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The new Nissan Z Proto

Courtesy of manufacturer

The Z is back. Revealed today in Yokohama, the new Z Proto is no mere showcar, but a glimpse of a nearly production-ready return of Nissan’s flagship sports car.

“The Z zone is, ‘let’s dance with it,’” said Hiroshi Tamura, product specialist for the new Z.

Tamura is informally known as “Mr. GT-R” to his colleagues, having long owned a 1989 Skyline GT-R, and being deeply involved with the development of the current GT-R. He points out that the Z Proto is similar to the 2005 prototype GT-R, which received only minor changes compared to the production car. He also says that where the GT-R is supposed to feel like wearing a mech suit, an application of complex technology to achieve ultimate performance, the Z driving experience is supposed to be more pure.

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Courtesy of manufacturer

The new Nissan Z Proto

Hiromitsu Yasui/Courtesy of manufacturer

Nissan’s global head of design, Alfonso Albaisa, echoed the sentiment.

“When [we have] too much nakedness about performance, it stops being a Z.”

What Albaisa and Tamura’s team have created is a machine that brings the Z into contemporary focus, while still holding up a mirror to the past. The Proto is slightly longer than the current model, but still compact, with the long nose and short hood that has been a Z characteristic for fifty years.

That hood has a creased power bulge that’s nearly identical to that of the 240Z that arrived in North America for the 1970 model year. However, where the original Z came with a 2.4L inline-six producing 150 hp, the new car has a twin-turbocharged V6. Power output is not officially finalized yet, but expect something matching the engine in the Infiniti Q60 Red Sport: a 400hp twin-turbo 3.0L V6.

The current 370Z has been on sale for more than a decade, but is still a performance bargain. This Nismo variant is top of the range.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

The 240Z takes its name from the 2.4L inline-six that powered the first models. Over the years, displacement increased, but the soul of the Z remained the same.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

With a six-speed manual transmission, short wheelbase and clean styling, the new Z could be a worthy rival to the current Toyota Supra. Even better, where the Supra shares a platform with the BMW Z4, the Z Proto is entirely Nissan. As such, it joins the Mazda MX-5 and the Subaru BRZ/Toyota 86 as one of the few purely Japanese sports cars.

In the late 1960s, the idea that Japan could produce a world-class sports car was laughable to most people. There had been exceptions, such as the expensive and gorgeous Toyota 2000GT, or the Datsun Fairlady Roadster, which early established a winning racing record for Datsun.

But one man had a dream. Essentially exiled to California for an interest in automotive racing that rankled his buttoned-down superiors, Yutaka Katayama was a rebel with a cause. He had already established a beachhead for Datsun in the U.S. with small truck sales, and carried the brand’s reputation forward with the swift and boxy 510, sometimes called “a poor man’s BMW.” Mr. K, as everyone called him, wanted a real sports car.

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The 300ZX of the early 1990s can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with legends like the Toyota Supra Turbo, or the Mazda RX-7. This particular one still holds the landspeed record for its class, at slightly over 420 km/h top speed.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

He found it in the sketches of designer Yoshihiko Matsuo, a fellow sports car enthusiast with a renegade bent. Matsuo died in July of this year, aged 86; Katayama died in 2015 at the age of 105. If they were still here, both men might be pleased to see elements of their original vision still taking centre stage.

When the first 240Z showed up in showrooms, it was an instant hit. For roughly the price of an MGB GT, a four-cylinder British sports car showing its age, you could have a car that looked a bit like a knock-off Jaguar E-Type and had six-cylinder performance. Even by modern standards, a 240Z is still a lively performer, and its styling has aged gracefully.

The Z432R was built to fulfill racing requirements. The Z racked up an impressive number of trophies in competition over the years, everything from circuit racing to rally.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

You can find dedicated and enthusiastic fans of the original S30-chassis Z on both sides of the Pacific. Last year, in Yokohama, I met up with members of the Japanese S30 club, who brought out a pair of the rarest Zs: a 1-of-20 Z432R worth nearly $1-million, and a Vintage Series 240Z. The latter was restored and sold as-new out of select U.S. Nissan dealers in the mid-1990s, and are worth well into six figures today.

You need not spend nearly this much to put a Z in your garage: the appeal of the car has always been the way it democratized sports car ownership. Values of well-kept 240Zs are on the rise, but just within reach. The later 260Z or 280Z are still desirable, but a bit less expensive.

A new 370Z starts at $30,498, roughly the same price as a Honda Civic Si. A used 370Z, or the previous-generation 350Z, is even more of a performance bargain.

Further, if you’re a fan of the 300ZX of the 1990s, those models can be an accessibly-priced collectible. The naturally-aspirated versions are the most trouble-free, and good fun to drive. If you’re willing to take on the trickier-to-maintain turbocharged version, it’s still blazingly quick. A heavily modified one reached 420 km/h at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1991, which is still the standing record for its class after nearly thirty years.

Many 300ZXs of this era are heavily modified. Original models will be very collectible in the near future.

Brendan McAleer/The Globe and Mail

No matter which generation of Z might be your favourite, this new machine is arriving at the right time for Nissan. Even as the company points to milestones like a half-million Leaf EVs sold, it struggles for overall sales volume and profitability.

A new Z hitting the road some time within the next couple of years is something for everyone to cheer about. An exterior design that favours simplicity, and a driver-focused interior with a genuine manual transmission is even more good news.

Conceived of by renegades, embraced by the masses and beloved by generations of fans, the Z continues to embody the beating heart of Nissan. A new one can’t arrive soon enough. Keep your dance card open, Z. We can’t wait for the first waltz.

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