The Evolution of the Nissan Z [240Z, 300ZX, 370Z, 400Z?]

nissan 370z z34

The Nissan Z, or the humble Fairlady, as it’s known in Japan. Yes, it is named after the play My Fair Lady,  and it’s been around for 50 years now, making it one of the longest running car marks ever created. And ever since day one, it has had one single goal: to be fun to drive. It’s a lineage that has never deviated from the rear-wheel drive layout, always had a manual option, and to this day uses 6 cylinders and a long hood to get the point across. 

Road and Track even called the Nissan Z “the best sports car in the world”, and you want one. Seriously, you do, I do, it’s just science. Here at Ideal, we wanted to take a look back on this iconic car and look into its awesome future. Can the new 400Z get rid of the bitter taste cars like the Supra are leaving in our mouths? Let’s find out!

We’re going to take you through the history of one of the most iconic Japanese cars of all time, the Nissan Z.

The First Generation S30 (1969-1977)

nissan datsun 240z

To really tell you why the Z is important today, we have to go back to the early 1960s when Nissan was going through a ton of changes. They had absorbed Prince Motor Company to add the Skyline and the Gloria, and we’re all so happy they did that! Among all this chaos, the madman at the helm decided that what the world needed was a new sports car that would define Nissan. Enter the Nissan Fairlady Z.

The first generation of the Z car is really the most important. It defined every Z car that came after it, even today, 50 years later. Every Nissan Z is a lightweight, rear-wheel drive, manual sports car with a 6-cylinder motor. Sure, it had an inline-6 instead of a V6, and they weren’t cool enough to put a turbo on it yet, but the first generation Z cars rocked the world by bringing Japanese reliability to the sports car world. 

The Nissan Fairlady Z, also known as the Datsun 240Z for those of us in the States, hit the markets in 1969, and people went nuts. The “240” stands for the 2.4-liter engine that powered the Z, and that naming convention is still going through today. The S30 240Z handled great, sounded great, and to this day is one of those shapes that defines the word “sports car.” 

Seriously, the first generation models really stood the test of time, from the iconic appearance of the Devil Z in the anime Wangan Midnight to being a dream car of even the most die-hard American muscle car guy in the 70s. The S30 Z had mass appeal. 

It featured a fully-independent front and rear suspension, which broke the mold of sports cars of the day. Its smooth running 2.4-liter L24 engine made upwards of 151 horsepower, which made it a thrilling car to own and drive in 1970. And, most importantly, it was cheap!

It’s an affordable sports car legend, and it’s still affordable today thanks to there being so many examples of it. Want one for yourself? Expect to pay at least $12,000. Yeah, you could buy two 350Zs for that price and do a build-off with your buddies or something, but you just won’t have the same nostalgic, pure driving experience you get from carving a canyon in a classic Z car. 

Now, the S30 generation isn’t just limited to the beloved 240Z. In the mid-70s, Nissan released the 260Z and 280Z. Aesthetically, the body remained the same, but their larger 2.6- and 2.8-liter engines added some extra power to the Z, which was kind of a break-even, as the cars got a little more luxurious and a little heavier. So, no matter which one you, get you’re going to have about the same performance.

The 280z even features Bosch fuel injection instead of carburetors, which if you’re like me, carbs are confusing as hell and hard to maintain as seasons change, so keep that in mind if you’re shopping for an S30. 

The success of the 240Z continued through to the 280Z and gave Nissan the confidence it needed to completely revise the car for its second generation: Generation X. You know, because it’s called the 280ZX.

The Second Generation S130 (1978-1983)

1979 nissan fairlady z s130

Nissan decided to call the next generation Z car the 280ZX. The “X” stands for “Luxury”. The ZXs were a bit heavy for the time, something that started with the previous generation. Even though they slapped a snail on in the 80s, the cars were losing their sports car attitude and becoming touring cars. The second generation Z was still really good though.

People love to hate on the second generation, but they’re missing out, because it’s still a fantastic car. Even at the time, the awards kept piling up for the 280ZXs: car of the year, import car of the year, best value. You name it. And sure, maybe it’s a bit heavy and the wiring likes to crumble, but they’re a great value. It’s probably your best bet if you want to own a piece of Japanese performance history. 

Unlike the Celicas and AE86s, which have exploded in price, or the FB and FC RX-7s that just don’t exist anymore, you can still buy a decent example of a 280ZX for under $10,000.

