(first posted 8/25/2015) Throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, Nissan Motor Corporation’s Z car was simultaneously the company’s flagship, one of its sales leaders, and its most recognizable product. Replacing it was a tough job, but Nissan largely succeeded with its replacement – which is this car, the 300 ZX.
While not as iconic as the first 240-Z, the 300 ZX managed to strike a balance between performance, luxury and style – a balance essential to success in the upper end of the 1980s sports coupe market. This particular car is a 1985 Turbo, representing the second year of the 300 ZX’s production run, and is in very good original condition.
The original Z car, launched as the Datsun 240-Z in 1970, was one of that decade’s most significant cars. With a beautiful design, exciting 6-cylinder performance, and modern engineering, the 240-Z quickly catapulted itself to the forefront of the sports car market. It also transformed Datsun into a car company to be taken seriously, particularly in North America. Over the following 13 years, the Z evolved into the 260, and then the 280, gaining weight and engine displacement, but gradually losing sportiness.
For the 1979 model year, the Z car was redesigned as the larger 280 ZX. It was a completely new car, but the design was so similar to the original that many buyers assumed it was simply an update of the previous model (it is longer and more angular, with a number of detailed changes, if you look closely).
With the 280 ZX, the car’s balance tilted towards luxury and away from sportiness. Although the engine was relatively robust (particularly in turbocharged form, as added in 1981), it was far from the lithe GT car introduced in 1970. The ZX was panned by some critics as being an overweight boulevard cruiser simply coasting on its predecessor’s reputation. However, the public disagreed. The 280-ZX was the most popular Z car ever, indicating that some combination of sportiness and luxury was important for sales volume.
Despite the strong sales, it was clear that Nissan needed a completely new car. With strong new models competing for sports coupe sales, a design that harkened back to 1970 didn’t cut it any longer.
With the introduction of a replacement car, Nissan had the chance to start anew and reinvent the Z car. And that’s exactly what they did. The new generation 300 ZX was introduced for the 1984 model year.
Like its immediate predecessor, the 300 ZX was available as a normally aspirated car in 2-seater or 2+2 guise (shown above, riding an 8” longer wheelbase), as well as the turbocharged version like this featured car, which was available only as a 2-seater.
The overall shape followed trends in the early 1980s performance car market, with an angular design, a flat, sloping hood, and pop-up headlights. Uniquely, the rectangular headlights were half uncovered, creating this model’s most distinctive design feature – an interesting counterpoint to the 240-Z, whose round, scooped-out headlights set that model apart from other cars.
Only the most minor hints of continuity with the previous model remained – one can see traces of the earlier design in the wheel well bulges, tail light design, and the round gauges in the center of the dash. The 300 ZX design is a busy one – not flowing and graceful like the 240-Z – but it accomplished its goal of looking appropriately modern, muscular and sophisticated.
Mechanically, the 300 ZX retained a 6-cylinder engine, but replaced the previous model’s straight-6 with a V-6, this one at 3.0 liters.
In turbocharged form, this car’s engine produced an impressive 200 hp (by way of comparison, a 1984 Corvette produced 205 hp). Although many 1980s-era turbocharged cars suffered from significant turbo lag, and a remarkable lack of power at low rpm’s, the 300 ZX did not suffer this malady, the result of an engine that was already powerful in normally-aspirated guise (160 hp as a non-turbo).
The 300 ZX Turbo was a very drivable performance car, with smooth power delivery, even when coupled to the optional automatic transmission.
The Turbo could reach 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, which placed it in elite company in its day. Additionally, this car featured an improved suspension, including novel “electro-adjustable shock absorbers” – adjustable to one of three settings (soft, normal or firm) by a switch on the console. According to contemporary press reviews, the switch was not just a gimmick, and the ride could vary between pillowy and taut at the driver’s discretion. However, even in firm setting, the ride was more comfortable than that of, say, a Camaro Z28. Nissan made the 300 ZX into a luxury sports car, a reversal from the sporty luxury car that the 280-ZX had morphed into.
Nissan couldn’t resist some of the popular 1980s high-tech gimmicks. Foremost was the optional digital dashboard (which our featured car doesn’t have). With its graph paper-inspired background and swoopy-bar tachometer (the swoop is in the shape of the engine’s torque curve), it was cluttered even by digital dash standards. Another 1980s fad emerged in the Z car in the form of a digitized female voice warning drivers of such hazards as “Your door is ajar.” But such gimmicks are always to be expected in a car striving to be leading-edge.
Looking past the gimmickry, the car was generally well-made; however, Nissan’s choice of interior plastics and materials was on the cheap side, and one of the few elements of the car that was not in keeping with its upscale demeanor.
Nissan largely achieved its goal with the 300 ZX. The car provided impressive performance, as well as suitably pampering luxury, without tilting the balance too far in either direction. Sales kept pace with 280-ZX production, even given increased competition. Both 1984 and 1985 were excellent years for 300 ZX sales, with both years reaching just over 70,000 units. Turbos, though, were relatively rare – averaging about 16% of total sales.
But the sports coupe market was quick to change, and in 1986 new competition emerged from a redesigned Mazda RX-7 and Toyota Supra. 300 ZX sales slid that year, and would never recover. In 1990, Nissan took the Z car on yet another trajectory, introducing a new model that was a full-fledged sports car aimed even more at the upper echelons of the car market. But after a strong introductory year, even that very adept performance car struggled to pull its own showroom weight.
Our featured car is finished in a subdued shade of Blue Mist Metallic, and does not include either of the two major option packages available on the Turbo – being the Leather Package and the Electronic Equipment Package. The current owner is probably better off without the latter, since the Z’s digital dash was problematic even when new.
Although it was not cheap, the 300 ZX was a decent value for the amount of performance and amenities it contained, and the $20,000 price for this Turbo model put it squarely in the Midlife Crisis segment of the sport coupe market – aimed at buyers looking for a car above the youthful Celica/Prelude niche but below the Porsche/Corvette realm. This was an ideal car for its target audience in the mid-1980s.
The 1985 models such as this one were largely unchanged from the first-year ’84s, aside from redesigned tail lights. T-Tops, optional in 1984, were standard in ’85, though they moved back to the option column for ’86. 1985 also marked the first year that the 300 ZX was sold exclusively as a Nissan; the 1984 models carried both Datsun and Nissan nameplates.
The following year, 1986, saw the addition of plastic rocker panel extensions, some new Turbo graphics, and the disappearance of the Turbo’s hood scoop, but otherwise these cars were largely similar throughout the 1984-86 period.
Nissan slightly redesigned the ZX for 1987, smoothing out some of the original car’s chiseled lines. However, prices continued to climb, and the sports coupe market itself began to lose some steam, as its target audience started buying other types of vehicles instead. The 300 ZX seemed to age quickly, and by 1989 it seemed almost a cliche: a holdover from 5 years earlier.
Looking back, one can see that few cars have seen more of an up-and-down history than Nissan’s Z car. Every few years, the Z car would reinvent itself, trying to learn from its previous generation’s shortcomings. This featured car, coming 16 years after the first 240-Z was introduced, comes from about the middle of the Z’s long life span. It represents the Z car at mid-life – a perfect analogy for the perfect mid-life crisis car.