It had the performance, the handling, the looks and the price, but buyers stayed away in droves. Why? Andrew Frankel reflects – without prejudice
Lie back, close your eyes and think of Nissan. Now look at the vision that’s floating before you. If it’s of any one of the range of broadly impressive saloons, hatches, people-movers and off-roaders that make up the current Nissan portfolio, you have my respect. Rather more of you, I suspect, are now looking at a wheezing blue-smoked Bluebird or an arthritic learner-plated Micra.
Piffling in nature though this exercise is, it strikes right to the heart of the problem Nissan faced when it decided, back in 1990, to sell its new 300ZX coupe in the UK. Though it was easy to make people jump from the age-old preconceptions of Nissan (and, lest we forget, Datsun) to the new era of smart, modem family machinery, the extra credibility gap from there to a state of art supercar was, at first, daunting and then swiftly insurmountable. Oddly, this is all you need to know about the failure of Japan’s first ever supercar to gain even a tiny quota of the plaudits it so richly deserved.
Well, almost all. There is, of course, the little matter of precedent to deal with too. You will remember the cars that preceded the 300ZX: they always appeared in magazines with cheesy headlines like Z-cars’. The range started back in 1970 with the 240Z which, contrary to every expectation, was a fine car while the 260Z which succeeded it was less remarkable, but still fun and capable. The rot set in with the 280ZX and the first 300ZX, both of which were almost as hideous to drive as they were to look at. But not quite.
Against this background, the all-new Nissan 300ZX was always going to have a fight on its hands, though the initial impressions were that it seemed more than adequately equipped for the fray. First there was the styling, undeniably American in influence but lacking that continent’s traditional excesses. It looked healthily muscular, not unfeasibly steroidal. The nose smacked of fresh-faced menace, the profile of darting aggression. Even the back, with its broad slab of lights, managed to round off the package without looking contrived. In Stuttgart, recession-hit knees started gently knocking.
You could see why. Under the bonnet, at last, was an engine that truly meant business. A 3-litre quad-cam twin-turbo V6 with punching performance that would shoot the slippery Nissan to 160mph in about the same time required by a Porsche 911 but for rather less money. It was as practical and easy to drive as a 911 and no-one was going to bet it wouldn’t boast 911 levels of longevity too.
Most scary of all for the traditional hierarchy was that it was damn near as much fun to drive as a 911 too. To achieve this aim, Nissan employed the very latest technology to an unlikely end. Instead of using sophisticated electronics to turn the 300ZX into yet another fool-proof, traction-controlled subservient miracle, it was decided that this know-how would be used to flatter the driver in another way altogether. By using electronic four-wheel steering, Nissan created a car with a chassis that could be chucked around in a way that supercars were supposed to have grown out of by the early 1990s.In an obvious parallel to the way the car looked, Nissan decided the 300ZX should take an American feel as its start point and refine out the rough edges.
And so it did. The 300ZX handled as you might imagine a Corvette would after a few weeks in the hands of Porsche’s chassis engineers. With all the uncontrolled excesses engineered out, what remained was taut and deft control allowing both huge amounts of fun and point-to-point speed such that, among its contemporary front-engined cars, you’d need an exceptionally well-driven Porsche 928 just to keep it in sight.
Its faults were few and, I feel, not instrumental in its downfall. The interior, however, was a mess, lacking entirely the artful chaos of a 911 cabin. The quality of the materials employed failed to match the car’s aspirations and the switchgear was horrid to look at and overly complex to use. And while this is no more than you might expect from a Corvette, in a car that would also have to pander to the rather more aesthetically orientated minds of the European market, it would, doubtless, have struck a jarring chord. Fuel consumption that would stray decadently towards single figures on a decent run probably raised a few eyebrows, too.
But, in truth, none goes even half-way to explaining why Japan’s first supercar came to these shores to conquer and left in a wooden box after four short, slow-selling years. There was, in fact, one reason. People in Britain who wish to drive a 160mph supercar do not want it to be wearing a Nissan badge. In America, they are wise to this which is why, today, the most expensive models produced by Nissan, Toyota and Honda come not with their makers badges but those of rather more sexy sounding and entirely imaginary organisations called Infiniti, Lexus and Acura.
The 300ZX is not the first car to be killed by the snobbish preconceptions of the UK market-place and it will surely not be the last. Mazda’s final RX7, a device as fast as it was beautiful, suffered a similar fate that not even drastic last minute price cuts could avoid. Indeed, of the original Japanese supercars, just one remains: Honda’s NSX which continues to sell, albeit in tiny numbers. To the British market, it didn’t matter that it advanced the art of the supercar more than any other since the 911, nor that, in its engine and chassis, lay the stuff of genius. All the talent in the world is a puny weapon in the face of such blind prejudice.
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