If there ever was a Deadly Sin for Nissan, that would probably be the drawn out comedy of errors called the Leopard. This is the story of how the Japanese conglomerate created a nameplate they didn’t need or know what to do with, but kept making for four generations anyway. Diminishing returns and a forest of red flags were repeatedly ignored, causing the sea of red ink that gradually swallowed the carmaker. Mixed metaphors aside, the best part of this disaster is that it’s a pretty nice car, despite everything.
Nissan is the Japanese carmaking world’s eternal number two. By that, I don’t mean they’re a shit company, I mean that Toyota was always the top banana, as far as passenger cars are concerned. And Nissan/Datsun were usually playing second fiddle. On occasion though, Toyota were beaten to the punch by the number two. Or at least, that’s what it looked like.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, the higher reaches of the range was populated by a variety of Crowns for Toyota and Cedrics / Glorias for Nissan. These were the heyday of those nameplates: in the ‘70s especially, the body variants (saloon, two- and four-door hardtops, van / wagon) got pretty numerous. Both carmakers fancied turning the coupés into their own thing. This time around, Nissan got the jump on Toyota though and let loose the Leopard in late 1980, six months before before the Toyota Soarer appeared.
The first generation (F30) Leopard was quite a different animal. Technically, Nissan made their new luxury coupé using a Bluebird platform and a Skyline’s straight-six. They even made two models: a two-door coupé that clearly took over from the Cedric/Gloria, and a saloon… Wonder why they felt they needed one of those. Never mind, it worked: Nissan sold over 70,000 units. The second Leopard (F31), now that was a big luxury coupé and nothing else, using R31 Skyline bones. It sold decently (under 40,000 units), but the Soarer was still way ahead. Changing tack again, Nissan made generation three into an odd pillared sedan called Leopard J. Ferie (as in Jour Férié, French for “bank holiday”). It was based on the Y32 Cedric/Gloria/Cima, but was designed by and for Infiniti as the J30. Even more strangely, the JDM version was available with a V8 that the US version never got. The interior was cramped, the styling dubious and the value added highly questionable. Leopard number three was a huge flop in Japan: less than 8000 punters were convinced.
As far as the fourth generation was concerned, Nissan determined that a bit of a course-correction would be useful. The Leopard remained a one-body model, but now the body was to be that oh-so-‘90s Japanese oddity, the “pillared hardtop” sedan, with its pointless but elegant frameless glass and thin B-pillar.
The basis for the JY33 Leopard was, as hinted at by its internal code, the Y33 Cedric/Gloria (top row) and the related FY33 Cima (bottom row, also known as the Infiniti Q45). Essentially, the Leopard was more closely related to the Cedric/Gloria, as it shared that model’s cabin, dash, greenhouse, engine and transmission. The Cima’s V8 was no longer available on the Leopard, as that did not do the previous generation any favours. The Cima’s front and rear design, though, were seemingly pasted on the Cedric/Gloria body to produce the Leopard.
The result is pretty handsome, truth be told. It has a little more substance than the Cedric/Gloria Y33, and a little more grace than the Cima. The range was divvied up in four trim levels; our feature car is an XV, so it has the turbocharged engine and Nissan’s patented HICAS four-wheel steering system, but lacks the XV-G’s fancier rear seating appointments.
Still, looks pretty nice back there. Decent legroom, for one thing – especially compared to the previous Leopard. The car’s hefty size makes for a pretty comfortable cabin, though the pseudo-hardtop does rob the rear passengers of a fair amount of headroom compared to the Cima/Q45.
Up front, we find a Cedric/Gloria dashboard with extra “wood” and a leather-wrapped autobox lever, just to give the Leopard a more animalistic feel, I suppose.
One cannot imagine that they were channeling anything else but Jaguar when they came up with this name back in 1980, though the end product is pretty far from a Coventry cat. Even the original Cima got closer to the target than this limp Leopard, which has more of a (Mercury) Bobcat feel to it than any other feline-themed car out there. And there are quite a few.
I’m not being entirely fair with that Bobcat gag. All cars had a VQ or VG series V6, but in different states of tune and between 2 and 3 liters in displacement. Our feature car, being a higher trim, has a 270hp 3-litre DOHC V6 under the hood, though there was no way for that power to reach the rear wheels via anything but a 4-speed auto.
There was an AWD version launched in late 1997 with a turbo 2.5 litre RB straight-6, but very few were made. It really did not suit the car’s character that well. It’s a Leopard after all, not a cheetah. A chunky cat with a lot of purr, but not that much of a bite.
It was getting difficult for Nissan to justify the Leopard’s continued existence. Making a slightly different and more expensive Cedric / Gloria hardtop did not amount to much excitement in a depressed and overcrowded luxury car market, even as the economy continued to tank. The Cima had a V8. The Cedric / Gloria had tradition. What did the Leopard have?
It didn’t matter anyway. The Renault deal in early 1999 meant that things were going to change over at Nissan. And up for the chop, along with many other loss-making or superfluous nameplates, was the now very much endangered feline. The Y33 platform was running out of time anyway and the new Y34 Cedric/Gloria was launched in the summer of that year did not factor in a Leopard version. Nissan had enough left over stock to last well into the year 2000 in any case, but the Leopard never made it past its second decade and into the 21st Century. This cat, dear Dr Schrödinger, was most definitely dead.