2023 Nissan Z First Drive Review: Old School in the Best Ways

The biggest question is: Does the new Z capture the magic of the old ones? Yes. Yes it does.

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2023 Nissan Z First Drive Review: Old School in the Best Ways © 2023 Nissan Z First Drive Review: Old School in the Best Ways

The return and subsequent launch of the 2023 Nissan Z don’t feel like the returns and launches of other cars. Usually, we’re all waiting with bated breath to see what’s new. Here, we’re praying that things haven’t changed too much. 

The outgoing Nissan 370Z got a lot of stuff right—driver engagement, big power from a big V6, a manual transmission, rear-drive—and it’s stuff that we hope will help us weather the headwinds of a rapidly shifting industry. We hope something will remain that we can tether our enthusiast heartstrings to. 

So, the new Z has large shoes to fill. Not just of the 370Z, but of the entire lineage of Zs that came before it, spanning half a century. And it does. Spectacularly so.

The new Z, representative of the sixth generation of Nissan’s iconic and beloved sports coupe, is built on the company’s FM platform, which underpins the current Infiniti Q60 coupe and 370Z. It marks the first new Z car we’ve seen since the 370 launched in 2009. Dimensionally, the new Z is 4.9 inches longer than the outgoing car, while its wheelbase, width, and height remain the same. Its weight has also increased this generation by between 153 to 163 pounds, and there’s been a 10.8 percent increase in torsional stiffness.

The new Z is a rolling nostalgia machine, one retains the Z’s classical long hood and fastback shape, with retro-inspired taillights from the 300ZX and eye-shaped LED headlights that echo those of the 240Z. The longer, you look at the car, though, the more interesting it gets. Geometric and gem-like faceted planes pushing out of its hood and doors catch different light depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun. Everything fits snugly and cohesively together and, in profile, the silhouette appears slightly pulled back on its rear haunches, like an animal bursting to spring ahead.

I’m also happy to welcome the new Z’s interior into the modern era. Yes, that means screens. There’s a 12.3-inch digital driver information cluster and the upward-facing infotainment screen comes as either an eight- or nine-inch display, depending on trim. Climate controls and radio volume are still handled through buttons and knobs, thankfully. And sitting atop the dashboard, in typical Z fashion, are three analog gauges displaying boost pressure, turbo fan speed, and voltmeter. 

Power is driven to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic from the twin-turbocharged VR30DDTT V6, good for a claimed 400 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. This is the big detail to pay attention to: The 370Z made use of a naturally aspirated, 3.7-liter VQ37VHR V6 with 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. It redlined at 7,500 rpm, whereas the VR in the new Z now redlines at a slightly lower 6,800 rpm.

At its core, the new Z is a car you can live with without a second thought. It is very easy and agreeable to drive. You don’t need to contort yourself around any of its features or alter yourself to fit it. It rode stiffly over road imperfections—as any sports car does—but barring that, it makes for a wonderfully amenable daily.

Firing up happens in a quick, raspy bark that’s noticeable but won’t disturb the neighbors. Typical to modern sports car design, the windows are small because the beltline is high, but visibility wasn’t an issue for me, surprisingly. The seat raised up enough so I could see over the hood and fully depress the clutch with ease.

The clutch itself felt like it had an engagement point—or friction zone, whatever you prefer—that was damn-near a meter long. So forgiving was it that it took me no time to get acclimated and I imagine newer manual drivers wouldn’t have a huge problem with it, either. It certainly felt spring-loaded, though, because it pops right back out as soon as you lift off your foot. Shifter throws are nice and heavy, though I think the gates are pretty close together because I had some issues smoothly finding fourth at the beginning of the drive. Manual cars are also fitted with auto rev-matching, but you can turn that off if you find it offensive.

The steering was heavy and direct but not particularly communicative—the hallmark of an EPAS system—but it provided a more than adequate vessel through which to experience the Z and the curvy roads ahead. Brakes grabbed healthily; there was no extra-sensitive pinch at the top of the pedal to get accustomed to. 

