2023 Nissan Z Review: Rights All the Model's Past Wrongs

There are few letters that carry as much weight in the auto industry as Z. The abbreviation for grand touring "GT" is up there, as is BMW's "M" and the more general "R," usually standing for race. But for the past few years when car geeks said, "there's a new Z coming," they meant the 2023 Nissan Z, the iconic two-seat sports car now 53 years old.

The Nissan Z debuted in the U.S. in 1970 as the Datsun 240Z, with the numbers denoting engine size of 2.4 liters. Engine displacement and name grew to 2.6 liters for the 260, 2.8 liters for the 280 and so on through the 300ZX, 350Z and most recently the 370Z, displacing 3.7-liters in a V6.

The 370Z was retired in 2020 to make space for newest, fastest and best Z ever, which premiered earlier this year after the previous version spent a decade on the road. When starting out on the redesign, it wasn't hard to convince the team in Japan that a new Z was needed, according to a US-based spokesperson. But, it was hard to get the retro/modern design right.

"When we took on the challenge of redefining the Z for a new generation, we had to explore what the car meant to us, as designers and in the context of Nissan," Alfonso Albaisa, Senior Vice President for Global Design for Nissan told Newsweek.

"The Z is a car that is passion, is heart and soul, but also a vehicle of memories. As we looked at design ideas, we realized that this car should be the best of what you remember as a Z – not a literal interpretation. You can see echoes of each Z generation in many of the vehicle's angles, from the hood bulge to the taillights. It's not a direct lift from what came before, but how you may remember a distinctive styling cue that could only be the Nissan Z."

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Nissan struck a near perfect balance with the Z on those fronts, with the retro-looking LEDs in the back and cheese grater front end. The overall shape is nearly identical to the original Z, complete with a clean profile devoid of any character lines.

The only tiny stumble is that the grille needs to be partially covered for engine cooling reasons, which draws the eye to that bit of plastic. However, from the driver's seat, on a racetrack outside Las Vegas Motor Speedway, an owner will want all the cooling they can get.

Sticking to the formula of the legendary nameplate, the Nissan Z is a two-seat coupe that offers a six-speed manual transmission as standard. For 2023 it also comes with a nine-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Both are rear-wheel drive.

Z Performance models feature a mechanical limited-slip differential (LSDs distribute power to the rear wheel with the most traction); the more budget-friendly Z Sport trim has a brake and traction control system to accomplish the same task with less sophistication.

The new Nissan features a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, shared with Infiniti, but for the first time the company is not using the displacement number in the name, calling it just Nissan Z. The engine makes 400 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque.

2023 Nissan Z
Nissan brought a handful of 2023 Zs to Las Vegas to test. Jake Lingeman

The new twin-turbocharged engine is a masterpiece, offering brisk takeoffs before hitting maximum torque at just 1,600 rpm, and holding that output until 5,000 rpm. The new Z easily outperformed the old one in a drag race, which Nissan had on hand to compare.

On the 2.4-mile road course the automatic transmission Z didn't seem up to the task of keeping race pace without using the paddle shifters. Even those were a step slower than some competitors with other automatics (BMW, Dodge SRT) or dual-clutch transmissions.

The six-speed manual was excellent with ratios that felt right and a smooth action between the gears. The clutch pedal was a little finicky, and springy right at the mesh point, which took some getting used to. On the track it was easier to predict a gear for maximum power. The downside of that was the sound.

The 2023 Nissan Z has an updated double-wishbone front suspension setup with non-adjustable shocks. The rear features a multilink setup, and a three-point front strut tower brace (which stiffens the front end, improving the steering) is standard. The Performance trim gets a slightly sportier tune for the suspension but unlike many high-performance vehicles on the market today there's only one setting.

2023 Nissan Z
The 2023 Nissan Z features a new grille, but it's partially blocked for cooling purposes. Jake Lingeman

The Z-ness was very important to us," chief product specialist Hiroshi Tamura said in a roundtable event in Las Vegas. "First is the look. It's a gorgeous design. Then of course it's performance. Great acceleration. High speeds. Then, sound. It has a nice exhaust note, don't say noise. Those are the key elements."

From the driver's seat, the engine and exhaust seemed to hit maximum volume and maximum pitch at about 3,500 rpm and stayed there until the transmission shifted. It's a certain kind of piercing drone (even through a helmet) that will make a driver thankful this isn't a purpose-built track car. The previous generation of Z never really nailed it either. From the outside, the exhaust sounds different, and much more melodic.

The Z is fun when pushed to its limits on a closed course, but not greatly rewarding like bigger ponycars, or even something smaller like the Subaru BRZ.

Where the Z is greatly rewarding is on the road, where even a track junkie spends most of their time. On the wide, sweeping Nevada desert roads the Z was in its element. The suspension, while a little soft for the track, was perfect for the imperfect roads of the American West. Sweeping turns on asphalt showed that the Z had just enough give to be comfortable for hours.

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The 2023 Nissan Z is more at home the highway than on the track. Jake Lingeman

And when those long pulls of acceleration for maximum speed on the track are traded for shorter, but still enjoyable runs on two-lane highways the exhaust note is way more tolerable. This car is made for shifting in enjoyment, not in anger. Downshifts come with little throttle blips when in Sport mode, a mode that also eases up on the traction control, but doesn't turn it off.

Nissan added electric power steering and retuned the suspension geometry for 2023 to refine the Z, and it succeeded. It also tuned out some of the vibration from the shifter, which has been a part of the Z's legacy for years. Both of those changes made for a demonstrably better drive, but it did take out a little of the analog-ness that the Z was known for.

Inside the cabin, Nissan only changed what needed changing. That means a new 8-inch touchscreen display in the center and a 12.3-inch digital driver cluster behind the steering wheel that features shifts lights, a g-meter and several other racy features, including a big tachometer in the center.

Three gauge pods face the driver from the dashboard showing boost pressure, turbo speed and volts. Underneath the screen are three physical dials for climate control, which are simple and excellent. Volume and tuning are also controlled by dials that are easy to grab without looking.

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The soft seat bottoms adjust height at both the front and back, allowing for a perfect driving position, and the cloth inserts and cushy bolstering (in both the Sport and leather-appointed Performance versions) keep the driver in place no matter the g-forces. The interior can be optioned in black, blue or red, while special Proto versions got yellow accents.

Standard features include push button start, adaptive cruise control, rearview monitor, parking sensors, two 12-volt power points two USB ports. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth and satellite radio are also included. The Z Performance grade gets a 9-inch touchscreen with navigation and a better sound system.

Though the tech has made it to the modern age, the safety suite is only average in the Nissan Z. It comes standard with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, blind spot warning, lane warning, rear cross traffic alert and intelligent forward collision warning.

With a base price $39,990 for the 400-horsepower, 2023 Nissan Z Sport, it has a lot of competitors from both above and below. The Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ feature about half the horsepower but come in more than ten grand cheaper. The Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro range from cheaper and less powerful the more expensive and more powerful. The Toyota GR Supra ($51,540 with the 382-hp six-cylinder) is looking to snag some of those same coupe buyers too.

The Performance trim starts at $49,990, with the sportier suspension tuning, bigger touchscreen and leather-appointed seats.

What Nissan managed to do with the Z is frankly amazing. It righted all its past wrongs in power and looks, and left alone the pieces that worked. The only thing the interior really needed was a tech upgrade, and it received one. It was feeling a little underpowered the past few years. Not anymore. It was never really meant to be a track machine but still Nissan left a little room above the Z for an even sportier Nismo version. Justice was done to an automotive icon, which is a feat few can claim.