Hooniversal Opinion: Nissan Z Proto

Deciding where to start a Hooniversal Opinion on the Nissan Z Proto is a difficult task. On one hand, the Z is among the most storied and appreciated sports car nameplates out there. On the other, the 370Z has been on sale, largely unchanged, since 2009. In layman’s terms, that’s an eon: Model cycles are shortening regularly, and the 370 has been out as long as two generations of some of its competitors. But that only tells part of the story. The Z has been, and always will be, a serious sports car for serious drivers. And now, finally, in the wild year that has been 2020, we finally have a followup to the 370Z, and finally, have a new Z car.

The Nissan Z Proto is finally here.

Paying homage to its predecessors and to modern Z-cars alike, Nissan’s “Z Proto” is claimed to be a concept. Hopefully, it’s only that in name. The Z Proto’s exterior is a dedicated 240Z emulator, its lines seeking to evoke memories of yore and its shape that of Nissan sports cars of the past. The Proto’s LED headlights and 350-influenced grille are of the modern age, but the silhouette might as well be from decades ago.

The most striking exterior element is the rear. The full-width taillight bar might draw allusions to the Cube, but it’s meant to do so with the 300ZX. Carbon fiber elements, 19” wheels, and dual exhausts complete the look. The side profile is meant to be the selling point. Whether it straddles the modern-and-retro line is up to you.

Inside, it’s more of the same, where 370Z meets modern Nissan. (That is to say, 370Z is not modern.) A large touchscreen graces the center stack, but otherwise, it’s really just an updated 370 control center. The main, and by far the most interesting, point is the manual transmission that can be seen in Nissan’s press pictures.

Though we don’t know much about the upcoming production version of Nissan’s newest Z-car, we do know it has an honest-to-Satan, row-it-your-own gearbox. Expectations are that it’s paired to a version of the 3.0L twin-turbo V6 in Infiniti’s Q60 Red Sport 400. With rear-wheel-drive, a stick-shift, and 400-ish horsepower, it’s promising. Very promising. We won’t know for sure what Nissan has in store for the production model until they unveil it, but the Z Proto shows promise.

What does our staff think of it? Time for us to sound off in another installment of Hooniversal Opinion. And with so many of us having important life experiences with Nissan Z-cars, this should be a good one. Hit the jump to hear our thoughts.

I really wanted to love this. I’m a fan of Nissan and only want the best for them. For now, I’m harboring on this being a prototype and then them going back to the drawing board after receiving input from fans and the media. Something is just…underwhelming.

Years ago I test-drove a 370Z. So long ago that the pictures have vanished. It was a used car and already felt outdated. Not just that, but old. I liked the inputs but didn’t like the lack of refinement.

There are two problems on the design front for me: A) The front opening looks too much like that of the 350Z, and B) The rear ¾ angle looks too much like that of the 370Z. We know it draws from the most recent Z offerings. Sadly it also looks like an Aston Martin Vantage (in media-spec nuclear green) mated with the Toyota SFR concept. This, though, has promise. As Kamil said, “I legit thought people were passing around pics of some new Aston. Nope, Z. I don’t think is beautiful.” And that Aston comparison is only because of the color. Only. The Z Proto isn’t beautiful. It’s unlikely a Z ever will be again. They have to be slightly awkward, slightly disproportionate. But outside the box enough that it cannot be mistaken for anything even slightly mainstream.

I don’t want to over-extend my design critique because I am neither a designer nor a design critic. But the 350Z was period-correct, the 370Z (on the front of design and design alone) holds up well, and this… while this should have gone into the future, it already looks dated. And, somehow, a knock-off. The hunches look like an Alpine A110, Cayman, 370Z, and so on. Not bad idols, but it’s not carving its own statue. Frankly, I hope there’s work to be done. The 370Z still has an amazing shape all these years in and I prefer it to this deliberately-nostalgic “concept.” There’s so much wrong with the Z Proto but I’d be lying if I said I don’t like it. Chop the roof off, please! I want to see this as a roadster. And drive it. Hard. On a back road. And it doesn’t matter to me if it’s perfect. Because it won’t be. But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s see the real thing…now.

-Ross B

Overall I think it’s great. Love the silhouette and the throwbacks to the older Zs throughout its styling. Also, dig the interior because it’s attractive and modern-looking but not overly complicated. You can tell it’s an interior designed for a driver’s car because there’s not much to get in the way. The expected engine and transmission combo is exactly what the rumors all suggested and it’s perfect for the car.

