The production version of the Z isn't out yet but that hasn't stopped Road & Track from putting together a compelling article about how great important the car can be for enthusiasts in an industry that continues to shift to electric.
The new Z has potential for true greatness.
A warrior approaches. He carries a weapon, a sword, or a six-gun depending on who is doing the telling. The world is changing, his place within it fading. He is aging but still dangerous. The audience can't help but cheer him on.
The warrior is an archetype: the masterless samurai, the wandering gunslinger. It's an old story, one that can be traced from ancient myth to Kurosawa's Yojimbo
to Leone's near-identical A Fistful of Dollars
to The Mandalorian
. We love a weary anti-hero, even when they're a car.
The coming 400Z
is that last samurai. Much is being made of its old bones and backwards-looking tech. Nissan already made a coupe with rear-wheel drive, a twin-turbo V-6, and an available manual transmission. It was called the 300ZX, and they started selling it in 1989. Three decades later we get a rumored power bump of an extra 100 hp and a touchscreen. That's progress?
The 2020s are supposed to be the age of electric. Crushing torque. Individual wheel vectoring. Silent thrust and off-the-line performance to beat nearly anything running pure combustion. You have to ask: By what metric will the 400Z outperform something like the Mach-E?
Here is the unmeasurable answer: in charisma. And to explain the how and the why of it, we must turn our attention from the rōnin
to the gunfighter.
The Dodge Challenger was already old when it launched in February of 2008. It was an old name on an old idea on a car that looked like it came from the past. It sat on a chassis derived from the old LH platform which underpinned the front-drive Concord and Intrepid. The multi-link rear suspension was from the contemporary but aging Mercedes E-Class, and the front suspension shared some parts with the S-class that debuted in 1999.
Who cares? This thing rules. The Hellcat widebody variant is possibly one of the most boneheaded cars on sale today but just try not to grin in delight when the supercharger whines and that vast hood lifts like a goosed battleship. Hulk smash.
A Challenger Hellcat delivers big dumb fun. It's not complex. It's a cowboy car, a machine built for longview plains and open skies. It is an intercontinental ballistic La-Z-Boy. I once drove one two thousand miles in two days and made approximately forty new friends. The Challenger is such an unabashedly American car that we can overlook the fact that it's actually built by Canadian hosers. Shh.
People can post all the videos they want of $150,000 EVs walking Challengers down a dragstrip. You do not live at a dragstrip. You live in a place where maybe you want to go out to the garage and say to yourself, in wonder, “I can't believe we're still actually allowed to buy cars like this.” (You are, of course, permitted to go out and stare admiringly at your Model 3 or whatever, variety being the spice of life.)
The 400Z is going to be a completely different sort of throwback. There are a couple of clues that it's something you should be allowing yourself to get excited about. The first is a monster, and the second a man.
The monster is the last Skyline GT-R, the R34 chassis car, a largely unaffordable masterpiece. The rare ones, the V-Specs and M-Specs, fetch big money. Prices are sure to go up as they age into importability into the US market. GT-R enthusiasts have their varying preferences (R33 for me please
), but the R34 is generally considered to be the best one.
Here's its secret: it's the one Nissan cheaped out on. The R34 was supposed to be entirely redeveloped, including a twin-turbocharged V-6 instead of a straight-six, set further back in the engine bay for a front-midships weight balance. Think closer to the current R35 GT-R, just ten years earlier.
The problem? Nissan's cupboards were bare. A crushing $20 billion in debt, the company did not have the resources for the intended revamp of its flagship. Instead of starting from the ground up, they therefore optimized the old R33, giving the R34 better aerodynamics, a stiffer chassis, and reducing unsprung weight. The car that emerged from this process had the character of its ancestors, updated to meet modern standards. People continue to go absolutely crazy for them, and they are wonderful to drive.
The man is Hiroshi Tamura
, Nissan's product specialist for the 400Z. In many ways, Tamura is the same sort of person as Yutaka Katayama, the legendary “Mr. K” of the Datsun 240Z. He is not precisely a renegade against corporate culture, more an advocate for the enthusiast owner.
We know this because he still owns a tastefully modified R32 GT-R he bought new in 1989. He took on an absolutely ridiculous loan to do so, and spent decades getting the powerband and suspension setup just right. Tamura will fight for his vision, and he is one of us.
And lastly, we must look at the bones the 400Z will be built on. The outgoing 370Z is well past its prime in terms of age, but there's more than a little fight in it yet. Yes, the interior materials are a texture and quality that would get an engineer fired from Rubbermaid, and the shift action needs firming up with some poly bushings.
But the Z offers steering feedback and induction honk, and a roll-shouldered sense of leonine menace. In the wet especially, it feels both dangerous but good-natured, Toshiro Mifune's scowling but compassionate middle-aged samurai. It's old, and it's great.
If the 400Z does indeed come with a mid-30K base price equivalent to a middling-equipped Ecoboost Mustang, it's not hard to see how great it could be. I don't want to be too harsh on the Supra; if it didn't exist the fastest thing in a Toyota showroom would be a plug-in RAV4. But the Z is looking like it's going to be everything the Supra is not. Affordable. Manual. Equipped with steering that feels connected to the front wheels.
When it arrives on our shores, the 400Z will already be old. Some people won't get the point. The world moves on, the samurai were annihilated at the battle of Shiroyama, the wandering gunfighter quietly obsoleted by railroads and barbed wire. The old ways are lost.
And yet, a warrior approaches. His face is lined, but his step is sure. His blade is sharp, his gun quick. His challengers underestimate him at their peril. We still cheer for him.