But, y’all: This new car is fast

Objectively, I know it’s turbocharged and objectively, I also know there should be some kind of turbo lag somewhere in the powerband. But I just couldn’t find it, even after feeling around the rev-range for it by doing a bunch of third-gear pulls. The new Z just doesn’t feel turbocharged. The only thing that might give it away is the lower redline. It’s clear here that Nissan probably wanted to mimic the linear power delivery of the NA VQ engine; lie to me and tell me the new car breathes freely, and I don’t think I’d doubt you. So if you were ready to light up the comments section with forced-induction hate, don’t bother.

Bury your foot in the throttle and the thing surges for the horizon like a enraged little heavyweight. Power comes on smoothly, uninterrupted, and in a great swell. Surf on it, feel everything lean back on the rear suspension from the sheer force, let the throaty howl of the VR buzz your blood, be alive.

Nowhere was that additional power more obvious than when I launched the new Z back-to-back against the 370Z.

Automatic Zs come standard with launch control—which cracks you forward from a standstill like you were just hit with a bat—but if you want to launch the manual-equipped car, it’s a simple matter of revving it up and dumping the clutch. Wonderfully Neanderthal stuff. The traction control system takes a beat to figure it all out—and to protect you from you—but once it does, it lets those rear tires really hook up, and then you’re screaming up the rev range. (You won’t yearn for those missing last few hundred rpms, trust me.) Redline flashes out of the corner of your eye—gas out, clutch in, slam into second, clutch out, gas in, chirp! go the tires—and do it all over again; chirp! go the tires again into third. 

Against the outgoing Z, it was night and day. The new Z accelerates more furiously in every way. It is more animalistic, more brutal, more relentless But its hardware is also newer and more advanced, so it’s capable of being tidier and more efficient about everything, too. Certainly felt that way. And it was definitely louder.

Finally, Nissan gave us about three or four laps around a track in both the automatic- and manual-equipped Zs. Even in its sportiest setting, I thought the automatic could have been quicker with its decision-making, though it left my brain free to focus more fully on perfecting my line. The auto rev-matching in the manual actually helped out a lot; I wasn’t comfortable heel-toeing in someone else’s car at an unfamiliar track.

There was plenty of power to cannon out of corners with. I never felt like I needed more. The steering remained weighty but uncommunicative, sometimes resulting in my own uncertainty when it came to nosing around a turn. But the brakes bit powerfully to scrub speed, and all in all, the new Z did the track stuff without complaint. 

I didn’t get the sense that it loved being there, however.  

Tracking a car brings everything about its personality to the forefront, lays it bare. I knew I wasn’t even close to driving the Z at its limit, but it still told me who it was all the same. Two things of note: The car is under-bolstered and felt under-tired. I did find myself fighting to stay in place under some of the harder cornering and despite not pushing it very hard at all, I knew the engine could already easily outrun the Bridgestone Potenza S007 P255/40R19 fronts and P275/35R19 rears.

There was also some suspension lean in the corners, along with a pinch of body roll. The car’s weight and dimensions were extremely present during particularly sudden changes in velocity. As a result, I don’t know if I’d call the new Z an elfin track dancer. Rather, it felt big, like a 992-generation Porsche 911. It’s certainly a track-capable car, but one that shines best on sweeping backroads, I think, and not on a tight, third- and fourth-gear circuit with illogical, late-apex turns. 

(A separate argument can be made about how the chassis was putting out very encouraging drifty vibes while on track. The Z might have been slightly rollicky while trying to nail corners, but it’s a familiar feeling from cars that specialize in cornering sideways on tires that smoke and cry. Perhaps the Z isn’t an out-of-the-box track car, it’s more an out-of-the-box drift car. Slap an angle kit on it and make dreams come true, but I digress.)

Fortunately, the best place to enjoy the new Z is on a healthy, curvy backroad. The nation is filled with those. There, you can still enjoy the gobs of power and give the brakes, transmission, and chassis the good thrashing they deserve. It is there that they’ll respond to you the best.

