Road test: Nissan 300ZX Targa turbo

Heir without graces

Sportscar lovers have grumbled at Nissan for allowing the raw and nimble Datsun 240Z of 1969 to mature over the years into a larger, heavier and softer car, but the continued and thriving success of the big Z-cars proves that this more luxury-orientated image is the sensible strategy, particularly considering that such a high proportion of these cars go to the USA.

The 300ZX, which first appeared in Japan in 1983, is aesthetically the first real departure from the original style which was gradually and not very sympathetically stretched into the 280ZX. That car looked heavy, at least in the 2+2 version offered in Britain; the new one, despite actually weighing more, looked a sleeker machine, more in tune with the healthy market for luxury coupes.

Now comes a face-lift giving the cars a very different look. Gone are the angular bumpers and deep rear lights, to be replaced by a soft nose moulded in body colour and a slimmer lamp cluster set above a new smooth rear valance and bumper, while flared wheelarches sweep into a deeper sill moulding. Despite the very different appearance these revisions give the car, most of the body is substantially unchanged, including the neat semi-retractable headlamps which allow for daytime flashing. The result looks a slipperier shape, though in fact the drag co-efficient remains unchanged at 0.30.

When the 300 supplanted the 280ZX, it retained a family resemblance outside and in. Broadly speaking the mechanical layout was as before, but improved in every department to enhance driving appeal , with the significant introduction of a new V6 engine, the first from Japan. This 60deg design has a single overhead camshaft in each bank operating two valves per cylinder, fuel being fed by Bosch/Nissan injection which is itself linked to Nissan’s ECCS — Electronic Concentrated Engine Management System. A piezo-electric knock sensor is also part of the package. No intercooler is fitted, but amongst the changes to the latest spec 300ZX is a water-cooling circuit for the turbine.

After many years of development, some of the new materials technology is finding its way to the showrooms, and the Turbo variant of the revised car boasts one of the first uses of ceramic to withstand high temperatures. In this case the turbo rotor blade unit is made of this material, which not only is less affected by the exceptionally high temperatures of the exhaust gases, but offers better response due to its reduced weight.

Engine output remains the same at 225 bhp, a huge jump of nearly 60 horsepower over the 2960cc V6 in unboosted form, but its character lies in the lazy, irresistable way the thrust gathers force. Even with the lower compression ratio of the blown engine (7.8:1 instead of 9.0:1) the capacity of three litres means that there is always useful power available between 2000 and 4000 rpm, and the boost pressure starts to make itself felt from about 3500. At that point the long nose starts to lift, a whistle drifts through the engine bulkhead, and the car launches itself toward the horizon. Satin smooth in response, the big V6 is fairly hushed in action; it sounds powerful but muted from within, although there is a lovely throb from the exhaust when the car is idling.

Yet all this performance (and we are talking about hitting 60 mph in just over 7 seconds on the way to something over 140 mph) is severely compromised by the quality of the gearchange. A turbo engine above all others needs to be kept within a particular rev-band, which should mean a swift change of ratios, but the action of the five-speed box on the test car was akin to that of a truck: heavy, notchy and slow. Starting off on a very cold morning it was as reluctant as any Italian supercar to slot into second until several miles of first-to-third changes had gone by, and even when warm a pause was always necessary between gears. It feels weighty and strong, but disappointing on a car which has the potential to be as quick as this one.

Although the V6 is a shorter, more compact engine, the dimensions of the 300ZX remain much as its predecessor. This is a large car, despite the fact that alongside the 2+2 metro in Britain, the USA has the choice of a pure two-seater. And the targa roof, once an option, has been such a big success in America that it is now standard on both normally-aspirated and Turbo models.

T-bar roofs are rare over here; the only others are in Toyota’s MR2 and Jaguar’s Cabrio XJ-S, but the principle makes much more sense for a coupe such as the Nissan than for an almost-convertible such as the Jaguar. With the two detachable glass panels in place the Nissan is a warm, comfortable coupe with all the cargo benefits of a large hatch and fold-flat rear seats; with one or both panels stowed in the boot it has much of the appeal of a convertible.

Like any compromise there are pros and cons: the thick central bar looks clumsy, and unlike a sunroof the panels cannot be opened while on the move (or as the warning label says “while cruising”), though the job can be done from inside while stationary in traffic. And the bulky panels in their protective sleeves occupy a good deal of space in the boot.

On the other hand access to the front or rear seats is considerably easier in the open state, and the design is a relatively cheap method of combining fresh air with adequate structural rigidity. Thick rubber seals keep out any water in all circumstances save one: if the windows are open and there is water on the roof, it has an annoying tendency to pour down from the screen rail seal straight onto the driver’s legs.

Now that a space-saver spare tyre is allowed in Britain, the car can offer luggage space for a couple of decent-sized suitcases even with three passengers, though inevitably the +2 part of the equation is fairly tight. A roller blind screens the boot from onlookers, part of a generous range of equipment which somehow still does not quite look like nearly £22,000-worth of luxury. Electric seats and cruise control may be expensive items, but the onlooker cannot see these; all he sees is that blue plastic Japanese designers seem to like so much.

