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DRIVEN: Pioneering cars like Nissan’s 1996 300ZX carved a path ‘toward a modern performance future’


My parents used to own a bean and alfalfa sprout business when I was a kid, which led to frequent and lengthy car-rides with dad to visit suppliers. On those drives, we’d always be talking cars and, often, about the Nissan 300ZX.

I was obsessed with it. I’d memorize the specs and figures from car magazines, storing them away in my memory banks for discussion with dad.

The 300ZX had a major role in shaping my growing gearhead brain and dad and I spent many a drive bonding over discussion of it.

Dad said my reaction to seeing a Nissan 300ZX in real life made him wonder if my eyeballs would split open and explode.

All said, this was my number-one Japanese sports car of the day, thanks in no small part to the tech, futuristic features and styling that always sucked me in.

Fast forward to a cool mid-October day a few weeks back.

I’m standing in a parking lot at Nisssan headquarters, looking at a 1996 Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo that was never sold, had been driven very rarely, and had just spent several decades sitting in a large bay, as way to preserve a piece of Nissan’s performance history.

But today, the car was plated, insured, freshly serviced and ready to drive.

A small handful of auto writers got a chance to spend some time with it. Now, it was my turn.

Memories flood back

A nervous pang appeared as I slid into the driver’s seat, seeing, simply, “6,140” on the odometer.

This 22-year-old, twin-turbo flagship, by modern car standards, wouldn’t have even seen its first oil change. It was a, roughly, $55,000 car in its day, though it’d fetch plenty more than that now, in this condition.

Memories flooded back. The twin-turbo, three-litre V6 dispensed 300 horsepower and nearly as much torque. I remembered the 16-bit engine computer. The four-wheel steering. The fact that this was one of the first cars to be designed in a supercomputer.

And all these years later this old-school Nissan still got me with its looks. The wedge-shaped nose, unmistakable headlamps, pedestal spoiler and compact, athletic dimensions pull off a look like a real-life hot-wheels toy.

It even had the telltale “twin-turbo” decal on the rear hatch, just above the gloss-black trimmed taillamp array.

I was 14 again.

Inside, climate controls, wiper controls and lighting controls are assigned to small pods that sprout out from the instrument cluster cowl. This leaves a barren centre stack, albeit for the BOSE cassette player and a storage cubby.

The climate controls beep when manipulated, LED light segments flitting away to help visualize your selection. It looks like the helm of a sci-fi space-shuttle.

Leather seats are pillowy and soft, highly power adjustable.

The 280 km/h speedometer has a boost gauge beneath, helping drivers keep an eye on the state of the turbochargers.

Futuristic touch

There are “t-top” roof panels overhead, and a small toggle switch that allows selecting of either “sport” or “tour” mode from the adjustable suspension — an incredibly futuristic touch in the day.

The difference between each suspension mode is stark and the modes switch almost instantly.

Smooth engine

Performance by today’s standards is not mind-boggling; the 300ZX surges along with glee once the turbos get breathing, though your average V6-powered family sedan today would keep right up to it.

It’s a smooth engine with turbo-lag is nicely mitigated, concealed somewhat by the sense of rising action inherent of the high-revving power-curve.

There’s lots of torque, even from low revs, enhancing around-town responsiveness.

Brake feel is poor. The stopping power is generous, but only once you’ve practically punched the brake pedal through the firewall.

Sporting experience

Biggest difference to today’s sports cars? The feel. This is one of many fast Nissans that proves you don’t need to drive hard to enjoy a sporting experience.

Whether intentional, or a function of the technology available in the day, so many sensations drivers are now isolated from were on full display. There’s more noise.

More feedback. More satisfaction for the part of the driving enthusiast’s brain that craves input and communication from the vehicle.

 

The 300ZX is always talking to you and that’s without needing to drive the pants off of it. It’s a machine as enjoyable on a highway cruise as it is being driven spiritedly. That was the core of the Nissan sports-car experience at the time, and largely, the way it remains today.

It’s a driving experience perhaps more pleasing for the pure sensation of driving, rather than all-out speed and fire power.

Glimpse to the future

The 300ZX signalled things to come, and today, machines like the 370Z and the GTR exist and thrive, because of the path these pioneering machines carved out toward a modern performance future.

This particular unit’s future is certain: As I sit here completing my story, it’s now parked safely back in its garage, under a cover, at Nissan HQ, where it will be kept comfy and maybe come back out for a drive again in another decade or two.

I hope we’ll meet again.

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