The new NISMO Z only comes with an automatic transmission, which to some, including one Editor-at-Large for a true enthusiast publication, is a dealbreaker. As a person with “Gas” and “Clutch” tattooed on the appropriate calves, I am bummed. I’m as die-hard a manual gearbox preservationist as they come, and I only spend my money places where the word “row” describes how you change gears. There are others like me, and they have made themselves heard in my Instagram comments. I hear you. Nissan hears you. But for now, this is the car, so let’s judge NISMO’s work for what it is, and not for what it isn’t.
Last year, I drove the all (well, mostly) new Nissan Z on a hot summer day outside of Las Vegas. I did some laps on the LVMS Outfield Road Course, and then took a long drive through the Valley of Fire. And what I found was that the Z was a charming and well-rounded every day sports car with its own character--something increasingly important as BMW powers Toyotas and Subaru powers… Toyotas.
But the Z’s limits were found… at the limits. Like other entry-level sports cars such as the Mustang GT and Toyota GR86, Nissan found a balance with the standard “Performance” Z whereby owners could use the cars every day, even on crappy urban roads, and not hate themselves. The suspension was responsive but compliant, the brakes were adequate, and the engine made good power. The whole package was good for a flexible daily driver or a road tripper.
But when pushed on the track, particularly in Nevada summer heat, the Z presented its compromise quickly. Brakes and tires got hot and gave up after just a few laps, and while the car handled predictably, it just wasn’t as sharp, sticky, or hunkered down as a real enthusiast would require. While at the time I figured the aftermarket would step up and tag in, the factory worked in the background to take the Z to the next level.
And guess what? It has succeeded. The NISMO Z is a brilliant, fast, and focused sports car. It's far and away the best car I have driven with a NISMO badge in the last decade.
It starts well underneath the skin, where NISMO has added structural bracing around the steering and the front and rear suspension mounts, good for a 12% increase in lateral rigidity and 2.5% in torsional rigidity. Everything imaginable is firmer and tighter: the NISMO has increased spring rates, a larger shock absorber tube, stiffer bushings, and larger sway bars. The RAYS forged wheels are lighter, wider, and stronger than in the base car, and surround larger 380mm, 4-piston front brakes from Akebono, wrapped in Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 200-treadwear tires, 10mm larger at the rear, squatted at 285mm.
On the outside, a comprehensive, tasteful aerodynamic package adds “meaningful downforce and significantly improved cooling on track,” according to Nissan, though it cannot provide exact figures at this time. The new, wider mouth features thinner mesh to feed the larger radiator, canards direct airflow around the front wheels, and the wide-bottom rear bumper cleans up the air coming off the stern.
Though the NISMO Z has manually-operated seats, the rest of the equipment adds weight, meaning at 3,704 lbs, the NISMO is 102 lbs lighter than an automatic-equipped Z Performance. As one does, the team added power to offset the difference--20 of them, and 34 lb/ft of torque, for a total of 420 and 384, respectively. The power increase comes from a new independent spark controller from the GTR, which helps precisely control the ignition, an overboost function that spins the turbo impellers 5,000 RPM higher, and a secondary charge cooler. If you ask me, this is a conservative figure, as it feels quicker than those numbers suggest. However, past instrumented testing on the Z Performance shows a drop of a few tenths in the quarter mile when running California 91 octane, rather than the prescribed 93.
And yeah, the gearbox. It’s an auto, wah wahhhhh. But NISMO has upgraded the clutches inside as well as the software controlling it, so not only will it upshift 27% faster and downshift 50% faster than the Z Performance, it doesn’t kill power so abruptly when you bang the rev limiter - a very useful feature in several places around Sonoma Raceway. Between turns 2 and 3, turns 3 and 4, and 6 and 7, it makes more sense to spend a half a second on the limiter than upshift and downshift again. Kudos to Nissan because frankly, for a torque converter-based system, it’s one of the best, most responsive I’ve used, with extremely smooth downshifts paired with open-throttle upshifts. The Sport/Auto programming is good for the open sweepers where you may not want to shift yourself, but the paddles are responsive and rewarding enough that I’d be using them as much as possible.
NISMO’s new Sport+ drive mode is the most aggressive throttle map and shift program, ideal for the track or a hard canyon blast, but the gear changes in first through third are a little abrupt at partial throttle, so I preferred Sport mode on the street and left Sport+ to the track--as designed.
On the drag strip, using the new Launch Control feature, the NISMO ran 12 flat quarter miles all day long at 115 mph, chirping second and third gear on the way. Not many auto boxes out there chirping third. Nissan won’t quote a time, and in fact said “that’s you guys’ job!” On the sly, the team is confident that under the right conditions the NISMO Z will run in the 11s. I have no reason to doubt them. This is a fast car.
“Our customers want faster lap times and more precise car control, Nissan says about the ethos behind the NISMO Z. “They want a car they can drive on the street, but that’s really focused on doing a lot of track days, and consistent track-ready performance.”
Nissan was smart enough to bring out a fleet of Performance Zs to calibrate our hands and backsides for Sonoma before driving the NISMO, and after a few laps, I switched cars and felt the difference before even leaving the pits. The chassis feels much much tighter, the steering is far more direct, the throttle response is sharper, and the brake pedal is firmer. And this is just one corner in. It’s all very hunkered down on its wheels--the kind of think the aftermarket strives for and only sometimes nails.
