Nissan Z Proto previews hot 400Z with twin-turbo V6, manual transmission
Here's everything there is to know about the new Z-Car, from this prototype's design to the production car's potential pricing and arrival time.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Suffice it to say, 2020 probably isn't a great time to introduce a new sports car. From the coronavirus pandemic to the recession to seemingly ceaseless natural disasters, it's proving hard enough to launch any new model this year, let alone one into a shrinking niche new-car segment. And yet, that's exactly what this Nissan is doing by setting the table with this Z Proto sports car. Making its debut Tuesday, the Nissan Z Proto previews the coming seventh installment in Nissan's 50-year Z Car history, a franchise that kicked off with the now-iconic Datsun 240Z and has been stuck on Channel 370Z for over a decade.
Conversely, this Nissan Z Proto may be exactly the sort of upbeat distraction -- if not revelation -- that many driving enthusiasts could use right now. Simultaneously new, yet deeply familiar, think of the car seen here as a dishful of high-performance comfort food, arriving at a time where we could all use a familiar face and something to look forward to. Ready or not, world, it's time to get excited for the iconic Z's next chapter.
Watch this: Nissan Z Proto: The Z Car's next chapter looks fierce and familiar
The Proto in Nissan Proto is short for prototype, and that means that the pale-yellow coupe seen here isn't just a pure concept car, it's about 98% of the production model that's expected to debut next year before hitting dealers in 2022, possibly carrying the 400Z moniker.
I was actually fortunate enough to see the Z Proto briefly in person last October during a trip to Japan. I was sworn to secrecy at the time, and it's been incredibly hard to bite my tongue and not share any impressions until now, nearly a year later. I saw a slightly earlier full-size version of the Z Proto in a courtyard full of other future wonders (which I'm still not allowed to talk about). But even then, the Z wasn't just the center of the display's gravity -- if it weren't an outdoor setting, the Z would've sucked all the air out of the room. Yes, I've got a weak spot for purist sports cars in general, but I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. This design has real presence.
Nissan Z Proto specs
Despite being unveiled at a ceremony in Yokohama, Japan, and paired with a simulcast celebration livestreamed from the model's annual ZCon fan gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, there aren't a lot of hard numbers to accompany the rollout of this new Z Proto. Right now, Nissan confirms that it's powered by a twin-turbocharged V6 engine whose soul is stirred by a six-speed manual transmission. The company also released basic dimensions, so here's how the Proto stacks up to the current 2020 Nissan 370Z range.
Nissan Z Proto vs. 2020 Nissan 370Z and 370Z Nismo
Nissan Z Proto
2020 Nissan 370Z
2020 Nissan 370Z Nismo
6-speed manual or 7-speed auto
6-speed manual or 7-speed auto
Nissan Z Proto is a four-wheeled love letter to driving purists
As you can see, the new Proto maintains the Z's classic long hood and rear-wheel-drive proportions. The Z has an enviable design history, and to expect chief designer Alfonso Albaisa to sign off on something radically different would be to misunderstand how the company feels about this model. As Albaisa told Roadshow during a virtual media briefing, this car is "in the very fibers of our heart, as Nissan, and [designing the new car] is a tremendous responsibility and honor." With the possible exception of the 1990s' Z32 that was something of a technological moonshot conceived during Japan's economic bubble, the Z has remained remarkably consistent in its mission and reach over its five-decade life. The new Z Proto suggests Nissan will seek to maintain that continuity.
Interestingly, at 19 inches in diameter, the prototype's staggered-width wheels are reasonably sized and feature higher sidewalls than you might expect on a modern sports coupe, let alone a show car. Similarly, note the very deliberate inclusion of a six-speed stick-shift and the retention of a manual handbrake. With these details, Nissan is telegraphing that the new Z will be less focused on generating blinding performance figures than it is on forging a bond between car and driver. As the Japanese automaker has its GT-R for fans of jaw-slackening grip and brag-worthy stopwatch numbers, keeping the Z as a more elemental driver's car seems like a smart approach.
If this pearlescent yellow Z Proto's styling feels familiar, that's because it's a melange of design cues lifted from previous Z models. Bookending what feels like a somewhat large and overly square grille opening are a set of LED peepers designed to evoke the original S30 Fairlady Z's iconic sugar-scoop headlamps -- particularly the glass-covered lights of the sought-after Japanese-market 240ZG. Notice how the roofline peaks unusually at its leading edge, tapering from the windshield header on back, just like today's 370Z. Out back, the horizontal LED taillamps echo the Z32 of the '90s. That this Z Proto's styling manages to incorporate all of these historic design cues without seeming overly retro or cobbled together is an accomplishment in itself.