I will say though I think that grille is the one thing I dislike here. Nissan has seemingly fallen victim to the same design philosophy that ruined the nose of the BMW 4 Series – add an unmistakable retro grille even if it doesn’t fit the rest of the car. For reasons I can’t comprehend or even begin to describe with my non-designer brain, that grille fits perfectly for the 240Z but not so much here. I think rounding off the edges or just making it thinner would do wonders for it. It’s just a little awkward design choice on an otherwise infallible piece of design.

The thing I love most about it though is the decidedly old school approach they took. Sure, there’s touch screens and a modern twin-turbocharged engine. But it’s correctly sized, isn’t overly complicated, and is one of a few sports cars coming out that’s been designed with a manual transmission in mind from the beginning. All signs point to this being a “feels” car rather than a numbers car, and I am down with that. More of that sort of thing, please.

-Greg K

No thank you, please.

-Chris Tracy

I love the Z car. I owned an ‘84 Z31 many moons ago. I once drove a ‘72 240Z across the country. And one of the first press vehicles I ever drove was a 370Z. While I do love the Z, I’ve also been hoping for a new version for some time now. Nissan has been stalling on this thing for far too long. The Z is in major need of a complete overhaul and I’m pretty happy with what I see so far. I very nearly copied and pasted Greg’s answer as my own.

I don’t love the front grille space at first glance, but I wager it looks better in person. The rest? I’m down with it. Especially the rear end and taillight treatment. Big fan of that design work.

The choice of engine is a no brainer at this point, and I’m quite happy to see they’re letting people opt for a manual if they so choose. We need to learn a lot more about what an actual production car version will look like, and its facts and figures to make a proper call on this thing. But for a concept? This is a great step in the right direction. I just wish this wasn’t a concept… Why can’t this be a pre-production version and the real one not far behind? If they drag this out, we will all be sour on the actual Z by the time it arrives.

Don’t do what Acura did to the (admittedly fantastic) NSX. Finalize the styling. Figure out which automatic you’re going to use. Don’t be stupid with the price point. And get this thing to market already. 

-Jeff G.

I’ll begin my take on the 400Z with my opinion of Nissan in general. Which is unfavorable. I can think of a few realities I’d less want to live with every day than a Nissan. Including pneumonia. 

When I think of Nissan, I think of cars as many years into their life cycle as the median numeric value of their buyers’ credit scores. And then I stop, and I think about something more interesting. Such as a lined notecard.

Frankly, Nissan has not built anything noteworthy in a while. The Titan is a sales flop. The Frontier dates back to the Pre-Cambrian era. And the most noteworthy trait of the new Sentra is it’s less of a penalty box than its predecessor. Fortunately, this trend appears to have been bucked.

Enter: the 400Z. I love it. I think it’s the best-looking Nissan in a long time. Possibly ever. The tail lights harken back to the S14, an especially cool detail. Sure, the grille is a bit too right-angled for the rest of the design, but that’s a nitpick. Or, rather, the nitpick. The rest of the car is a stunner. 

Crucially, they haven’t ruined the car in any other way either. The V6 engine is smaller than before, but it is now also twin-turbocharged, and — crucially — still a V6. Pricing is expected to be within reach of normal humans. Best of all, you can have it with a manual.

The biggest question here is whether this will sell. It has to compete with the Supra and the NSX and the Corvette and the Mustang and the Challenger and the Camaro and the Miata and the STI and the 86 and the Civic Type R and the Veloster N and the Golf R. I’m not too concerned — Nissan Z cars have always sold well, and this one appears to have improved on the old (and I mean old) outgoing model. Perhaps it will draw more buyers to other Nissan models as well.

-Ryan L.

Great to see Nissan continuing the Z brand, the new engine gives it the power its been needing. The looks are very polarising, I think to really make your final call on if you really like it you will need to see it in person. It’s great that they are going with a manual transmission when you consider the paddle-shift auto in the GTR is pretty good. I cant wait to see these on the road in Australia. Nissan is onto a winner.

-Joel S.

Car Twitter has lost their shit over this car. In the process, you can see who is buying into the marketing of the automaker versus who takes a closer look at it and acknowledges what it is. This is not a new car –  it’s a mid-cycle refresh, after a dozen models years, at the very best. 

Nissan says something silly about it, that’s it 85% production-ready. Well, it damn well should be because 85% of the parts are already in production on other cars. Outside, the “Proto” got new body panels and wheels, along with lights. This the stuff that’s easy to design, replace, and bolt onto the existing chassis. Inside, the dash was redone and some things were moved around. But not all, and not all were replaced, even in this one-off vehicle. 

