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1990-1996 Nissan 300ZX Buyer's Guide

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2015-04-24 Alex Nishimoto, Robert Guio
1992 Nissan Fairlady Z Convertible © Provided by MotorTrend 1992 Nissan Fairlady Z Convertible

The man widely regarded as the father of the Z car, Yutaka Katayama—"Mr. K" to his fans—fought to ensure that the 240Z would be a two-seat, fixed-roof sports car, not the convertible grand tourer Nissan's management in Japan initially wanted. When the car finally arrived in the fall of 1969, Mr. K's assessment of American consumers' wants proved correct, and the Z car was an instant hit. Throughout the '70s, however, federal emissions and crash regulations made the Z heavier and slower, and Nissan—then known in the U.S. as Datsun—compensated by outfitting the Z with more amenities and luxury features. The Z car continued to become more GT-like with the 280ZX that followed, and by the time the Z31-generation 300ZX debuted in 1984, the car was nothing like its sports car forebear.

Nissan set out to reverse that trend with the Z32 generation of the 300ZX, announcing its goal of making the Z "the world's number-one sports car." Far too often is the definition of that term stretched for marketing purposes, but this time Nissan really meant "sports car." Internally, Nissan referred to the Z32 as Project 901, a designation that stood for "1990" and "number-one sports car." Considering the competition of the day, including the Porsche 944 and Chevy Corvette C4, Nissan's goals were more than a bit lofty. So when the automaker delivered its technical presentation to the press and proceeded to use the words "world's best" when describing virtually any aspect of the new Z, journalists took those claims with the world's biggest grains of salt. But skepticism faded the moment we got behind the wheel. The Z car was back and better than ever.

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX The 1990 Nissan 300ZX maintained certain elements of its predecessor's wedge-like profile, but other than that the design was completely new. The sleek headlights were slanted at more than 60 degrees, helping to give the Z32 a drag coefficient of 0.31. The Corvette and 944 were used as benchmarks during the Z32's development, and in addition to targeting those cars for handling and steering response, Nissan also aimed to beat them in the areas of design and aerodynamics. Nissan claimed the 300ZX produced less lift than either car and exceeded the 944 in straight-line stability. As for design, beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But the 300ZX still looks like it's a product of the unrealized future previewed by the best sci-fi flicks of the 1980s—and that's not a bad thing.

When the base-model Z32 first arrived in April 1989, it sported a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter V-6 producing 222 hp and 198 lb-ft of torque, a power increase of 35 percent over the previous model with the same displacement. To get that, the VG30 engine block was redesigned with a new crankshaft and connecting rods, then fitted with dual-overhead cam heads with four valves per cylinder. The new mill also boasted a distributor-less, coil-on-plug electronic ignition and a then-revolutionary variable cam timing system. Topping off the package was a set of long, sculpted intake runners that give the Z a distinctive underhood look.

Nissan's engineering piece de resistance didn't arrive until later in 1989 with the 300ZX Turbo. Powered by a twin-turbocharged version of the new VG30DE engine, the car made 300 hp and 283 lb-ft, up almost 50 percent from the previous single-turbo, single-cam 300ZX. (For some perspective, the Ferrari 348 that also debuted in 1989 was rated at that same 300-hp figure.) Nissan's goal for the turbo model was to give it a broad powerband. The automaker could have achieved its peak power goals using a single turbo setup, but chose two fast-spooling Garrett AiResearch turbochargers to give the Z quick throttle response in the lower rpms. In our first drive, Motor Trend said, "The transition onto boost is so smooth you have to study the boost gauge to really locate it. The pressure builds at as little as 1800 rpm, and the engine is very much alive by 2500 rpm. From there on, it's a swift and effortless ride up to the 7000-rpm redline."

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX A five-speed manual was standard on all cars, with a four-speed automatic as an option. However, turbo models equipped with the automatic had to make do with only 280 hp in order to preserve the gearbox. After being compressed by the two turbos, charge air was directed to small intercoolers at either side of the engine, located behind horizontal slits in the front valance—an exterior trait found on all U.S.-spec Turbo models.

But big horsepower alone does not a sports car make, and knowing this, Nissan also carefully considered the car's driving dynamics. Even with the non-turbo base car, we could tell things had improved since the Z31. "Where the old 300ZX felt loose and tentative in corners, the new one feels crisp and secure," we said in our first drive. Nissan employed a rear multi-link setup similar to that of the 240SX, while the front suspension was a more complex unequal-length control arm arrangement. Helping the Z stop were four-wheel disc brakes with large four-piston calipers clamping down on 11-inch rotors—enormous for the day.

