Nissan gave us the Z we deserve, no more and no less

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2021 has been an incongruently pleasant year to be a car fan. Yes, prices are high, supply is short and launches have been delayed or hampered by ongoing logistics issues, but who would have thought even just a few years ago that a promising new Z car, a revival of the Acura Integra, and the first deliveries of a new (and genuinely good) Ford Bronco would all happen within months of each other?

The Z is a particularly tricky lightning rod. The 370Z launched to reasonably solid critical reception, but its price-to-performance ratio came under fire in subsequent years as Detroit made significant leaps forward in the outright speed and handling capabilities of its pony cars. When 400 horsepower became the baseline for a V8-powered coupe in the low-mid $30,000 range, the Z lost much of its luster.

It certainly didn’t help that Nissan seemed content to let the Z-car wither. With each passing year, its factory infotainment became more and more uncompetitive, and its extensive integration into the dash made aftermarket solutions messy and impractical. In fact, if you peruse Z ownership groups online, you’ll find that many of them resorted to mounting iPads or Samsung tablets to their center consoles rather than attempting to integrate a high-quality aftermarket solution.

Pair this with an early reputation for brake issues in high-performance applications and it’s no surprise that the Z’s popularity waned, even as it became a relative bargain in the secondary market. Contrast this with the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ. In recent years, they’ve each generally sold about as well as the Z (meaning they’ve effectively doubled its volume between the two of them) despite offering even less power and, when you really look at it, not being that much cheaper. Used Toyabaru twins have actually appreciated in recent months with the rising market, helped by a lack of new inventory since production of both models ended in 2020.

If the 86 (and by extension, the as-yet-undriven BRZ) is indicative of the results we can expect from manufacturers’ decisions to refine existing models rather than redesign them, there’s hope, but both enjoyed a certain benefit of the doubt from both media and enthusiast buyers alike. For years, we’ve collectively been saying that the twins are just a little power and torque away from perfection, and Subaru and Toyota have now called our bluff expertly. Criticism of the Z, as outlined above, has been far less specific.

But if you ask me (or even if you don’t), the 370Z doesn’t deserve the neglect it receives from the enthusiast crowd. It may not be the best deal, but it’s not the worst, and even with all of the compromises inherent to the fact that it was developed to help absorb the costs of a luxury sedan platform for Infiniti, it’s still a competent, nimble, exciting car to drive on a twisty back road. It may not offer the raw power or practicality of a Mustang or Camaro, but it’s still genuinely fun to drive, not to mention the last budget-friendly, rear-wheel-drive coupe with a naturally aspirated V6.

With the 2023 overhaul, that last bit will cease to be true, but in exchange, we’re getting more power, more torque, and the flexibility (and potential modification friendliness) that comes with a factory-turbocharged engine. Plus, the carry-over chassis means that the aftermarket shouldn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel (so to speak) when it comes to basic upgrades.

Early reactions to the Z have been mixed, with some saying that Nissan whiffed on a perfect opportunity to electrify its iconic coupe. That’s not a terrible idea on spec, I’ll grant you, but the reality of Nissan’s situation dictates otherwise. A niche sports car with years of declining interest behind it is a horrible candidate for the level of investment that would have been required to offer a PHEV or BEV powertrain.

Compounding that is the fact that Nissan (and by extension, Infiniti) has virtually no way to spread that cost over other models if the Z is to be the first of many. Gone are the days when the company could rely on its rear-drive coupe and sedan platforms to drive volume. If Nissan wants to throw money at an electrified halo performance model, the proper nameplate for that sort of experimentation is Skyline, not Fairlady. The former (the GT-R, in case that wasn't clear) commands the sort of premium that could justify the expenditure.

I approached the GR 86 with cautious optimism; it exceeded my expectations. That’s good and bad news for Nissan. The Z will either be further proof that this is a valid approach for keeping existing internal combustion enthusiast cars relevant for a few more years, or demonstrate that the 86 and BRZ are merely flukes (or that its fans just have wildly different expectations).

I can only see one path to failure for Nissan: price. The outgoing car started at about $30,000 ($30,985 with destination). Did you even realize that? Yeah, while V8 pony cars slowly crept toward $50,000 territory, the 370Z remained affordable. That’s a critical point of continuity; after all, it's much easier to accept less car when it costs less money. But what we're hearing now is that the 2023 Sport model could ring the till at about $40,000, which means a price increase of roughly 25-30% over the outgoing car, which is far from trivial.

For context, the 86 could be as much as 10% more expensive (Toyota said it will be "comfortably under" $30,000 with destination; it was about $28,000 for the base model previously) for its 10% bump in horsepower. While that may not be progress by the strictest definition, at least it's linear. You're paying more, but you're getting more in proportion. Nissan's value proposition is far shakier.

Sure, even if it's 30% more expensive than the 370Z, a $40,000 entry point would look like a deal compared to the Toyota Supra, which starts three grand north of that and has a four-cylinder engine (its turbo-six shows up at $51,000). A starting point of $40,000 also slots nicely beneath the more-powerful V8 pony cars, but only just – right where it should be. Still, I can't help shaking the feeling that people are going to balk at paying that much for a Nissan Z. Maybe Nissan let the 370Z's price stagnate a bit too much while the rest of the segment crept upwards. Maybe $40,000 is "reasonable" on paper for a 400-horsepower, ICE-powered coupe with a manual transmission, but that doesn't mean the buying public will view it as such.

As an enthusiast, you should pay close attention to how well the GR 86, BRZ and Z are received, as these will likely influence the fates of the market’s remaining affordable ICE performance nameplates. There are already rumors that Mustang may be overhauled in a similar fashion, and yet more automakers may take their cues from the outcomes of these experiments. I've now seen first-hand just how good these second-effort cars can be. Earlier this month, I proved it by ordering my own Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing – itself merely a heavily reworked ATS-V.

I stepped up. Will you?

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