shed all traces of its “lounge lizard sportster” image by unleashing one of the most advanced sports cars in the world.  Even Eurocentric Road & Track was impressed, bestowing glowing praise on a preview test drive in the March 1989 issue.

Turns out, Road & Track overstated the responsiveness of Nissan’s management on making changes based on feedback, like cleaning up the looks by dropping the brand emblem from the nose of the 300ZX.  That move turned out to be merely a one-year wonder: Nissan’s “hamburger” logo was right back on the front of the 1991 models.

R&T’s report made it clear that Nissan had carefully considered every detail of the suspension for the 300ZX, either fashioning new components or carefully repurposing existing ones to create the best possible handling and control for the brand’s top sports car.  Equal attention was paid to the brakes and steering, ensuring world class responsiveness for both.

Likewise, in typically methodical Japanese fashion, the best examples of technology, whether that was variable valve timing or 5-speed manual transmission feel, were studied carefully and deployed effectively to produce a state-of-the-art masterpiece.  Even though their first impressions were based only on exposure to the cars at Nissan’s Tochigi test track, Road & Track was very impressed with the total package, and went so far as to proclaim the new 300ZX—even in its base configuration—as one of the best sports cars in the world.  R&T also hinted at more good stuff to come from Nissan, in the form of a revamped 300ZX Turbo.

A full road test of the blown Z would appear in the December 1989 issue of Road & Track, and the consensus was that the “best” just got better.

The Turbo model simply enhanced the already excellent platform with high performance upgrades.  Key additions included Nissan’s super HICAS (High-Capacity Actively Controlled Suspension) with a version of 4-wheel steering and of course twin turbos with twin intercoolers, bringing the total horsepower up to 300 (for the manual transmission).  Power delivery was noted for being remarkably smooth and undramatic for a turbo; likewise, the suspension enhancements placed the car as one of the best handlers in the world.

While the performance of the new Z was superlative, especially in Turbo guise, the car’s looks were just as big a part of the appeal.

Without a doubt, a key attribute of the 1990 300ZX was its styling inside and out—the sports car was striking, trend setting and original—all considered unusual for Japanese makers, whose styling studios were most typically known for serving up derivative designs.  Former automotive stylist and design expert Robert Cumberford, writing for Automobile Magazine, bestowed the “Design of the Year” award on the new Nissan.

Even when compared to a Porsche (the real one from Germany, not the bayou babe with the unusual name), the Nissan proved its mettle, as the editors at Automobile Magazine would attest in the November 1989 issue.

Rather comically, the Porsche 944 Turbo was no longer offered in the U.S. market when the article appeared.  Sales were low and Porsche was looking to rationalize the model line-up, all indicative of a car nearing the end of its run.  And that was the core of the contrast: the Porsche was a classic—old-school German capability, refined and improved over time, while the Nissan boasted the latest and greatest in styling, features and technology.  For everyday livability, the Nissan was the winner, with a remarkably compliant ride (for a sports car) and easy, responsive handling.  In terms of value, there was no question that the 300ZX provided a lot more bang for the buck.  The Porsche, with an as-tested sticker of $48,392 ($92,980 adjusted), cost a shocking 47% more than the 300ZX Turbo.  That was quite a lot extra to pay for Porsche pedigree….

So given all the great buzz surrounding the 1990 300ZX, who could blame Portia, and Steven, for wanting one.  This iconic TV commercial captured the magnetism of the car, and was doubly appropriate given the specifics of Steven and Portia’s relationship.

Ironically, this ad didn’t debut until 1996, when the 300ZX was exiting the U.S. market (that’s another story in itself).  However, with the unforgettable strains of Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me” as a soundtrack, along with a very creative storyline, the ad was very effective, albeit too late, in capturing the zeitgeist of the Z.

Back in 1990, Steven’s pick (Portia’s pick) was a Diamond Black Pearl 300ZX Turbo.  The base price was $33,000 ($63,406 adjusted), representing a stunning $8,301 ($15,950 adjusted) price increase over the outgoing 1989 Nissan 300ZX Turbo.  Steven’s car came equipped with the charcoal leather interior for $1,000 ($1,921 adjusted) and the Electronic Equipment Package for $900 ($1,729 adjusted).  Also, since Steven’s “Porsche” didn’t do manual anything, his car had the optional automatic for $800 ($1,537 adjusted).  The grand total would have been $35,700 ($68,593 adjusted), which was a princely sum for a Nissan (and would ultimately prove to be a problematic for the car’s success in the U.S. market).

