Nissan Z Generations Explained

When many think of Nissan, it likely brings to mind the various commuter vehicles the brand has built its name on over the years. For others though, it may remind them of the storied past of Nissan’s performance-focused offerings. 

Though S-chassis and Skyline models garner much of the attention, Nissan’s performance roots truly began earlier than that. Since 1969 and through the present day, the Nissan/Datsun Z-series has carved itself out a place as the driver’s car by prioritizing driving experience and nimble handling over raw power and statistics.

The success of the early Z-series might have inspired your favorite nimble sports coupe, from the Porsche Boxster to the Honda S2000, and much of the technology first found in a Z-car is considered essential for performance cars nowadays. 

History of the Z-Series

At the time, Nissan was a relatively small and unknown automaker, especially outside of Japan. The company would strive to boost its international perception with the introduction of a “halo car”, or a brand’s top-of-the-line offering used to market its entire lineup and improve public image. Nissan has already been successful with their Fairlady roadsters in the Japanese market and knew the front-engined RWD formula could succeed on North American shores. Since the Datsun brand was fairly well-established outside of Japan compared to Nissan, which only sold trucks in North America, Nissan would initially release these vehicles under the Datsun brand. 

Z-Series Generations

Nissan Fairlady Z/Datsun 240Z, 260Z, 280Z (S30/Z29)

Grey Nissan Fairlady Z

The first generation of the Z-series came in two distinct versions; the Japanese domestic version Fairlady Z and the exported Datsun 240Z. Both shared the same platform but differed in powertrains. The Japanese Fairlady Z shipped with a 2.0L straight-six that produced 130 HP, while the exported version got a beefier 2.4L straight-six making 151 HP.

From 1969 through the ‘71 model year, the 240Z sold over 45,000 units, followed by 50,000 and 40,000 the next two years respectively. With these numbers, it was clear the North American market had an appetite for compact and nimble Japanese coupes. 

With its success stateside, Nissan would go on to release two more iterations of this platform. The 260Z was released with a larger wheelbase and increased engine displacement to 2.6L, which pushed power numbers to 154 HP, except for in many US states where it received a power decrease to comply with US emissions regulations. 

The 280Z was introduced to the North American market only, again increasing engine displacement to 2.8L making 170 horsepower. The vehicle received additional luxury features and larger bumpers to meet US pedestrian safety regulations. 

Nissan/Datsun 280ZX (S130, Z30)

Datsun 280ZX

Nissan would follow up the success of the first-generation Z-car with the 280ZX, which attempted to capitalize on the growing demand for luxurious interiors, a comfortable ride, and… red velour upholstery. 

This new iteration focused considerably on comfort and luxury over the driving experience, boasting an innovative T-top design and various high-end (for the time) creature comforts like power windows, a cassette player, and air conditioning all coming standard. This generation would retain the Fairlady Z moniker in the Japanese market.

Nissan carried over the same powertrain from the 280Z to the 280ZX, offering the same 5-speed manual transmission and 2.8L straight-six. While the naturally aspirated version came with an underwhelming 135 HP, Nissan would introduce a turbocharged option that pushed out 180, marking the first time forced induction was included on a Z-car.  

Though straying from the original formula has made the 280ZX the black sheep of the Z-series in the eyes of purists, this iteration would go on to see stellar performance on the market, selling over 86,000 units in its first model year.  

Nissan 300ZX (Z31)

Silver Z31 Nissan 300ZX

The 1984 model year came with a complete overhaul of the Z-car, introducing the VG series of 3.0L V6 motors. Both turbocharged and naturally aspirated options were offered, making 160 and 200 BHP respectively. 

The changes went beyond the powertrain though, as Nissan would ditch the curvy lines of previous Z-cars and lean into the sharp angles and aggressive styling trends of the ‘80s. Nissan would return the 300ZX to the fun-focused driving experiences of past Z-series offerings. The suspension was notably stiffer and stable, acceleration was improved, and the vehicle had a more refined driving feel. 

Come 1985, Nissan would pull the Datsun branding from these vehicles and begin offering them under the Nissan nameplate following a complete North American rebrand. 

The 300ZX sports coupe would nearly replicate the market success of its grand-touring predecessor, selling over 70,000 units and becoming the second-best-selling Z-series vehicle of all time. 

