Nissan Z Proto Points the Way to a New Sports Car by Looking Back

Jay Ramey
·6 min read
Photo credit: Nissan
Photo credit: Nissan

From Autoweek

Almost 51 years after the debut of the original Datsun 240Z at the New York auto show, Nissan has taken the wraps off a car that points the way to a new Z car, picking up where the current generation has left off while keeping a close eye on the original. Dubbed Z Proto, this concept is described as being far closer to production than a mere show car, and it features several classic Z car cues inside and out that should give owners of the original a trip back in time to 1969. And not just because of the bright yellow pearlescent paint, picked as a nod to the first-generation 240Z.

The Z Proto is as much a look to the future as a look back in the time, and this is immediately clear given car's sleek shape, paying homage to the the original 240Z's revolutionary design. The profile should certainly be familiar to those who've even seen the vintage 240Z even a handful of times, and it opts for a balanced and uncluttered look that has a lot in common with the storied original.

"Our designers made countless studies and sketches as we researched each generation and what made them a success," head of Nissan design Alfonso Albaisa said. "Ultimately, we decided the Z Proto should travel between the decades, including the future."

Photo credit: Nissan
Photo credit: Nissan

The Z Proto's front fascia is a direct nod to the 1969 240Z, as is the rakish roof, offset by a contrasting black color. The car's grille has also been inspired by the original's design, even though it descends deeper to the ground, while the sill line features a prominent crease visually breaking up the side profile. Owners of the original should appreciate details like the headlight tunnel's concave surface, as well as the upward sweep of the window sill to into C-pillar.

"The LED headlights have two half-circles that hark back to the Japan market-only 240ZG of the 70s," Albaisa added. “The ZG has clear dome lenses over the headlight buckets, which under light give off two circular reflections over each headlight. We liked that unique characteristic and discovered that it naturally fit with the Z’s identity."

Out back, the Z Proto features a wraparound taillight design as a further callback to the 240Z, including double-stacked horizontal tail light shapes meant to evoke the first-generation Z car's look. The shape of the aft of the car is also a reference to the first generation, featuring a squared-off, blunt shape and a rectangular taillight cluster.

Photo credit: Nissan
Photo credit: Nissan

Nissan looked to the past in designing the interior as well, seeking to replicate a look that is spartan yet one meant to fit like a glove thanks to carefully chosen proportions and ergonomics. Like the original 240Z's interior the Z Proto's is dominated by the color back and features a relatively large but thin-rimmed steering wheel and a round center hub. Those who have sat in the original Z car will spot many other common elements, even if all the technology in the cabin is from the 2020s, including a 12.3-inch display.

It's not the technology that really makes the interior stand out, but rather its simplicity coupled with a formula mixing modern tech with classic proportions so well. Another thing that could be easily taken for granted about this interior is just how much like a production car it actually looks. Nothing is whimsical or half-finished, but in a way it's almost too muted, visually, to stand out as something far in the future. Indeed, the classic proportions of the Z car steering wheel, coupled with all the production-car details, almost make the cabin appear visually quiet. That's the look Nissan sought to achieve, giving the Z Proto a very realistic interior you could picture in a production car in the current era.

Photo credit: Nissan
Photo credit: Nissan

The powertrain's formula is a nod to Z-car heritageas well, pairing a twin-turbocharged V6 engine with a six-speed manual transmission. Such a combo is a rarity in production sports cars and concept cars these days, especially if you consider that just weeks ago Nissan revealed the Ariya electric crossover. But it's something Nissan clearly wanted to highlight in rolling out this particular concept, which you've probably noted does not mention electrification. And that's not because Nissan is a stranger to electric cars. Quite the contrary, the second-gen Leaf is about to be joined by the Ariya electric crossover, so it's not a lack of technology. Rather, Nissan believes it knows what Z car buyers really want to buy at the moment.

"The Z has always been a strong dynamic performer, making it easy for customers to enjoy its capabilities and feel as connected as possible to the car," said Hiroshi Tamura, the Z Proto's chief product specialist. "This has been true through all its generations, and this is what drives our passion to innovate and challenge the norm."

Likewise, vast reserves of muscle power underhood, enough to do shred the rear tires, have not been a Z car feature. Nissan noted this in making a distinction between the much larger and more powerful GT-R, and the brand's Z car lineage, preferring to keep the two cars' recipes from overlapping. The automaker made clear the GT-R is a different beast, and that the Z car would not seek to replicate that experience in a different wrapper. The Z has always been about an elegant kind of quietly capable performance rather than brute force. That's the kind of mix we expect to see in a production version.

Photo credit: Nissan
Photo credit: Nissan

“Z is more than just powerful and agile," Tamura added. "It is designed to create a connection with the driver, for the car to be a 'dance partner' for their on-road adventures."

Speaking of that production version, the Z Proto certainly appears close to production, even if some concept car touches remain. But a market version is not far over the horizon as today's Z car is in its twilight, having been in production since 2009. We expect to see the new car next year with a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 underhood with a choice of a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic, perhaps wearing a 400Z badge and sending power to the rear wheels. The production version is also rumored to be loosely allied with some of the Infiniti Q60's hardware, which certainly lends its proportions well to such a pairing. A detailed look through the Q60's parts bin may or may not reveal further hints of what we're likely to see in a production Z car, but it's difficult to ignore the availability of at least some of the hardware. Either way, it shouldn't be long before we see the new production car and the 1969 original side by side.