Curbside Classic: 1994 300ZX Convertible – Out Of Touch, Out Of Time

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(first posted 6/25/2014)    The sight of this car outside the local food co-op, where it couldn’t look more out of place, provides an apt parallel to the unfortunate timing of its introduction: right at the beginning of SUV-explosion.  And despite its organic styling, it represents the tail end of ’80s thinking; in the touchy-feely nineties, casual and “natural” were suddenly back in.  That meant a quad-cam 3.4 liter Toyota Tacoma didn’t present its owner as shallow or image conscious.  After all, despite horrible gas mileage and high bumpers that mortally threatened drivers in lower-slung machines, it said “I chop wood and go fishing,” and not, “Spray tan with Lisa at four o’clock.” So as overdressed as it is, I couldn’t have hoped to find this most-flashy convertible version of the Z-car in a more illustrative setting.


As I’ve said before, Japanese carmakers were at their most ambitious in the very late ’80s and early ’90s and Nissan, who put forth some of the era’s most honest and impressive efforts still found itself somewhat under-appreciated.  In the case of the new Z-car (dubbed Z32), this had less to do with an unfair shunning (think Q45) than with purely bad timing, but the result was the same: a lot of money spent, and little increase in the cachet of the brand itself.


That didn’t matter for the person who ordered this convertible, either a ’93 or ’94.  Lacking twin turbos, the coupe’s distinctive fastback roofline, and likely a fair degree of body rigidity, it isn’t the best example of its breed.  But if sports cars like the 300ZX were out of style by 1990, their convertible spin-offs were even more so, and by the time this car rolled off the line near Yokohama, its buyers’ tastes were decidedly out of date.


But enough of the obvious, let’s enjoy this car for what it is.  Even with a naturally aspirated engine and four-speed Jatco automatic, there’s something very appealing about this convertible, which acquits itself as a luxury car as well as anything wearing a Lexus badge.  In those days, Nissans had some of the best plastics in the business and showed them off quite liberally.  You can see where Ghosn (the highest paid CEO in Japan) cut costs when he came into the picture in 1999.


In fact, despite very convincing performance for its price when introduced in 1989, all the hype about Nissan having canned the Z’s lounge lizard act when the Z32 debuted wasn’t really true.  It’s more that the lounge lizard spent a good couple years with a personal trainer and fashion consultant.  You still couldn’t call these focused performance cars but, after all, when you’re building a toy for well-heeled buyers, you have to give them what they want.  At look at today’s Porsche line-up provides a more current illustration of this idea.

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This convertible model debuted in 1993, after the collapse of the Japanese price asset bubble, and well into the days of rapidly appreciating Yen.  At about $35,000, it still offered buyers plenty to enjoy.  Problem was, a Mustang GT convertible could offer much the same experience–with back seats–and despite its comparative lack of sophistication, was closer to a pure, care-free sports car than the high-tech Z.  Sales weren’t a total disaster in 1993, with 11,599 cars (2,750 convertibles) sold total, but they fell off a cliff the next year, with 5,320 sold and with 6,708 sold in 1992, the writing was already on the wall.


If Nissan wanted to pitch the Z as a pure sports car, they could’ve considered making a lighter, cheaper device which could offer rapid performance in naturally-aspirated form.  It seems that was more the 240SX’s territory, but hobbled as that car was with its KA-block truck engine (in North America), Nissan was in an odd position, with two very capable rear-drive coupes with a big gap in price, mission and performance.  One also wonders who was in charge of decision making during the two model’s tenures, as 1993 also saw the introduction of the 240SX convertible, an answer to a question no one was asking.  Surely the money could’ve been better spent, or even better, not spent at all.


But don’t get me wrong, the Z32 is easily loved without the need to explain one’s self.  As mentioned already, it was comfortable and well-made, but it also excelled in its mission to excite.  To start with, it looked the part of a serious sports car, with shorter, wider and lower proportions versus the model it replaced.  Styled in-house, the simplicity of its detail keeps it from looking like the relic the Z31 is today, despite all the visual drama on display.


Anyone who’s spent time working on a Z32 can confirm that the impression of a car shrink-wrapped around its mechanicals was very much based in reality.  Gone were struts, trailing arms, and an engine bay designed to accommodate both the VG V6 and the RB straight-six (a few Z31s were curiously offered with the latter in Japan).  Even before the quick-revving VQ’s debut, Nissan’s V6 was highly regarded, so it returned with wide DOHC heads and was stuffed into a smaller engine bay crowded by a low hoodline and a new multi-link front suspension.