That said, the outgoing Z was always a good driving and handling vehicle. The turbocharged engine will add some power needed to stay competitive but I think Nissan should retain both NA and turbo engines. It’s good improved looks and cute retro bits. Perhaps they can add some lightness. Hopefully, this is enough to sway some customers into it. 

-Kamil K.

The next generation of Z car has been something that I have been looking forward to for quite a while now. The 370z is completely outdated and the brand really doesn’t offer anything all that exciting these days other than the R35 GT-R. On top of this, I’ve had my 350z for 5 years and think it’s a fantastic car so it’s safe to say I had pretty high expectations for whatever came next.

And now we are here, the Z proto is out and we’ve had some time to really process everything that it has to offer. On one hand, I respect that Nissan wanted to incorporate the retro 240z styling with the front but on the other, I think it didn’t come out the way everyone expected. For me, my biggest gripe is the grille, the black box of death that instantly draws your eyes attention. It looks a little large and out of place to the point where it abruptly stops the flow of the car. You see the back and side profile and think hey that looks pretty good and as you make your way to the front you lose interest. I think if they just went back to the drawing board with the front bumper and made it a little more subtle the car would be fantastic. There are already enough vintage aspects throughout the car so the bumper can stand to be a little more rounded than square.

Other than that I think the car is going in a great direction. The alleged power bump to 400hp, a twin-turbo V6, and a proper manual would be amazing for the tuning community as something cheap with tons of potential. The Z name for a long time has represented an affordable car that has about a million different aftermarket options for people to make their own and I think that will still hold true no matter how the non-proto version comes out looking.

-Colby B.

While I’ve never been a hardcore Z fan, I’ve always had a soft spot for Nissan’s sports car. Back in the 1990s, the 300ZX was definitely “I would if I could” car shopping list. I finally got my chance several years later, and aside from the Miata, the Z is the only true sports car I have ever owned. Somewhere in the 2001-2002 time period, I helped a friend and colleague buy a new 350Z during its first year in showrooms. It was a blue enthusiast model with a manual, and several years later, I ended up buying it from him. It was a fun car, but the reality of kids meant that I didn’t get to drive it very often and ended up trading it for a G35 sedan. Since then, the 370Z really hasn’t been on my radar.

I’m not sure that has changed with this Z Proto. I’ll break down my thoughts by angle. The side profile looks great, but while it’s classic Z, it looks like the rebodied 370Z that it is. The rear is interesting, I see shades of 300ZX in there and it’s definitely a simple design that should age well. Kudos to Nissan for the clean design, it would have been easy to add tons of scoops, slats, and wings (Civic Type R has entered the chat). The interior is solid if a bit generic. The manual transmission front and center is the best part, and the seats look impressive. The front…I kinda hate. Like many above, I think the bland rectangular box sitting front and center is incredibly dull and the headlights look a bit droopy. In this color, the front of the Z Proto looks like Mr. Peanut’s shocked face. The photoshops that are being fired out there are fantastic, I hope Nissan is watching.

-Will B.

How about you? How do you feel about the Z Proto? Let us know: Sound off in the comments.

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15 responses to “Hooniversal Opinion: Nissan Z Proto”

  1. Mister Sterling Avatar

    I am just as excited about this as I was about the aborted IDX. This is yet another chance for me to get a new Z, and this time around, with my middle age income, I just might do it.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      I sort of agree with you. The IDx was fantastic, and managed to successfully blend fresh, modern design elements with retro hints of the 510/Bluebird. Nissan could have produced that car and I would have forgiven them if they let the Z die and never brought it back again. This, however, is not a cohesive design– it looks as if sections were separately designed without collaboration. It’s just a mishmash of various Nissan design cues that don’t play nicely together.

      Nissan has some killer designs in their history, but has produced nothing noteworthy for the consumer in decades. I could sit and ogle an S30 all day long, and I’d love to do some seat time in an R32, but the new Z doesn’t interest me in the slightest. It’s just another missed opportunity.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        unless you’re only referring to the styling, you can’t seriously argue that the GT-R isn’t noteworthy. maybe it was inevitable, but it established the paradigm of the modern performance car. there was nothing on its level for years after it came out.

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Ok, you got me there. I’ll completely concede the GT-R, at least from a performance perspective. Styling-wise, though, it’s a hot mess, and I’ve felt more connected to a car when playing Forza Horizon 4. But for a soulless machine, it does indeed put up good numbers.

