Spirit of the Z lives on in latest version

Half a decade on it's still turning heads with its steamy good looks, macho appeal and graceful athleticism.

A car that's been around for a while, but seems to have kept its best for the years following its 50th birthday.

It was 1969 when Australia got its first glimpse of this shapely hatchback - the Datsun 240Z - boasting a long Aston Martin-styled bonnet and Ferrari-style rear end, at a price most could afford.

And while the original Z might not sound immediately like a car with such a sporty character (92 kW, 2.4-litre, straight six-cylinder engine and three-speed automatic transmission) it did deliver an impressive top speed of just over 200km/h.

But what the 240Z had, above all else, was style.

It was unarguably the car that took Nissan (or Datsun as it was called back in those days) from a little-known, fledgling Japanese car maker onto the world stage.

Yes, there have been plenty of subsequent stumbles, like the change of direction from a tight, sharp little driving device to a rather lumbering, over-styled and overweight grand tourer (that was the 280Z).

The brand recovered somewhat with the futuristic 300ZX, brought performance to match the style with the 350Z and 370Z, before finally arriving back where it all began with the release of a seventh-generation Z. This time with no numbers or adornments. Just Z.

It's exactly how a descendant of the 240Z might have been imagined.

This all-new Z picks up some DNA from the 350 and 370 models (which were around for 13 years) and adds a punchy, modern drivetrain which delivers on the performance promises the car had always made.

It's pretty obvious that Nissan was determined to reflect the Z-car's long and storied history with this new model. Nissan even refers to the styling as "retro-modern" which is an each-way bet of sorts.

There are plenty of old-school cues. The manual handbrake, for instance, is very retro these days. Likewise the six-speed manual transmission - one of the few sports cars to retain a self-shifter as a no-cost option.

Design wise, it's better proportioned and sculpted than any model to wear the badge since the 240Z and the 260Z, rekindling the spirit of those models and adding a streak of modernity.

By the time the 280ZX had finished its run, this lightweight sports machine had gained all manner of misplaced luxury items - including a Targa roof - and grew in size like an over-fed labrador. Fortunately its weight-loss program is evident in this new model.

In its native Japan, the Z has long carried the daggy "Fairlady" moniker, which probably explains why they've stuck so doggedly to the "Z" designation in most other markets. The numerical reference reflects engine capacity (2.4 litres for the 240Z, 2.6 litres for the 260Z and so on).

This seventh-generation model sticks with the six-cylinder format, albeit as a 3-litre V6, borrowed from Nissan's luxury brand Infiniti and boosted by two turbochargers to deliver a generational lift in performance.

But here's the prettiest thing about the new Z. The price.

The base model hits the market at a juicy $73,300, jumping up to $80,700 for the so-called "Proto" variant. Rivals will include Ford's hugely popular Mustang (about $69-grand for the GT V8; BMW's 230i coupe ($70,990) and Toyota's brand-engineered Supra (which beneath the flashy skin is a BMW Z4 with its twin-turbo six (not much change out of 90 grand).

In that company the Z looks like a bargain - and the performance enhancements it brings make that equation even more convincing.

Those twin-turbochargers give it a bountiful and effortless 298kW and 475Nm - a 20 per cent lift on previous models.

There are few gripes with the Z as a driving experience. For a car so purposeful, its exhaust note is the most disappointing. But that is quickly resolved once the turbos kick in and the speedo starts ticking through the triple-digits, when things tend to happen very quickly, and loudly.

The design cues are a mix of old and new. The door handles are a modern-day work of art, the sweeping dashboard and three embedded gauges pay homage to the original Z.

The cockpit is snug but not tight, even for a six-footer.

What's inescapable is the elegant, eye-catching simplicity and the restraint the designers have shown in reimagining this car. Yes, the bulbous rump evokes a Porsche-like presence; and the low-slung stance quickens the pulse.

But the latest Z is probably the least-overstyled vehicle in its category.

It's difficult to understand why a buyer might opt for the three-pedal variant, given the machine-gun speed with which the self-shifter moves through the ratios.

It can be a touch jerky at crawling speeds but delivers precisely the required ratio as the revs rise. The short-throw, six-speed manual is smart but is probably an unnecessary piece of nostalgia.

Practical? Hardly.

It is absolutely a two-seater - and to their credit the folks at Nissan made doubly sure of it by not bothering with a rear seat. To emphasise the point, it almost completely lacks luggage space.

The big horizontal stability brace that bisects the luggage compartment makes this already limited space even less useful - so it's soft-sided weekend bags and definitely no golf clubs.

Dynamically there's a lot to like about this car. The V6 is crisp and responsive, although the kick-in-the-pants is much more noticeable than previous iterations thanks to those twin turbochargers.

As is mostly the norm with Japanese vehicles, Nissan declines to provide an official acceleration figure, but it's estimated somewhere better than five seconds for 0-100km/h. Not furious, but under full revs it feels a good measure quicker than that.

Its rear-wheel-drive configuration makes the Z a bit loose in the tail, and lighter in the steering, inviting the driver to challenge grip levels where it's safe to do so.

Keep in mind this engine is not a world away from the ballistic beast found under the bonnet of Nissan's soon-to-be retired GT-R with its dazzling sub-three second sprint to 100km/h. That probably leaves the door ajar for an even more powerful Z from Nissan's Nismo tuning house.

Now that's really going back to the future.


* HOW BIG: Unlike many cars, this one has got smaller as the years progress. It's cosy, but comfortable.

* HOW FAST: No official figure available, but 0-100km/h in an estimated 4.7 seconds. It feels quicker.

* HOW THIRSTY: Official consumption is 10/8L100km - not bad for a seriously quick machine with twin turbos.

* HOW MUCH: Starting at $73,300 (plus on-road costs). Quite a bargain.