By this time, most cars with the Nissan badge could handle quite well, but this was especially true for the newer breed of its rear-drive machines, which were offered with the bulky multi-link rear axles so popular with Japanese makes in the ’90s.  And unlike the implementation of such systems in many luxury sedans of the day, the 300ZX was well-behaved; this wasn’t just a one-dimensional drift machine.

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That could be more due to Nissan’s deliberately tuning the car to understeer.  Just to ensure stability in extreme conditions, the TwinTurbo model came with Nissan’s famed Super HICAS rear-steer system, providing a few degrees of in-phase articulation of the rear wheels in turns at higher speeds, usually after a brief moment of steering them in the opposite direction to aid initial turn-in.


Those who note that other makers were able to achieve the same thing without expensive trickery would be correct in their observation; but the system worked as promised and by 1994, lost some weight when it became electronically (not hydraulically) activated.  Electronic suspension trickery on twin-turbos wasn’t limited to four wheel steering; adjustable dampers were part of the deal too.


Taking on the likes of the still-excellent Porsche 944 Turbo and 968 was a priority, but not the sole mission in creating the Z32.  If the result of Nissan’s efforts wasn’t as sharp-edged as the superlative FD RX-7’s, it was a lot more comfortable and available a full four years earlier.  It was also a more stable machine, able to slalom at nearly 70 miles per hour (that’s fast today) despite a middling skid-pad figure of .88 (high-ish in 1990, unimpressive in 2014).  As far as handling is concerned, naturally aspirated cars lacked the twin turbo’s wide 245-series rubber in the rear, adjustable shocks and four-wheel steering, but with less power to contain (198 lb-ft at 4800 rpm of torque vs 283 at 3600) and at only about 100 pounds lighter, there wasn’t too enormous a difference.

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In terms of performance, though, there was a bigger gap.  Naturally aspirated cars, with 222 horsepower, made it to sixty in the low seven-second range, with the quarter mile accomplished at 90 mph at about fifteen and a half seconds.  Turbo cars varied wildly with some cars reaching sixty in five seconds flat and others taking a full second longer; the quarter mile averaged about fourteen seconds and a 100 mph.  It would seem all that hardware crammed under the hood was subject to heat soak.  Top speed for naturally aspirated five-speeds was nearly 150, limited by the 7,000 rpm redline, and turbos were governed at 155.  As for our automatic ragtop, let’s estimate sixty miles per hour in the high eight-second range  and a top speed of 140.


It’d be a few years before Toyota’s Supra and the Lexus SC would be able to compete, and other than those two cars, the ideal competitor was the Corvette.  Compared to that car, the Nissan was softer, and more refined.  Compared to the Toyota cousins, which as separate models, benefited from more fine-tuning to suit their respective audiences, it was somewhere in the middle.

1989 Nissan Fairlady 300ZX Twin Turbo (Z32)

Despite having begun life as an especially soft tourer, the new-for-1993 Supra represented a more accelerated pace of evolution over forebears than the Z32 and was a more hardcore proposition, as evidenced by its bigger rolling stock, smaller size, and louder decibel ratings while cruising and coasting.  Included in its higher price was a sequential twin-turbo system which Toyota designed over the four years the Z was already on the market earning accolades, elevating the Supra’s performance an extra degree over the tamer Nissan.  And of course, next to the Lexus SC, the oddly proportioned 300ZX 2+2 lacked cachet.


The situation is somewhat reversed now, with the 370Z and Infiniti G37 coupe being two of the few remaining offerings keeping the Japanese performance flame alight for today’s enthusiasts, something Toyota has seemingly struggled to accomplish since the Supra left these shores in 1998.  While the post-2003 Z may be rougher around the edges than the Z32 featured here, it’s done an admirable job of presenting itself as a legitimate sports car, lacking a lot of the high-tech mystique that characterized the cars before it.  The Infiniti coupe, despite its 2+2 layout and different badge, more faithfully captures the combination of performance and comfort which made the nineties Z-car so appealing.

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The G37’s success illustrates the direction the market has taken; it’s all about the sports sedan these days.  And while post-Ghosn Nissan has been passing off a lot of cheaply conceived mainstream models, the reception to such cars as the 240SX, Stanza and original Sentra SE-R suggests that their reputations didn’t merit much of an investment.  It was nevertheless a pleasant surprise that the company was able to conjure up the well-regarded G-series, the 370Z and GTR after the Renault takeover, but the upcoming Q50 suggests that they’ve lost the plot once again.  All that means for our purposes at CC, however, is that cars like this 300ZX convertible represent a home to which fans cannot return.


Related reading:

1990 Infiniti Q45: l’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggonit, People Like Me

1986 Porsche 944 Turbo: VW’s Loss Is Porsche’s Gain