Nissan is launching a comeback. This is what it’s like to take a road trip in your brand new sports car

Nissan has been through some tough times over the past four or five years. Old Nissanot CEO Carlos Ghosn was arrested in 2018. His business suffered from an aging product lineup, largely driven by Ghosn’s focus on fleet sales rather than consumer excitement. The company’s chief designer, Alfonso Albaisa, said last year he was “disgusted”. Even Hiroto Saikawa, then-CEO of Nissan, was forced to admit in 2019 that the company had hit “rock bottom”.

But Nissan has kicked off a comeback with new vehicles like the new Pathfinder and Rogue SUVs. The Z, with its emphasis on style and excitement, promises to be something of a spiritual center of this revival effort. The creation of this new car, with its lines reminiscent of Nissan sports cars of the past, helped rally the company, Albaisa told me at the unveiling of the new Z last year.

I recently had the good fortune to sit in its driver’s seat for hundreds of miles on twisty highways and roads. The new Z proved to be a surprisingly friendly long-lasting companion, offering genuine comfort on boring long journeys, but excitement when the road invited it.

Once a year four of my brothers, three of whom own classic cars, get together somewhere for a few days of driving. As often as I can, I join them. I had been planning for months to meet them this year in a small town in the northwest corner of Maryland. Just a week before our Airbnb reservation started, I received an email from Nissan telling me that a Z, one of the pre-production cars, would be available for me to test drive, but it was only available for a weekend. This week-end.

Sometimes things line up perfectly.

Soon I was driving on I-95 towards Baltimore where I would turn west towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Z was a comfortable cruiser with a roomy two-person interior and a good amount of cargo space. Almost the first thing I noticed, however, was that the steering wheel seemed oddly large in diameter for a sports car. Also, it didn’t offer as much road feel during that freeway ride as I expected from a sports car.

There was, however, plenty of power. The Z’s 400-horsepower turbocharged V6 likes to go fast and feels better the revs it revs. I had to work to not let it reach its 7,000 rpm limit in first gear because it felt so good to let it rev, pulling the car faster. My car had a six-speed manual transmission with a nice chunky shifter. A 9-speed automatic transmission is also available.

When I pulled into the driveway of our Airbnb in western Maryland, my brothers came out to see the Z (and hopefully me too, but the car received most of the attention.) We agreed it was a great design, capturing the feel of the classic in a modern form. The front end, with its pointed nose and rectangular grille, clearly resembles the early ’70s 240Z that started the range. The taillights are reminiscent of the block taillights of the much later 280ZX and 300ZX.

On the road

We spent Saturday watching vintage car races at Summit Point Motorsports Park across the river in West Virginia. On Sunday, we traveled to Shenandoah National Park to drive the famous Skyline Drive which winds its way along the mountains.

LR: Peter Valdes-Dapena with a 2023 Nissan Z;  Mark Valdes-Dapena with his 1964 Triumph TR4;  Jonathan Valdes-Dapena;  Andres Valdes-Dapena with his 1964 Jaguar Mark 2;  Dan Valdes-Dapena;  Carlos Valdes-Dapena with his 1970 Triumph TR6.

The Z felt right at home, the steering was better in the curves than I expected. The short gear lever makes it quick and easy to change gears in the manual transmission. By pressing a button near the gear lever, the rev-matching technology was activated, which automatically matched the engine speed to the gear I selected, allowing for smoother gear changes. I preferred to give up.

The Z swept through curves and exploded on the straights. At highway speeds, the car’s weight was nicely balanced while the driver’s seat felt like I was riding slightly behind the car’s center of gravity. The V6 sounded fantastic whenever I was lucky enough to let it rev hard, the roar of the turbocharger being drowned out by the roar of internal combustion as the power increased.

The Nissan Z Performance I was driving would cost around $50,000. The cheapest version of the Z, the Z Sport, is priced around $10,000 less, but the same engine and transmission choices as the car I drove. (These sticker prices don’t include the markups that dealerships will almost certainly add.) As I was parked at a lookout, someone who told me she had just ordered a Toyota Supra told me asked what I preferred. As it had been a long time since I had driven a Supra, it was hard to say. Plus, Toyota recently added an optional manual transmission to the Supra, which evens things out even more. In terms of styling, at least, the Z wins easily, in my opinion.

The design of the taillights of the 2023 Nissan Z also draws inspiration from previous models.
A few years ago I took a similar trip in a Chevrolet Corvette which has more horsepower and its engine behind the seats, like a supercar. It also costs over $10,000 more. While the Corvette delivers amazing performance, the Z, with its simpler controls, was a nicer long-term companion and easier to imagine driving every day.

Even as Nissan prepares to take its next big step by launching its first electric SUV, the Ariya, the Z provides a welcome throwback. With its internal combustion power, sharp handling and relatively accessible price, there’s a kind of excitement about it, for Nissan and for all of us, that may be on the horizon.

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