          1. wunno sev Avatar
            wunno sev

            yeah the intervening 11 years have not made the GT-R any prettier.

  2. neight428 Avatar

    I read elsewhere folks lamenting that this wasn’t an all new platform, and that got me thinking. Why would Nissan jump out of character and drop a ton of R&D into a new RWD chassis. GM did that with their Alpha platform, and it is by all accounts a phenomenal chassis, but how’s the ATS/CTS doing sales wise against the Infiniti Q50? For that matter, how’s the Camaro doing against the Challenger, which is based on a slightly evolved mishmash of DiamlerChrysler RWD platforms that turned into the LX? Incremental improvements along with new infotainment and driver aids would make the old 370Z a compelling option if people didn’t care about it looking like a 10 year old car. Plop 400 hp and a proper manual in there and it’s a great formula so long as they don’t step on their crank and price it up by the Supra.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Random related fact: The 1991 Volvo 850 was the company’s first, all new car without carryover parts since…1944. You’re correct, as long as it neither looks nor feels outdated, especially a niche product should be allowed to be an evolution, rather than a revolution. But if that is the case, Nissan should just be honest about it, too.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      Random related fact: The 1991 Volvo 850 was the company’s first, all new car without carryover parts since…1944. You’re correct, as long as it neither looks nor feels outdated, especially a niche product should be allowed to be an evolution, rather than a revolution. But if that is the case, Nissan should just be honest about it, too.

  3. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    i’m surprised how down everyone is on this! this is what we say we all want – just enough technology to keep things current, just enough restraint to leave some headroom, just enough pedals to make people on the internet say they want it, and a solid, proven engine from the master of the modern V6 instead of some German warranty nightmare. it’s everything we all said we wanted out of the Supra. curious to know if they’ll make a 4-banger version as Toyota Motor Werke is doing.

    stylingwise, i think this suffers the usual sports car distortion effect on the screen. now that i’m seeing the Supra on the road the small footprint really ties the styling together in a way that wasn’t apparent in photos. i agree that this is kinda bland and the grille is too square, but with sports cars it’s really about the size and proportions more than the details. i think when we see this on the road it’ll click. (if it’s anything to go by, i don’t think much of the 370Z’s styling, but i always have to remind myself that it’s much more striking in person than on paper.)

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      You’re right, it has the right number of pedals, but that’s about all that interests me. And the V6 isn’t an asset, in my opinion. I wanted to see a light chassis with a blown four. I prefer my sixes straight, and my vees eight.

      I can’t agree with your assessment of the Supra’s in-person charms (I’ve seen a few, and it’s an ugly little troll of a car), but at least you remind me that there are worse looking sports coupes out there.

      1. wunno sev Avatar
        wunno sev

        the packaging, safety, handling, and economy-of-scale benefits really make a case for the V. i love the smoothness of an I6, but the only companies making them are BMW and Mercedes, and i’d rather not have a time bomb under the hood. a Nissan straight six was never going to happen, so i can’t be disappointed in its absence. given how good modern engines are it wouldn’t have made much difference to NVH anyway.

        regarding the Supra, we’ll have to agree to disagree 🙂

        1. Tiller188 Avatar

          Only tangentially related, but, does anyone have any ideas about why the I-6 is making something of a comeback? Mercedes added one to their stable not too long ago, and if I remember correctly, JLR have also started bringing out a I-6, and Mazda has stated that they’re developing one as well. The inherent smoothness and all is great, but the packaging definitely is kind of awkward, so I could understand why that layout was going away…but what changed recently for these multiple automakers to bring it back?

          1. wunno sev Avatar
            wunno sev

            modularity. you can develop an I4 engine, then just splat two more cylinders on it to make a six. since a turbo 4 can now fill the role of the old V6 models, it’s not worth developing a whole new architecture for very limited use.

            at least, that’s what this article suggests: https://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/car-technology/a22778642/straight-six-engine-return/ i could believe that single-turbo packaging and assembly are easier on an I6, which is more relevant now than 30 years ago when the I6 was dying off.

    2. neight428 Avatar

      I’m with you on the in person 3D impression being a totally different thing. I like the Supra better in person too, but I’m not picky at all, apart from the whole fear of it failing because BMW. So, yeah, a VQ based engine, a well sorted chassis and good measurables (we’ll see on weight) and it’s all good on my end.

  4. Freddie Harrison Avatar

    Despite its modern features, it still pays homage to its predecessors, maintaining the classic Z-car silhouette and design cues. The Nissan Z is a remarkable blend of performance and style, offering a thrilling driving experience