EL SEGUNDO, California—We love controversial cars. Contrary to what you might think, it makes our jobs significantly easier; the less there is to say about a car, the more literary gymnastics we undertake to create something relatively readable. If the car is contentious—aesthetically, mechanically, or spiritually—that gives us plenty of meat to chew on. The new Nissan Z Proto concept? Nissan’s recent glimpse of the Z-car’s future (speculated to carry the “400Z” name) cracked a schism between even the most diehard Z fans, not to mention just about everyone else, including the Automobile staff.
As is usually the case, however, pictures tell only half of the story. More than a few cars throughout history have been shortchanged by shoddy debut artwork, and it’s sometimes only when we see a car under the harsh, bright auto-show lights that the design settles and starts to make more sense. In lieu of an auto-show tour, the Nissan Z Proto visited our home office’s photo studio, giving us the first chance to check out the bright yellow coupe outside of Japan.
Surprise, surprise—regardless of how close the Z Proto is to the production 400Z, Nissan’s new concept looks a whole lot better in person than it does in those debut photos. We were surprised less by the overall aesthetic and more by the small nuances and unseen details that previously failed to make it through our phone and computer screens, and the more we slowly paced around the concept, the more it grew on us like a bonsai tree.
The biggest surprise was how less polarizing that controversial pseudo-rectangular grille is; in the original photos, it appeared as a gaping maw devoid of texture and depth aside from a relatively thin strip of honeycomb grille. Under our studio lights, the mostly hidden grille structure emerged, with the additional lower inlets now more visible and giving the “mouth” more depth than a featureless black square. It’s not just the honeycomb that saves; from an eye-level view, the hood drops down sharply over the nose, hiding a bit of the grille’s openness and leaning-out the front-end.
You might scoff, but in person there’s an appreciable whiff of Aston Martin and Jaguar mixed into the Nissan Z Proto’s rear-slung proportions. This is very much a concept, and almost nothing seen on the yellow coupe can be 100-percent expected to make it to production without modification, but the fit, finish, and finer details give us hope for a seriously impressive sports grand-tourer.
For the Nissan Z dork, the Z Proto’s small details are definitely where it’s at. As Nissan enumerated during the concept’s debut, it sourced strong inspiration from the original 240Z and the Z32 (1990-96 in the U.S.), two of the high points in the Z’s historical timeline. Referencing the 240Z is a no-brainer, but returning to the Z32 is an interesting and well-measured approach. Since the Z’s reintroduction in 2002 and throughout the 370Z’s 11-year run, the Z32 was left largely out of the equation, with both the 350Z and the 370Z mostly forging their own stylistic paths with a smattering of influence only from the original 240Z.
Now, appreciation for the Z32 and other 1990s Japanese superstars is at a frenzied peak as millennials and even Gen-Z buyers snap up clean (and not so clean) examples of the old Z car. So, as the Nissan 400Z—or whatever it shall be called—picks up the 370Z’s mantle, it’s a smart move to appeal to these Z enthusiasts with callbacks to a fan-favorite. The striated taillights are the most obvious Z32-aping feature, sharing the same gloss-black bar spanning the length of the rear fascia. Elsewhere, a small black-and-white “Z” roundel sits on the upper flank of the rear quarter panels, and “Fairlady Z” is spelled out on the rear decklid in classical cursive script.
All of this is to say this was a carefully designed car, whether you appreciate the end result or not. Inside impresses just as much as the sharply sculpted exterior, though there is still a residual miasma of decade-old 370Z trim and tinsel floating around.
A quick word on the Nissan Z Proto’s bones: Yes, the Z Proto as it physically exists is a gussied-up 370Z chassis, there’s no getting around that. But that does not mean the forthcoming Z car will be merely a refresh of the existing car, though we do expect the underlying platform to be a mixture of both 370Z and Infiniti Q60. Do not forget, this is still a concept, and the 400Z production car is by all accounts still in development. As the car gets closer to production, we expect and hope to see some of the more obvious 370Z traits slough off.
If you still can’t shake the old 370Z from your mind, think of this less like a rebodied 370Z and more like a restomodded 370Z revitalized from the lug-nuts-up. Returning to the inside, the Z Proto’s cockpit is impressively premium, and designers did a commendable job smothering the creakier, older 370Z scaffolding under the leather and gloss-plastic veneer. The digital display is one of the better interior points, with a crisp, clean-edge design.
The more we climbed in and around the Nissan Z Proto, the more we’re convinced Toyota has quite a problem on its hands. As far as we see it, a turbocharged six-cylinder two-seat coupe with the option for leather trimmings, a digital display, and even the option for a manual transmission for what we expect to be less than the Supra 3.0’s $51,000 base price makes for a compelling alternative. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine more than a handful of potential Supra buyers might share this sentiment.
So, if you were critical of the Nissan Z Proto’s design, or perhaps sitting on the fence, wait until you see it in person to cast judgment. If you were already a fan, expect to be even more enamored with the future sports car. Until we see the 400Z production version, we’ll dream of what this twin-turbo coupe is like to drive on our favorite quick roads.
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