Turbo models received Nissan's Super HICAS (High Capacity Actively Controlled Suspension) four-wheel-steering system, which gave the Z plus or minus 1 degree of rear steering angle and helped it slalom like a champ at speeds above 55 mph. In a 1991 handling test, the 300ZX Turbo came in second place out of 10 competitors, beating such cars as the Toyota MR2, Mazda Miata, Porsche 944 S2, and Chevy Corvette ZR-1. What did it lose to? None other than the Acura NSX. A year earlier, the 300ZX Turbo claimed our 1990 Import Car of the Year award, thanks to supercar-beating performance at a more affordable base price of $33,000.

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX Though the Z32 made it possible to use the words "Z" and "sports car" in the same sentence again, it didn't forsake the luxurious touches found on its predecessors. As we said in our first drive, "The new car far outstrips its predecessor as a sporting device, yet gives up little in terms of creature comforts." Those creature comforts included a driver-centric cockpit with cruise control, lighting, and HVAC switchgear directly flanking the gauge cluster. By 1991, most cars got automatic climate control with digital readout as standard. Leather was a popular option, but examples with cloth seats aren't hard to come by. The majority of Z32 coupes came with removable T-tops, though a rare "slicktop" roof without the detachable glass panels was available after 1991.

The two-seater wasn't the only body style available at launch. Carrying on a tradition that dated back to 1974 with the 260Z, the Z32 was offered in a stretched 2+2 variant that boasted a 4.7-inch longer wheelbase and an additional 8.5 inches in overall length. That extra length is well-hidden from the outside, with only a longer rear-quarter window and a fuel door relocated to behind the rear wheel well serving as giveaways. Despite their minor impact on exterior proportions, the rear seats aren't very useful to adult humans. The 2+2 was only offered in naturally aspirated trim in the U.S., though models do exist elsewhere in the world with both rear seats and a "Twin Turbo" badge on the rear hatch.

1992 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo © Provided by MotorTrend 1992 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo A convertible model joined the lineup in 1993, developed in partnership with Michigan-based drop-top specialists ASC (the non-U.S.-spec Fairlady Z Convertible is shown here). The convertible had a manual soft top that could be lowered in about 30 seconds to reveal the roofless Z's signature "basket handle" rollbar. The model proved popular when it debuted, accounting for around 20 percent of all 300ZX sales in the U.S. that year. But sales never quite reached the 39,104 units sold in the Z32's first year, with numbers dipping below five digits in 1994. To help rekindle interest, and also to celebrate the Z's 25th anniversary, Nissan partnered with race car driver and renowned tuner Steve Millen (founder of Stillen) to build a special model. Calling his creation the SMZ, Millen took a standard 300ZX Turbo and boosted power to 365 hp and 332 lb-ft. The car sported a unique grille, side skirts, and rear valance, along with a large rear wing and custom split five-spoke alloy wheels. The look reflected the tuner style popular in the late '90s, but hasn't aged particularly well. Millen built 104 SMZ coupes between 1995 and 1996 that were sold through Nissan dealers and covered by a factory warranty. Despite those close ties, the SMZ isn't considered an official Nissan model.

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX With the rising strength of the yen, Z32 prices climbed to record heights, and as a result sales continued to fall. New U.S. regulations for side-impact protection would have required a complete redesign of the Z for the 1997 model year, and a new model wasn't in the cards just yet. Nissan decided to retire the U.S.-market Z32 after 1996 and commissioned a final run of 300 Commemorative Edition cars. These cars received special badging and numbered plaques of authenticity. A total of 171 naturally aspirated two-seaters, 51 2+2 coupes, and 78 Turbo models comprised the so-called Last 300, which were offered in addition to the 2629 non-Commemorative Edition Z32s sold in 1996. Though 300ZX sales ended in the U.S., production continued in Japan until 2000 with only minor mechanical changes.

Ten years on the market is the equivalent of several lifetimes for a car, and even a six-year run can seem like an eternity without significant updates. But the 300ZX managed to keep its luster, at least from behind the wheel. Former Motor Trend editor-in-chief Kevin Smith recalls it best in Ron Sessions' book "Lust, Then Love: The Story of the New Z." "It was 1995. We didn't know the 300ZX would be put down soon, but we did know it was five model years along and competing against a strikingly fresh Toyota Supra in a shrinking market segment. In a comparison test that included BMW's marvelous M3 and a manual-gearbox Lexus SC 300 in addition to that Supra, the aging ZX could have been excused for feeling a little behind the times. It didn't. The profound structural rigidity, that sexy cockpit layout, and the taut accuracy of the controls not only stood up fine to the competition of the time, but left me feeling that a mid-'90s 300ZX would be one hell of a car to own..."