In 1983, the second generation Z was being passed by its competitors, so Nissan got to work. They ditched the Datsun name, redesigned the platform, and rolled out the new 300ZX.

The Third Generation Z31 (1984-1989)

nissan 300zx z31
Garage Dreams

The third generation Z had more power and a wedge shape that’s somewhat of an acquired taste. It’s just so 80s, and I kind of love it. This was the first Z car with a V6, which they still have. Nice. They also switched to MacPherson struts, bigger turbos, nice sound systems, and digital gauges. 

The Z31 300ZX was kind of a car of the future. That meant the new 300ZX handled better, had more power, and was way nicer inside than the previous generation. The humble 300ZX was also very well liked among the critics, snatching the title of “Car of the Year” from some real heavyweight competitors like the Dorito-powered FC RX-7 and the Mk3 Supra.

By 1987, turbos and limited slip differentials were standard on the Z. In 1988, the Shiro Edition 300ZX was the fastest car coming out of Japan, and was a serious winner on the track, regularly taking the number one spot in GTP. The combination of good power and high sales numbers make it a great deal now. In fact, it’s the best value if you’re looking for an 80s JDM legend. 

First, unlike the Mazda or Toyota superstars, there are still clean examples out there.We found one with no turbo for $7,000 with less than 60,000 miles. If you need the extra power, expect to fork over a lot of cash. We found a turbo’d 300ZX that sold for about $13,000. Just try not to roll your eyes too hard when haters keep asking you why you didn’t get a Supra instead.  

Perhaps the biggest problem with the 300ZX was that it was overshadowed by its superstar younger sibling, you know, the first production car that was ever designed by computers. This is the 300ZX, part two.

The Fourth Generation Z32 (1990-1996)

nissan 300zx z32

Compared to the first 300ZX, the second 300ZX (the fourth generation Z car) was a massive step forward. You see, the early 90s were the golden age of JDM. Mitsubishi had the 3000GT, Toyota had the Mk4 Supra, Mazda had the FD RX-7, and Honda had its own speed-wedge, the NSX. Nissan’s Skyline wasn’t available in the United States, but we did get the amazing 300ZX, also known as the “Corvette Killer”. 

What does it take to be a Corvette Killer, you ask? Well, for one thing, you need to make more horsepower than a Corvette. The twin-turbo variable-timing V6 did that no problem, cranking out 300 ponies compared to the Corvette’s 245. You also need better handling than GM’s masterpiece. Well, Car and Driver called the 300ZX the best sports car in the world after driving it. Hard to argue with that. Finally, you need to have an interior that’s better than early-90s GM, which we admit is a super low bar, but the 300ZX had some of the best interior styling and comfort for its class. 

The ZX came in two styles. A 4-seater, 2+2, with T-tops or a slick-top 2-seater. These fourth generation Fairladies are just starting to appreciate. It seems like if you want to buy one you have two options: the undesirable (but still very cool) non-turbo, which will run you under $10,000 for a good example or a twin-turbo model, which starts around $15,000. And the sky is really the limit, as they’re going up in value quickly!

Nowadays the 300ZX doesn’t have nearly the following that the other JDM heroes do, which is great news, because they’re like 1/10 the price of a Supra or Skyline even for a clean example. A big reason for this is that 300ZXs are awful to work on. Believe me, I know, I owned one. 

The engine bay of the Z32 is tighter packed than that Coleman sleeping bag you bought at Walmart. Even the simplest maintenance can be a multi-day escape in cut hands and lost tools. Being designed by computers had its drawbacks. Computers don’t have hands, and they don’t know how hard it is to work in tiny engine bays. 

After kind of losing the JDM horsepower wars, Nissan would discontinue the 300ZX in the States in 1996 and take a hiatus from the Z. Then, after a long 5 years, Nissan was back. And, boy, were they out to prove that they still had it! With a new correct-wheel drive, manual, lightweight two-seater with a 6-cylinder motor. The 350Z.

The Fifth Generation Z33 (2002-2008)

2005 nissan 350z z33
Wikimedia Commons

If you want the best sports car you can buy for under $10,000, here it is. Don’t talk about the M3 with me, that’s not a sports car. And that’s a really important distinction, because ever since the original 240Z, the Z line kept getting more and more weighed down with luxury. They cost a lot too. A base 300ZX could be $40,000. That’s like a billion dollars if you convert it from 90s money. 