As I lap Sonoma, every single segment of the track is vastly improved with the NISMO. It turns in harder, without a hint of understeer. The brakes really bite, and it’s very controlled under braking, with responsive, smooth manually-selected downshifts. Though I have turned off stability control, I experience no handling vices - it does precisely what it’s told. Over the blind crests of turns 2 and 3A, the back end gets light, as expected, resulting in a few degrees of controlled, enjoyable oversteer. Around the flat, wide, double-apex Turn 7, big, easy slides are not only possible, but also encouraged.
The ride is firm, but much more controllable than the base car through Sonoma’s massive elevation changes. On the downhill Turn 6 “carousel,” a fast, fourth-gear corner, I saw 1.2 lateral Gs one time in the Performance, but registered 1.4G every single lap in the NISMO. The difference in acceleration was enough that I had to brake noticeably earlier in a few spots, as well. There’s still enough body roll to transfer the weight back and forth, left and right as needed, and the whole thing is communicative.
Then I took it to the street and realized something that you need a road to learn: this car is fast. Like, really, really fast.
I love a race track to find out where a car’s limit is (and maybe go just beyond it once in a while) but tracks warp your sense of speed and make most cars seem slower than they really are. But out in the world, particularly on the windy, steep Oakville grade, the NISMO positively rips. The real-world power is immense, paired expertly with the gear ratios, steering ratio, and brakes. It’s like the BMW M2, but smaller and even more connected to the road.
The fact that it’s the right size for road driving really helps. A big car is just fine on track, but this car fits tight, windy roads just as well if not better. It’s got a great turning radius for narrow switchbacks, doesn’t bottom out or scrape over the bumpy stuff, and makes very quick work of tight, technical roads. In the last year I’ve driven the same road in both a Bentley GT and a Honda Civic Type R, and the NISMO would walk both by three corners in.
With this level of performance comes compromise, and there are indeed compromises: The ride is stiff, the steering is darty, and the tires are loud. None of these would keep me from using the NISMO as a road car for the weekend with occasional track use, but all three made me appreciate the choices made for the regular “Z Performance” as an everyday tourer. The Dunlop SP SportMaxx tires have excellent grip in the dry, but you might want to switch them out for a quieter Michelin later. The suspension and steering are fixed features; comes with the territory, take it or leave it. When the tarmac is smooth, everything is gravy. But on the bumpy stuff, keep two hands on the wheel and ask your passengers to mind the beverages or they’ll be wearing them.
As I ran up and down the steep hill far quicker than I expected, a surprising thought appeared in my head. “I’m glad I’m not driving stick right now, because at this pace, I’m not sure I could keep up, and it might get a little sketchy.”
While I had disabled stability control for the track, I left it turned on for the street, and found it kicking in a lot in second gear hairpins. Disabling it would have likely meant running a full-on touge in what is fundamentally a residential neighborhood.
And once I returned to the track, I mentioned the thought to a NISMO product planner, he said their team had the same thought. With this much power, and a short wheelbase, a manual could get kind of hairy, especially once the tuners start working with the engine.
Having driven both manual and automatic versions of the Z’s direct competitor, the Toyota Supra, my argument would be that the longer gears of six-speed manual compared to the very close ratios of the nine-speed auto would tame the car down a bit, which Nissan agreed with. It would make it slower on track, and slower in instrumented testing, but in my opinion, would match the rest of the character of the car brilliantly, just like it does in the Supra or the 911 GT3 Touring. Nissan implied a prototype manual gearbox NISMO does exist somewhere, and “if the demand really exists, we will push for one to make production eventually, as there are no hardware restrictions preventing us from doing it.”
At approximately $66,000 delivered, the NISMO Z is, like everything else in the world of sports cars now, expensive. But frankly, you have to spend more money than this if you want to go any quicker.
The Corvette you want is $80k+, folks. The last BMW M2 I drove was just over $70k. And while the base price of the Mustang Dark Horse is $6k less, the one we drove was even more than the M2--$73k and change. Fortunately, as this story airs, we are at Thunderhill Raceway for the 2024 Road & Track Performance Car of the Year test, where all three of these cars, plus six more, will be put to the test. We can’t wait to see where the Nismo Z stacks up in our field of entrants. These big group tests have a way of surprising us, revealing things about these cars in direct comparison that don’t show up when driven on its own. (I’m looking at you, 2020 Toyota Supra.)
I’ll go on the record today as saying the NISMO Z in isolation (or compared to the Z Performance) is a brilliant achievement by a focused team that does everything they claim it does. It’s faster, it’s stickier, it’s more connected, more engaging, and more fun in every way than the base car. And I even understand the argument for the paddle shifters. When you’re going really fast, this car does require both hands and full focus. And it’s even a great automatic!
But numbers aren’t all driving is for. Driving sports cars is about engaging with machinery in a meaningful way, and even “track focused” sports cars see a relatively small percentage of their life on actual tracks. The Supra, Mustang, and M2 are all available with, and better with the stick, numbers be damned, and it would be a shame if Nissan went to all this effort to build such a great car and forgot to remember that driving is about more than lap times and that pure, engaging drivers cars are still worth investing in. After all, the most legendary cars of the last 20 years are the ones that have reputations for being kinda sketchy.
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