Road Tests: Full TestFull Test: 1996 Nissan 300ZX Convertible
Bye, Bye, Love
Date Posted 01-01-1999
Nissan's Z-cars changed the way we think about vehicles from across the Pacific. Small, speedy and lightweight, they introduced an entire generation of Americans to the joys of driving fast with two-seats and just enough room to hold the weekend's change of clothes. In the fall of 1969, Nissan, then known as Datsun on these shores, introduced the racy 240Z. Smaller than the rival Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, and much more reliable than Triumphs and MGs coming from across the other ocean, the little Nissan quickly won the hearts of some of the country's most die-hard gearheads. Twenty-six years and numerous renditions later, the Z-car is still winning praise. Due to poor sales and Nissan's continuing financial difficulties, however, the 300ZX is getting the ax. We decided to have a gala send-off for the 300ZX and arranged to have a convertible model dropped off for our final test of this excellent car.When the 300ZX arrived, we immediately took it for a spin through downtown Denver. Despite the car's 6-year old sheetmetal, many passersby still stopped to appreciate our Pearl Glow White convertible with its buff-colored leather interior. The car that looked so futuristic when it was introduced still appears years ahead of its time when compared to most other vehicles on the road. Likewise, the interior looks like something out of a Buck Roger's movie; particularly the wrap-around cabin and the spaceship controls surrounding the instrument cluster. The plethora of buttons, levers and switches render the cockpit somewhat intimidating for the uninitiated, and it is easy for first time drivers to lose the location of some of the secondary controls. After short study, though, everything falls to hand and the 300ZX's passenger compartment becomes a comfortable control center from which drivers can unleash the car's power on the unsuspecting traffic ahead. The seats in the Z-car are exceedingly comfortable, and though tightly supportive, they offer driver and passenger a great deal of room to move around.
Interior cargo space is surprisingly good in the 300ZX. The center console is large enough to hold sunglasses, a folded map and a few Snickers bars. The compact glove compartment can't hold much more than a pair of gloves, but the shelf behind the seats offers a handy place to stow a briefcase, laptop computer and the day's lunch. We did miss, however, a place to store CDs; dumping them on the passenger's seat is only acceptable when there isn't a passenger in the car. Unlike many cars in this class, the 300ZX convertible offers a proper trunk. It won't fool anyone into thinking they're looking into the storage area of a Cadillac Fleetwood, but it did hold $100 worth of groceries for this editor's family; just try and do that in your neighbor's Chevrolet Corvette.
Under our test car's hood resided Nissan's tried and true 24-valve DOHC V-6 that produces 222-horsepower at 6400 rpm and 198-lb./ft. of torque at a relatively high 4800 rpm. The car weighs roughly 15-pounds per horsepower, allowing the 300ZX convertible to scoot along quite nicely. The 300ZX's 5-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure to work. The gearshift is well positioned with short, precise throws that made us wonder why anyone would buy the automatic version. If, like us, you are a fan of smooth, powerful engine sounds, you'll love this car. The exhaust note has a distinct purr that winds up to a banshee-like scream as the car approaches its wonderfully high redline. Despite this, the normally aspirated 300ZX is not blazingly quick, getting from 0-60 in just over 7 seconds; somewhat embarrassing for a sports car that costs $45,000.
If you can forget about the acceleration times, though, the car is a blast to drive. The 300ZX will hang its tail out like a frisky cat, snapping it back in with a quick prod of the go-pedal. The 55/45 front/rear weight distribution makes the car easy to handle in the twisties and the precise steering makes carving corners a point and shoot operation. The independent, multi-link suspension does a fine job keeping the car firmly planted to the road, and our only complaint about the ride stems from the severe cowl shake common to most convertibles. The ventilated, 4-wheel disc brakes provide effortless stopping power, bringing the car down from triple-digit speeds in a few quick heartbeats.
An interesting observation about the 300ZX is that their owners seem to be circling the proverbial wagons in light of the car's cancellation. Every time a fellow 300ZX pilot would spot me on one Colorado's highways or byways, they would race up, pull along side me, honk their horn and give an aggressive thumbs up. It was an acknowledgment that the car may be canned, but the people that love them aren't going away quietly. I wouldn't be surprised to see these same ladies and gentleman sitting at a classic car round-up 25 years from now showing-off their pristine Zs; those of us without foresight to buy one of the cars today will be paying $100,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auctions to buy one in mint condition. I can just see it, wealthy octogenarians petting the car's sleek steel wondering to themselves how it got canceled, and why, when they had the chance to buy one, did they decide that it would be more fun to own a Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis.
There were a few glitches in the car that detracted from an otherwise outstanding vehicle. The first was the convertible top. One evening after enjoying a fine meal at La Coupole, a swanky French restaurant in downtown Denver, we became the post-dinner entertainment for the restaurant's terrace patrons as the valet and I wrestled mightily for nearly 10 minutes to lower the top on this beautiful sports car. (It must be noted that my very supportive wife didn't utter the slightest giggle as I circled the car, cursing under my breath, trying a new angle to attack the roof.) The complicated interior latches and buttons, coupled with the stubbornness of the integrated boot, made the open-air driving experience a little less enjoyable than it should be. Our second complaint is with the pattern thrown by the low beam headlamps; traveling at freeway speeds at night is difficult because at 75 mph the car overdrives its lights, making it difficult to see potential hazards in the road. Our final complaint concerns the inadequate stereo and climate controls. Simply put, the stereo can't compete with wind noise if the car is traveling over 65 mph. The climate controls also failed to do an adequate job of defogging the front windshield after a surprise rainstorm made the interior humid and sticky.
Despite these complaints, we're sad to see the 300ZX go. The fact that disposable car buying dollars have been redirected towards the frenzied sport/utility market is not a reflection on the 300ZX or any of the other fine cars that have been canceled in the last few years. It's merely a type of industrial natural selection; the many supercars of yesterday are being replaced by the many super trucks of today. Undoubtedly, many fine, fast cars will survive; witness the redesigned Corvette, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK, but in the practical 90's it does seem a bit ridiculous to spend $45,000 on a car that can only move two people and their picnic basket when those same dollars could be spent buying a Land Rover that will haul you and all of your friends to a weekend ski trip in Vail. In a few years, though, I expect people will begin to tire of their barn door-looking trucks and will again feel the need for speed. Who knows, at that time we may see another incarnation of the Z-car. Until then we can only wait, stuck in 2nd gear behind the slow-moving Ford Explorer directly ahead.