The new 350Z was a return to form. They dropped the X and dropped the price by more than half. With the Porsche Boxster in the crosshairs, the 350Z was launched to the eagerly waiting public, and it ruled. It took home trophies in Formula Drift, starred in everyone’s favorite car movie Tokyo Drift, and today is one of the best starter platforms for a drift car.

It goes beyond drifting too. Nissan were the only ones making an enthusiast car like this, and they began dominating sanctioned racing everywhere. Now, they’re pretty much the best car you can buy if you want an entry level enthusiast car that has more power than a Miata

The VQ motor is easy to work on and everyone can help you with it, and there are more mods for these cars than just about anything else ever. I know Nissan didn’t make another Silvia for the American market, but the 350Z still kept the cheap, fun, fast car dream alive for us.

We found one on Cars.com with that signature Solar Orange paint, decent miles, and a 5-speed, all for under $10,000!  Don’t be afraid of the high mileage ones, though. You can get them for nothing, and that VQ will be fine. We also found a screaming red manual for less than $6,000. You can’t beat that. Just do it fast because they’re starting to go up in value, something we never thought would happen. 

2008 saw the end of the 350Z, but this time we didn’t have to wait for a new generation.

The Sixth Generation Z34 (2009-2021)

2013 nissan 370z z34
Wikimedia Commons

Enter the 370Z. Let’s start with numbers. The 370Z got a bigger 3.7-liter V6 compared to the 350Z’s 3.5-liter. That might not seem like a lot, but it was good for another 30 horsepower. Not only that, but the 370Z is smaller, lighter, and, dare we say, better looking. The aggressive styling really speaks to us, like it’s ready to eat the competition, because it is. 

This is the 350Z fully matured into a modern, sharp, desirable sports car. On the inside is where things got really spicy. The 350 was function-over-form, a total plastic rush-job that sacrificed a lot to keep the price down and the sports up. The 370 offered a major upgrade. You can even get it with paddle shifters, you know, if for some reason you don’t want to save the manuals

For those that do want that extra driving engagement, the 6-speed manual transmission in the redesigned sixth generation Z rev-matches for you. Just don’t tell anyone, let them think you’re nailing those heel-toe shifts every time. 

What’s that? You want one? So do we. The good news is that they aren’t expensive. Even though they hold their value really well, they weren’t that much to begin with. You can grab one for a little more  their older 350Z counterpart, in which case, why wouldn’t you?

We found a great example for $16,000. It had under 80,000 on the clock and it looked clean. Don’t want a used one? Okay, sure, get one new. They’re still making them and you can pick one up for $30,000.

The sixth generation design is getting old, though, and Nissan as a brand has lost a lot of its shine. Nowadays, you mostly just hear people complaining about the CVT or the styling of the Juke. Is it Kix now? Isn’t that a cereal? Well, we have great news. After years of teasing us, Nissan has confirmed that the 400Z is on its way to replace the aging 370Z!

The Seventh Generation Z35 (2022)

2022 nissan 400z

Nissan wants love. That’s what this says. It says they can still remember that humble 240Z that worked its way into the hearts of millions. We can tell, because they’ve said that it’s definitely going to have a manual, it’s definitely rear-wheel drive, and it’s definitely a V6. And ot just any V6, it’s the return of the 300ZX in the form of a modern twin-turbo 400-horsepower powerplant. That’s why it’s likely to be named the 400Z. 

It’s not a 4-liter motor, because the displacement wars are kind of over. The Infiniti Red Sport has a 3-liter, 400-horsepower, twin-turbo V6, and we think that’s where they’re going to get the motor for the new Z. It’s a really, really good motor. The Q50 with the same motor goes 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds, and the Q50 is pretty hefty. Tune it and pair it with the Z’s legendary lightness? We might be looking at low 4-second range. 

The new Z is all about that retro vibe too, with the classic silhouette of the original Fairlady. And don’t tell anyone, but Nissan has promised to keep the low Z price point. Looks like that new BMW Supra Z4 has a lot of competition coming its way for a lot less money. Are we excited? Yes. Are you excited? A new Z to rival a Supra? Are the Japanese horsepower wars firing back up? Where’s the new RX-7 Mazda? Is this the reissue car that’ll restore faith in reissue cars? That’s right, we’re looking at you, Eclipse. Well, we hope so, because the Z legend needs to continue. 

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