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First Drive: The Back-to-Basics Nissan Z Delivers Sharp Handling With a Cruiser’s Comfort

The new 400 hp coupe is a remarkably engaging interpretation of a 54-year-old design.

Driving the 2023 Nissan Z. Nissan Motor Corporation

Few brands have the luxury of leveraging an iconic product the way Nissan does, as its original Nissan S30 (or Datsun 240Z, as it was marketed in the US) upped the car game when it hit the scene in 1969, forever changing the perception of the Japanese auto industry. That model offered a beautiful sports-car shape and more-than-competitive performance in an affordable package that shook up the status quo in the same way Ford’s colossally successful Mustang did a half-decade prior.

Yoshihiko Matsuo’s timeless design soldiered on through 260Z and 280Z iterations until 1978, eventually suffering the indignity of a 2+2 configuration and wearing battering-ram bumpers more suited to a SWAT vehicle than Nissan’s original concept. Still, the 240Z remains an early-’70s automotive benchmark and a Bona fide collectible.

The 2023 Nissan Z.
The 2023 Nissan Z. Nissan Motor Corporation

So, it’s no wonder that Nissan would resurrect a Z in the spirit of the original, acknowledging its owner fan base that has embraced Nissan’s Z-cars for the past five decades. Its immediate forebear was the 370Z, the sixth-generation version—a successor to the excellent 350Z—that was made from 2008 until 2020. The latest in the lineup is simply called the Nissan Z, and while its internal designation is RZ34, its name is as simple to grok as Superman’s logo seen in a mirror. And the new Z is really, really super.

It’s no coincidence that this Z bears a striking similarity to the original 240Z in its overall look, stance, and style. The front is characterized by a long hood, sugar-scoop-style headlamps, and a boxy grill, while the elegant fastback and truncated rear end are, likewise, a fresh but respectful interpretation of the 54-year-old design.

Driving the 2023 Nissan Z.
Nissan has resurrected a Z in the spirit of the 1969 original. Nissan Motor Corporation

As it did with the 240Z, Nissan keeps it simple today, offering one basic model available in Sport and Performance grades. They both share the same engines, and each is available with a nine-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. The Performance grade adds a limited-slip differential, red sport brakes, dual performance exhaust, and 19-inch forged-aluminum wheels instead of standard 18-inch rims. Inside, it features “leather-appointed” power seats, sport pedals, a nine-inch touchscreen with navigation, an eight-speaker Bose audio system, and other nice-but-not-necessary details. For the stateside market, one special edition called Proto Spec is limited to 240 examples each of the manual and automatic. Distinguished by yellow paint and accents, it’s essentially a flashier Performance version.

The interior of the 2023 Nissan Z.
The interior features “leather-appointed” power seats, sport pedals, a nine-inch touchscreen with navigation, and an eight-speaker Bose audio system. Nissan Motor Corporation

We don’t often have the opportunity to enjoy modern cars that get down to basics like the new Z. Basics like clutches and stick shifts, as well as seats without 14-way chrio-quacktor-approved controls. The Z is refreshingly simple and exceedingly competent.

That competence starts with its size: manageable. Visibility: yes. Power: plenty. In fact, the 400 hp and 350 ft lbs of torque from its 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 is just what the doctor ordered. The Z is all about usable performance—and sanity. We’d requested one with a stick shift, that antidote to the sloth and boredom intrinsic to the daily driving experience. We were rewarded with a gearbox that delivers pure pleasure, snicking gears up, down, and sideways, and were reminded of the reason people actually might want to drive a car. For the fun of it.

The 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 inside a 2023 Nissan Z.
Powering the 3,486-pound, rear-wheel-drive coupe is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 with 350 ft lbs of torque. Nissan Motor Corporation

The fun starts under the hood. Compared to the previous generation 370Z, this one delivers substantially increased output, boosted by 68 hp and a 30 percent increase in torque. That total of 400 hp strikes a perfect balance with the 3,486-pound, rear-wheel-drive coupe. The motorsports-inspired EXEDY high-performance clutch is easy to engage and totally unfussy, even on hills. The short-throw lever allows crisp shifts (especially once you become accustomed to the lower-right Reverse) and a numeric readout on the instrument panel removes any doubt as to which gear is engaged. The nine-speed automatic features aluminum paddle shifters, and while we didn’t drive the auto, we suspect it’s the more flexible—but less engaging—way to fly.

The 2023 Nissan Z.
The new Nissan Z is refreshingly simple and exceedingly competent. Nissan Motor Corporation

Wide doors allow easy entry and exit. Once inside and situated in the comfortable sport seats, the driver is presented with a 12.3-inch customizable TFT display. Its prominent center tach punctuates an enthusiastic engine that delivers maximum power at 6,400 rpm, and maximum torque from 1,600 rpm to 5,200 rpm. The steering wheel recalls the original’s deep-dish design, and the electronic power steering with rack assist offers the tactile feedback of a mechanical system. Suspension is tuned for maximum driver enjoyment, which translates to sharp handling on curves and canyons, but it isn’t so stiffly sprung that bumpy freeways and irregular surface streets become a chore. In fact, the Z makes a comfortable highway cruiser, with fatigue-free ergonomics and little noise from the engine, tires, or wind.

The 2023 Nissan Z in Performance (right) and Proto Spec versions.
The Performance (right) and Proto Spec (left) versions of the Nissan Z. The latter will be limited to 240 examples each of the manual and automatic options. Nissan Motor Corporation

In 1970, a new Datsun 240Z cost $3,600, making it a welcome alternative to European sports cars that cost twice as much or more. The Z is made at the Nissan Tochigi assembly plant north of Tokyo, and the quality of materials, as well as the fit and finish, is exemplary. In these important areas, one doesn’t feel that compromises have been made based on price. With a base MSRP of $40,990, the new Z offers much the same value proposition as did the original, and even a fully loaded Proto Spec, at $53,990, impresses us as a tremendous bargain in the scheme of things. 

Click here for more photos of the 2023 Nissan Z.

Driving the 2023 Nissan Z. Nissan Motor Corporation

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