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX The fourth-generation Z car represented a return to form for the marque that kicked off a sports car revolution years earlier. The 350Z that followed continued to bring the Z name back to respectability and brought the Z even closer to its roots, as the Z33 was only available as a two-seater packing a naturally aspirated six-cylinder, with a base price that was more affordable to the common man, attributes that made the original Z such a huge success. While the Z33 might have been a worthier successor to the 240Z, the Z32 was the car that made everyone pay attention to the Z car again. It was a technology showcase designed to take on the best sports cars of its time, and serve as a halo car the way the modern-day GT-R, Nissan's current crown jewel, does today. And at today's prices, you can pick one up for pennies on the dollar.

Expect to Pay
YearLow-High
1990$3800-$14,300
1991$4600-$16,100
1992$4600-$16,100
1993$4600-$16,500
1994$4600-$17,000
1995$4800-$17,900
1996$5100-$18,500


Parts and Service
Timing Belt Kit$500
T-Top/Door Weatherstrip Kit$400
T-Top Air Deflector$50
Alternator$200
Twin-Turbo intake Hose$145


Through The Years

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX
  • 1990: The 300ZX debuts in early 1989 in both two-seater and 2+2 body styles. A Turbo model arrives later that year with a Super HICAS four-wheel steering system and 300 hp. All cars receive a three-spoke, non-airbag steering wheel.
  • 1991: A stripped-down version of the naturally aspirated two-seater without a T-top is offered. With its solid roof, the "slicktop" model is slightly lighter. Automatic climate control is made standard on almost all cars, and a small Nissan emblem is added between the headlights.
  • 1992: A driver-side airbag is made standard across the lineup, bringing with it a bulkier steering wheel. Turbo models get a standard power adjustable driver's seat. Door panel and dashboard fabric is changed from cloth to a suede-like material.
  • 1993: The convertible model joins the lineup. Brake calipers are switched from aluminum to cast iron. Heat insulation is added to the oil lines of twin-turbo models.
  • 1994: A new rear spoiler design is available. The HICAS system switches from hydraulic to electric. Passenger-side airbags are now standard, and the seat belt anchor points move from the doors to the B-pillar.
  • 1995: The trim piece in the front valance is now body-colored. The windshield washer fluid reservoir is moved from the trunk to the engine bay. The limited-edition SMZ model goes on sale.
  • 1996: The diagnostic port is upgraded to OBD-II spec, and variable cam timing is eliminated. 1996 models were advertised at the same power ratings but are believed to make slightly less than in other years. A Commemorative Edition made up of 300 Z cars is launched.


Special Models

  • Slicktop A two-seater model without a T-top became the base car starting in 1991. It’s sought after for its rarity and slightly reduced weight.
  • SMZ Though it’s technically not an official Nissan model, the SMZ was sold through Nissan dealers with a factory warranty from 1995 to 1996. The Steve Millen-tuned Z was rated at 365 hp and 332 lb-ft, and sported a unique body kit, wheels, and numbered plaque. Only 104 examples were made.
  • Commemorative Edition The final run of U.S.-spec Z32s received special badging and a numbered plaque. Other than these details, however, the cars in the “Last 300” series were identical to other ‘96 models.


Need to Know

What’s Hot

The 300ZX Turbo is a star performer right out of the box. Handling is impressive with or without the HICAS four-wheel steering, and it is among the best the early ‘90s had to offer. The twin-turbo V-6 offered brisk acceleration in its day, with a Turbo model clocking a 6.0-second 0-60 mph time in Motor Trend tests.

What’s Not

The cramped engine bay makes doing any work under the hood yourself a major pain. Given that this car was meant as a technology showcase when it debuted, there’s a lot that can go wrong -- and not all of it is easy to get to. If you don’t plan on working on it yourself, put aside some cash for maintenance and eventual repairs.

Hot Tip

A performance chip can unlock substantial horsepower gains for those looking for more than what the 300ZX produced from the factory.

Avoid

Any car that’s overdue for a timing belt change. The service interval is every 60,000 miles or 48 months. The VG30 is an interference engine, so if the timing belt snaps, the motor is toast.

Most Collectible

Any Turbo model will likely be sought after in the future, but a 1996 Commemorative Edition Turbo may be tops in terms of rarity, as only 78 were made.

Best Performer

Again, a twin-turbo Z is your best bet. Choose a manual transmission, as you’ll get the twin-turbo 3.0-liter’s full 300 hp.

Best Daily Driver

If you can find one, a naturally aspirated slicktop two-seater in manual will offer reduced weight and better structural rigidity without the potential for leaks T-top models are prone to.

Bottom Line

The Z32 300ZX offers the best GT aspects of earlier Z cars with performance high enough to still qualify it as a sports car. It’s a symbol of the ‘90s, and among the first shots fired in that decade’s Japanese supercar invasion.

1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX © Provided by MotorTrend 1990 1996 Nissan 300ZX
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