Nissan 300ZX (Z32)

White Z32 Nissan 300ZX

The 300ZX name would stick around for the following generation, but that and the 3.0L V6 were about the only things carried over from the previous iteration. Nissan would introduce various mechanical advancements to the car, such as variable valve timing and dual overhead cams, that helped the car produce 222 HP in its naturally aspirated form. The turbo trim saw upgraded Garett twin turbos and dual intercoolers that pushed the output to 300 HP. Four-wheel steering was also available for turbo models, a technology that was ahead of its time during the ‘80s. 

Following its introduction, the Z32 300ZX would garner high praise from media outlets and owners alike, with Road & Track and Car and Driver both naming them to their lists of the ten best cars on the market. 

Despite the vehicle’s stellar performance and state-of-the-art tech, the 300ZX would go on to see the same fate as many Japanese sports coupes around this time. By 1996, Nissan felt it was no longer beneficial to keep the vehicle in the North American market and pulled the plug. The 300ZX would be sold until the 2000 model year in select markets. 

Nissan 350Z

Silver Nissan 350Z driving on highway

Nissan would take a five-year break before releasing the next-generation Z-series, as the company was facing financial difficulties and shifted focus to commuter cars. The Z name was far from gone though, as the company would tease two redesigned Z concepts at auto shows from 1999-2001 and eventually announce intentions to build a production version. 

The 350Z was released in the summer of 2002, bringing with it an improved version of the 3.5L VQ35 V6 engine found in other Nissan models. The motor initially shipped with 287 horsepower, but got a bump to 300 in 2005. Transmission options came in the form of a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic gearboxes. 

From 2006-2008, Nissan replaced the VQ35 with the improved VQ35HR, providing a more linear power band, increased torque, and a slight bump in power to 306 HP. These later years of the 350Z are generally more sought after for their improved driving experience and reliability. 

Nissan 370Z (Z34)

Black Nissan 370Z

Following the success of their first 21st-century Z-car, Nissan would follow up with the 370Z. Much of the styling was retained from the previous generation, with modern updates and a sharper roofline. The VQ35HR was replaced with the 3.7L VQ37HR V6 and increased power outputs to between 328-350 BHP. 

Nissan returned the 6-speed manual option, this time with their SynchroRev Match system, the first of its kind fitted to a production vehicle. This system automatically blips the throttle during downshifts to match the engine and transmission speed, which produces a similar effect to the heel-toe shifting technique used by racing drivers. For those who don’t want the hassle of a manual, Nissan offered a 7-speed automatic fitted with paddle shifters. 

Towards the end of the 370Z’s lifespan, sales and marketing efforts tapered off. Nissan would sell less than 8,000 370Zs combined in its final three years on the market (2018-2020).

Nissan Z (RZ34)

Yellow Nissan Z

In 2020, Nissan revealed their Z Proto concept and its retro-inspired styling as a part of their global lineup restructuring plan. Production of the production car began in 2022, and came off the line under the model name Nissan Z, dropping the numerical naming system that had previously indicated the engine’s displacement (370Z came with a 3.7L engine, 350Z with a 3.5L, etc).

Speaking of powertrains, the 7th-generation Z-car uses Nissans VR30DDTT, a twin-turbocharged 3.0L V6 with all the VVTI and DOHC goodies producing 400 BHP. Nissan would carry over the 6-speed manual option from years past, a rare decision in a time of quick and efficient automatics taking the place of engaging manuals. Of course, Nissan also offered an automatic option in the form of a 9-speed.

The new iteration received stellar praise from enthusiasts and media after being released and garnered excitement about the inclusion of a manual transmission option and nostalgic styling, complete with the round headlights of the Datsun-era Z-series. 

Unfortunately, the new Z was only available in certain markets, with most of Europe losing out on the car due to emissions and noise-control regulations. It’s currently only sold in North America, Japan, New Zealand, and select countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In Japan, Nissan stuck with their Fairlady Z nameplate, the only market to have it. 

Datsun/Nissan Service & Repair in Tucson

No matter the era of Z you drive, Micro Import Service is the premier choice for Nissan maintenance and repair in the Tucson area. Our shop was founded on the idea of being the ultimate Z-car service destination, and while we’ve expanded our services to other makes, Datsun and Nissan’s cars are still the heart and soul of Micro Import Service. Some of the original customers from our Datsun days still bring their 240Z, 260Z, and 280Zs to us for service all these years later. 

Our specially trained Nissan/Datsun technicians have decades of combined experience working on these platforms, and have the expertise and equipment to make your Z feel like a Z should. Give us a call or schedule online today to speak with our friendly team!