Nissan Z Proto chassis and V6 turbo power
As for what's underneath that bodywork, Nissan isn't saying, but sources indicate the platform is actually a close relative of the current car's unibody chassis. The 370Z has always been a strong and entertaining handler, but it's never been particularly refined, especially in terms of noise, vibration and harshness. If the new Z is indeed similar to the old Z underneath, it will be interesting to find out what sort of renovations, if any, might be necessary to bring the underlying architecture up to modern standards, including crash-test provisions. It also seems likely that the production Z's electrical system may need to be updated, to cope not only with the increased cabin technologies, but also to jibe with whatever advanced driver-assistance systems Nissan decides to make available.
While the original S30 Fairlady Z featured straight-six power, Nissan doesn't presently have a suitable modern inline-six engine in its portfolio, so it makes sense that the new car will feature V6 motivation. The current 370Z relies on a naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V6, but for the next-generation model, the car is widely expected to downsize in displacement a skosh, adopting a version of Nissan's corporate 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 as found in the Infiniti Q60 Coupe. The engine is expected to target 400 horsepower -- the same output the engine realizes in today's Q60 Red Sport. (That power figure, incidentally, would align with rumors of the new generation's name, 400Z, even if doing so represents a break with Nissan's longstanding Z naming convention that tied model appellations to each car's engine displacement.)
Furthermore, if accurate, that 400 horsepower would be a heaping helping more oomph than the 2020 Nissan 370Z's 332 hp and even its higher-performance 370Z Nismo variant, which offers 350 hp. What's more, forced induction will undoubtedly bring with it substantially more torque at significantly lower revs. (The Q60 Red Sport whips up 350 pound-feet from 1,600 rpm, while the 370Z's 270 lb-ft peak doesn't show up until 5,200 rpm.)
Expect the manual gearbox to be standard equipment, with a conventional paddle-shift automatic gearbox (like the seven-speed unit found in the Red Sport) to be optional.
Nissan Z Proto interior is familiar, with modern tech
On the inside, the Proto's cabin is more overtly modern than its candy-coated shell, but that's largely a function of the increased presence of screens. Not only is there a larger touchscreen infotainment display in the redesigned dashboard, there's also a 12.3-inch fully digital gauge cluster.
Beyond that, there's a lot that will be familiar to the Z faithful, from the trio of analog gauges atop the dashboard to the simple, round climate controls and mussel-shell-shaped door handles. (If these make it to production, I hope they feel better than the ones in today's Z.) While incorporating new features and conveniences, it looks like Nissan's designers are telegraphing that the production Z will still be a driver's car first and foremost, and that's good news.
Nissan Z on-sale timeframe and pricing
The production 400Z is expected to be revealed sometime next year, but an actual on-sale timeframe remains fuzzy, as does official pricing. It'll likely be 2022 before new Z Cars hit the street, so it's still very early in the process.
It's worth remembering that today's sports car landscape has changed significantly since the 370Z was unveiled way back in 2008 -- the same year Jay Z and Beyonce tied the knot and President Obama was elected to his first term. Back then, you could still buy a new Honda S2000, a Pontiac Solstice or even one of the last Chrysler Crossfires. The next Z's most natural rival will be the Toyota GR Supra, followed perhaps by V6 versions of Detroit's pony cars. If Nissan produces a lower-power, lower-cost iteration of the seventh-generation Z, it could also perhaps rub shoulders with higher-end versions of the next Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 twins, which are also due about the same time.
Based on Roadshow's sources, it's likely safe to ballpark that the Z's base price will start with the number 3, undercutting the Toyota GR Supra. There will almost certainly be a not-insignificant upwards price walk from today's surprisingly affordable base 370Z ($31,000 delivered) to reflect the new model's additional power and equipment. That said, expect Nissan's ask to start well shy of the Nismo Z's eye-watering $46,715 window sticker (including $925 delivery fee). A starting price in the neighborhood of $38,000 to $39,000 sounds about right, which would make the Z something of a value play next to the automatic-only GR Supra ($44,000 delivered for the 2021 2.0-liter model, $52,000 for the more-comparable 3.0).
Nissan 400Z Nismo or Roadster variants?
There have been a few thin rumors about an eventual higher-performance Nismo version of the 400Z, and such a model would be a predictable development for a car that will likely once again carry a longer-than-normal lifecycle. As for a future Z Roadster variant, ironically, that's an open question. It's also probably something I wouldn't bet on hearing more about anytime soon. After all, if today's coupe market is slim, the convertible market is absolutely emaciated.
While Nissan certainly won't have a new Z in dealerships in time to cap off the model line's golden anniversary, this Z Proto is a promising, tasty teaser at a moment when we could all use a break. That goes for Nissan itself, too. Remember, in addition to weathering all the same crises as the rest of us, the automaker has been embroiled in a lamentable CEO-turned-international-fugitive saga, as well as significant financial turmoil.
A new Z can't heal Nissan any more than it can fix the world's problems. If nothing else, however, as a purist's bauble and as a statement of intent for a new sports car, this Nissan Z Proto is a welcome diversion.