Instrumentation on the big Nissan is acceptable, but might well learn a lesson or two from its little brother, the Sunny ZX. As normal, speed and revs are centre-stage, with rather large fuel and temperature gauges to each side. While the dials are large and simple, the orange figures do not stand out on a dull day, and the speedometer climbs in 20 mph increments, which means that there is only one figure between 60 and 100. Unusually, there are two tripmeters as well as the mileometer, one with four digits and one with three.

Six auxiliary controls are placed at the edges of the binnacle, the effective rear wash/wipe being controlled by a rocker, with the corresponding switch on the right engaging the cruise control. Unfortunately the symbols for all of these are completely hidden by the spokes of the sports wheel, the push-button switches for heated rear window and rear foglamps being particularly hard to identify.

Three column stalks bring together several functions: that controlling the indicators (on the right following the Japanese norm) also twists for lighting, while the wiper lever on the left has a twist sleeve to adjust the intermittent wipe. A built-in indicator shows fast or slow, but again this is hidden behind the wheelrim. A third lever under the left hand operates the cruise control. Two further dials are deeply recessed into the fascia to the driver’s left: one a combined oil pressure and temperature, and one showing boost. One is vital, the other pointless; both are well out of the driver’s normal vision.

In wet weather the rear side windows were permanently misted up, and the fiddly fascia vents were extremely difficult to direct onto the door windows. No fresh air is offered, though the flow is good via a continuously variable fan slider. Other weak points include the dim digital clock by the passenger’s knee and the design of the radio/cassette with its minuscule lettering. Doubling as an armrest, there is a cassette storage box under the left elbow, with a pair of joysticks ahead of this to adjust the electric mirrors. Windows are operated by switches in the doors.

Although the exterior has been modernised, there are some very period touches inside the 300ZX, such as chrome trim and mock leather stitching, which combined with the blue plastic are a little short of tasteful. Yet the driver is well provided for; the gear lever is in the right place although the wheel is rather high, there is room to rest the left foot beside the clutch pedal, and the small cranked handbrake is offset towards the right-hand driver, Japan being one of the few manufacturers of RHD vehicles.

To keep in step with the increasing power, the same basic MacPherson strut/rear trailing-arm chassis has gradually been refined from model to model, and in an effort to shake off the “boulevard” tag this latest version has stiffer springs and dampers, and steering modifications to increase feel. Yet the early 300ZX was criticised for its harsh ride over rough surfaces, and this one is still slightly nervous, slightly jiggly at speed, reacting more than expected over irregularities. It feels uncommitted as the driver turns it into bends, and the firm effort needed through the wheel, in itself a nice balance of power assistance, seems to be all one way . Not much comes back through the leather rim to tell the driver how hard the tyres are working.

If over-insulation is a weakness of the car’s manners, it certainly does not lack in actual road-holding. Those broad tyres grip the tarmac ferociously, pushing rainwater away and keeping this big machine faithfully on course, albeit with noticeable understeer which builds up as the speed increases. It is no Lotus in terms of chassis balance; it does the job in a stolid rather than a graceful fashion, but Nissan has produced a more than capable chassis set-up which is let down only by the choppy motion the driver can feel even, to some degree, in a straight line.

The recipe is there, but the ingredients have not been blended together sufficiently. Here we have a flexible and strong engine, its metaphorical muscles bulging to produce terrific acceleration, connected to a ponderous gearbox which allows the engine to lose impetus between shifts. The smoothness inherent in a V6 contrasts with some clonking in the transmission which can become quite annoying in traffic, while the man at the wheel is prevented from fully enjoying the impressive adhesion by the unsettled messages the suspension and steering give back to him. Not that the car will do anything unexpected; it is possible to break the excellent traction of the rear wheels, but that happens at a predictable point, and the tail moves aside quite gently.

Nissan’s compromise over gearing is an uncomfortable one, too. I recorded an average of just under 20 mpg over a fast, mainly dual-carriageway run from central London to Gosport, despite the very high gearing of the 300ZX — 27.3 mph per 1000 rpm. This means that at 60 mph the engine is turning at little more than 2000 rpm, which may use less fuel but conversely offers minimal response to the throttle until the turbo stirs itself. So to my surprise I found myself using third and even second on some medium-fast roads in Hampshire in order to enjoy that lovely surge forwards of a good turbo engine. But the gaps between ratios are well chosen, to some extent redressing the over-geared feeling.

ABS brakes are an option on the Turbo Targa, to make the powerful all-vented braking system foolproof. That part is well up to the performance of the rest of the car, but the lamps on the test car certainly were not. Raising the beam would have helped the throw, but the output seemed poor on main beam, and plummeted to candlepower on dip. Coming to the end of a lighted section of motorway at speed in the dark dramatically proved their inadequacy several times.

There has always been something a little brash about the big Nissan and that is the character it radiates now — not unpleasant, brawny perhaps, reinforced by the trans-Atlantic overtones of the targa roof, although the handling response is much more in the European mould. Now that the Z-car has matured, it only needs to learn a little subtlety in its manners. GC