The original and affordable Datsun 240Z rode out of the Far East way back in 1970 to challenge the world’s best two-seaters, most of which bore high-and-mighty European nameplates and price tags to match.
A mere 43 years later, the Z-car is not only still around, it’s also become the most popular sports car of all time, with more than two million reportedly sold. (However, had the Z been offered in North America under its home-market name of “Fairlady,” that record never would have been set.)
The Z has always been a traditional front-engine, rear-drive coupe, but the car went through a lot of permutations in four decades, including the 260Z, 280Z, 280ZX and 300ZX, and even a five-year absence from the US market. The current styling emerged in 2002 with the 350Z. Today’s car, the 370Z, appeared as a 2009 model, and changes since then have been relatively minor and largely cosmetic.
The door panels, hood and rear deck lid are still aluminum; the instrument binnacle still moves with the steering wheel when you adjust it. The cockpit is still a place in which to do serious business, and the aerodynamics still cancel all lift, front and rear, at speed. The high-revving 3.7-liter V-6 still punches out at 332 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque, and it’s still attached to either a crisp 6-speed manual gearbox or a 7-speed adaptive autobox with paddle shifters.
And there are still just two option bundles: The Navigation Package ($2,150), which includes satnav, Bluetooth and various connectivity features, and a backup camera—a necessity, given the gunslit rear window and the wide roof buttresses. Then there’s the Sport Package.
Why does a sports car need a Sport Package? Never mind; if you want the Euro-tuned shock absorbers and the nifty SynchroRev transmission feature that blips the throttle on downshifts to match gear revs, the red sport brakes and the limited-slip differential—and you probably do—you’ll have to pay an extra $2,830 to get them.
However well equipped a 370Z may be, it’s still pure essence of sports car. Punch the starter button and the motor whirrs and whines, then lights off with a bark. The clutch grabs like steel Velcro; backing out of the driveway, the wide Yokohamas stutter on the gravel. The big brakes bite hard. In town the suspension has all the give of sun-warmed granite. The Z is mechanical and growly and it constantly asks, “Are you paying attention?”
But the driver’s seat adjusts eight ways and is snug and supportive, and the rack-and-pinion steering tells us exactly what’s going on underfoot. Slip out of town and when there’s an opening in traffic, tug the nose to the right, downshift and go. With a baritone howl the car shoots ahead. High-g corners, full-bore stops, broken pavement—the Z stays planted, never discomposed, and the convertible won’t creak or flex. On the interstate, the Z can clear left-lane slugs simply by showing up hungry in their mirrors. At speed, the noise may be enough to discourage cellphone use, which is all to the good, but even long drives are exhilarating, involving and not uncomfortable.
In 1970, a 240Z cost $3,700. According to the Fed, that’s equivalent to about $22,000 today. But Z-cars, particularly convertibles, have far outstripped inflation; prices for the Roadster, with its power folding top, start at $41,470. Our car, a Roadster Tour loaded with heated and cooled leather seats and all the toys, had a sticker price of $50,055.
This is no longer chump change, but Porsches, Corvettes and Jaguar’s new roadster now routinely cost twice that much. Meanwhile, the Z-car itself has been knocked off by Mazda’s MX-5 Miata and the Toyota/Subaru FR-S/BRZ, sports cars that slipped in behind it for much less money, if much less performance.
The best way to look at the Z today is as an eye-catching coupe with many of the extrovert features of recent supercars—blistering performance, poor visibility aft, a stiff ride, steering that often demands both hands, high decibel output, room for one passenger and barely a weekend’s worth of clothing, and an exciting driving experience—but with the price and the drip-dry reliability of a family sedan. How great is that?