And when you’re done, you can pack it all away, hop back on the interstate, and ride home in comfort.

Nissan will offer three Z trims at launch, and all will be fitted with the 400-hp twin-turbo V6, with either the manual or automatic transmission. 

The Sport base trim, with a starting price of $41,015, will include vented front and rear disc brakes, the digital driver information cluster, and an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The $51,015 Performance trim comes with the 19-inch aluminum-alloy Rays wheels, rear and front spoilers, heated front seats, leather seats, a mechanical LSD, the nine-inch infotainment touchscreen, and performance brakes. The $54,015 Proto Spec is the limited launch edition of just 240 cars. They’ll include the 19-inch Rays forged alloy wheels, yellow brake calipers, and leather seats with yellow accents and accent stitching. 

Note that there is no upcharge for the automatic transmission and that all prices listed include the $1,025 destination and handling fee.

To test, Nissan loaned me a Performance-trim car with a two-tone Seiran Blue Metallic and Super Black exterior and a Graphite interior. The illuminated kick plates were an extra $500, the two-tone paint $1,295, and the floor mats $400. After destination and handling, the MSRP came out to $53,210. 

Despite some rumors I’ve heard about a potentially hybrid or electric Z, I don’t currently consider the new Z a champion of sustainability (leave that up to the Leaf and upcoming Ariya). The car’s gas mileage is pretty mediocre (it is a high-powered performer), so if you’re out to save the polar bears, this probably isn’t your jam.

Competitors include stuff like the Toyota Supra—which was only very recently announced to soon include a manual option, love that timing—but the Supra is down a bit on power. Even then, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder version starts at a couple of thousand more than the Z. 

And if we head over to the muscle car side of things, the Ford Mustang is also an enticing option. Not only does it come with two rear seats and a much larger trunk, but the Mustang also offers far more engine options and trims, everything from a high-performance four-cylinder to a naturally aspirated, 450-horsepower V8. Four-cylinder Mustangs start at $28,600 and V8 ones at $38,670. Both are available with manual transmissions, too. If you’re into Chevy Camaros, the pricing is similar to the Mustang’s as well. 

It’s true the Z offers a bit more nostalgia-cred than the Ford or Chevy—and it’s newer—but if you’re in it for pure power-per-dollar, the Mustang and Camaro should give you plenty to think about over the Z. 

I see the $10,000 jump in price between the base Z and the Performance-trim Z and I just can’t bridge it, man. I can’t do it! Especially not when engine outputs remain the same and all you’re getting (to my eyes) are different wheels, an LSD, some exterior aero, leather seats, and a bigger touchscreen. It’s a Z! When this thing goes on sale, you can bet the aftermarket will respond, and with gusto. Give it a few months and you’ll have a plethora of wheels, LSD setups, and exterior bits to choose from. And I hate screens, so there’s no love lost there. 

If it were me, I’d take the bog-standard Z for just around $40,000 and be stoked about it. Provided you can find one without a pesky dealer markup (likely not anytime soon), you’re getting a pretty hollerin’ deal. Nissan even had one for us to briefly check out and it was great! Had an engine, some wheels, brakes, a steering wheel, and a six-speed manual. Don't need any more than that. In fact, that gray one you saw in the Instagram launch videos above? Chirping its tires into third? That was the base base base base Z. 

I won’t make a secret of the fact that I’ve been very critical of Nissan for most of my career. I, along with many Nissan and Z fans, saw the aging products the company was putting out for many years and wondered if it had lost the thread of things. The new Z is but the latest of a new leaf (heh) the company has turned in addition to the very capable Frontier and Pathfinder—both of which have earned fans here at The Drive—but it is the one that will lead the ideological charge. Enthusiast sports cars tend to do that for a brand.

But this car is not some half-assed bone of a successor Nissan threw out just to shut us all the hell up. It’s as real a Z as they’ve always come, with fantastic power, fabulous looks, and a presence you just feel cool from being around. Maybe this next generation of young enthusiasts won’t buy one right away. But they’ll sure remember that time Nissan came through.

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