But damn, what an amazing car it was, and I got to experience the 300ZX Turbo, and “Porsche,” all on the same day.  There was but one time I ever met Portia, which was at a family reunion crawfish boil in June of 1990.  It was quite the event–most of my family members (including my then girlfriend now wife Kim) are most likely to remember Steven and Portia’s public displays of affection, which bordered on softcore porn.  For me, however, the biggest and best memory was Steven’s newly purchased black 300ZX Turbo.

Steven was very proud to show off his Z, and I loved it too.  We weren’t alone either: for the 1990 model year, Nissan sold a whopping 39,104 300ZXs, of which 19,199 were normally aspirated 2-seaters, 13,009 were 2+2s and 6,896 were Turbos.  The grand total of Z sales was more than the combined sales of all Porsche models (9,139), Toyota Supra (6,419) and Mazda RX-7 (9,743).  The 1990 300ZX also handily outsold all BMW 3 Series models (22,285).  The Nissan even outsold America’s perennial sports car favorite, the Chevrolet Corvette (23,646).  The car was a huge hit, and for good reason.

Steven always knew what a car nut I was, and he was kind enough to let me get behind the wheel of his brand new 300ZX Turbo.  It was an unforgettable experience.  Without a doubt, it was the best car I’d ever driven at that point in my life, and I was blown away by the speed, responsiveness (even with the automatic), sharp handling, great engine sounds, awesome stereo, comfortable interior and surprisingly compliant ride.

Steven and I actually went out for a very long jaunt all the way to I-55 and through the Louisiana swamps, so I could really open the car up.  We had a blast—and Steven even seemed quite content to be away from Portia for a good long while.

Perhaps it was an omen….

One thing about miners is that they are perpetually seeking the Mother Lode, and that holds especially true of those who dig for gold.  And while hospital administrators make plenty of money, neurosurgeons make more.  By virtue of being Steven’s girlfriend and attending hospital functions, Portia managed to meet The Good Doctor.  Though he was married at the time, Portia was as effective at extracting unwanted objects with her scalpel as he was with his.

Remember, “Portia likes luxury,” so it was only logical for her to trade-in the condo in “far away” Beau Chêne for a manse in the Garden District.  Plus, the Good Doctor was more Mercedes 600 SL than Nissan 300ZX, and that undoubtedly was more Portia’s speed as the 1990s progressed.   So Steven, the fancy condo and his Japanese stallion were left behind as Portia’s fickle tastes moved on and The Good Doctor left his Good Wife for the Atchafalaya Temptress.

Likewise, affluent American buyers quickly turned their back on the high-end Japanese sports cars as the 1990s got underway.  Part of the challenge was pricing—the high tech sports cars that emerged from Japan for the 1990s had become too expensive for their natural market segment in the U.S., and sales suffered as a result.  Some of the price increase was driven by the strengthening Yen, but high production costs for the super sophisticated products was also a factor.  Plus, as the decade progressed, the German brands responded to the Japanese incursions into the luxury/sports market with new products and new pricing strategies that offered better value while emphasizing their traditional brand heritage.  With these moves, Porsche was able to claw their way back ahead of all the top-tier Japanese sports car interlopers in sales, starting in 1994.

So we’ve touched on the fate of car makers from the U.S., Europe and Japan as they sought to appeal to upwardly mobile U.S. buyers through the decades.  But what about Steven, post Portia?  Well I am happy to report that he wound up just fine.  I dare say he was relieved that the “rebound relationship” fell apart, and he returned to being the pragmatic type that he really always was at heart.  He met and married Lisa (what a boring name after Portia, but then again, what isn’t?), and they remain together today.  He’s retired now and drives an Audi Q5, while Lisa has a Lexus RX.  Both vehicles are exactly the sort of nice, fashionable, appropriately upscale, slightly bland SUVs that resonate with the affluent conservative crowd exactly the way that Oldsmobile did back in 1979.

I don’t know whatever happened to Portia after she landed the neurosurgeon.  However, just think of how the “ultra ultra luxury” automotive market has boomed since the early aughts, with the likes of Aston Martin, Maserati and Bentley replacing the “mere” Mercedes as the “best you can buy.”  Now, under these circumstances I can’t imagine poor Portia having to slum it in a German Taxi any longer, so either The Good Doctor has given her something appropriate like a Bentley Bentagya, or she found someone like an oil baron or trust funder who would.

And the 300ZX Turbo?  Well, it still remains at the top of my list of “someday” cars that I want to own.  I don’t know if it will ever be a true collectible, but it certainly was a great product from a brief period when Japan was really showing the rest of the automotive world how it was done.