You don't have to be one of the Nissan faithful to know that the brand's Z car is something you need to care about. Since that first Datsun 240Z was introduced for the '70 model year, the lineage has stood for things like being fun to drive and looking good while doing it, and all for a humble price. Passion for the model peaked during the '90s when the fourth-generation model—the twin-turbocharged 300ZX—occupied posters on teenage boys' bedroom walls. But it's the more recent 350Z (Z33) and 370Z (Z34) that best satisfy those initial requirements that Nissan set out to achieve. And with entry costs hovering around the same price point as an early '90s Civic with an engine swap, Nissan's iconic Z has never made more sense.
NISSAN'S Z, REINVENTED
Understand that the 350Z and 370Z are nothing at all like the 300ZX that wavered along the brink of being a full-fledged supercar and you'll be fine. Its successors are still powered by their rear wheels, only have two seats, handle even better, and—at around $26K when the 350Z was introduced for the '03 model year—were things that even you could afford.
Best of all, the Z never has been and still isn't a refined sports car built for gentlemen racers and their goofy hats. And that's a good thing. Its V-6 mill isn't buttery smooth; instead, it makes noise and gargles its way toward redline. And its six-speed manual gearbox is just as rugged, requiring meaningful effort from whomever's yanking on its shifter, the vibrations you'll feel up your arm. Even grip's been sacrificed with the Z—in a good way—enough so that something that'll flick, slide, and drift in a controlled sort of way can happen but at the expense of any sort of headline-making lateral g's.
BUT WHY THE Z?
Nissan's pair of late-model Z's will engage you, and driving one at its limit will require your attention. At a time when nanny controls and forgiving suspensions prevail on newer cars in an effort to keep you out of the weeds and your booty comfortable, the Z doesn't promise such things. Serious grip and sharp steering before you've made a single mod can be yours, and an engine that'll show you what it's capable of by 3,000 rpm is standard. To be sure, it's that six-cylinder VQ that completes Nissan's fifth- and sixth-generation Z's; power-wise, later versions of the V-6 make more than that twin-turbo 300ZX engine you'd go to sleep dreaming about in the '90s.
Every Z sold since '03 features some version of Nissan's VQ-based V-6, an engine dynasty that dates back long before the 350Z and has even been called the best V-6 the auto industry's ever seen. At the heart of the 60-degree, six-cylinder engine is an all-aluminum short-block and a pair of aluminum heads, each with four valves per cylinder, two cams on each side, and a couple of different iterations of variable valve timing, depending on the year.
VQ35DE: Underneath the hood of the inaugural 350Z ('03-'06 models) lies the twin-cam, 3.5L engine that was borrowed from the brand's existing lineup. It made 287 hp, laid down 274 lb-ft of torque, and spun to 7,000 rpm, which was almost as good as the engine's twin-turbocharged predecessor. The Rev-up engine, a special, 300hp version of the VQ35DE was available on a limited basis for '05 and for all manual-transmission-equipped models for '06.
VQ35HR: Nissan updated the VQ for the '07 model year, introducing the HR, which stands for "high revolution." Larger crank journals down below, new cylinder heads, longer rods fit inside of a slightly taller block, asymmetrical pistons, and all sorts of anti-friction updates mean its 7,500-rpm redline is child's play, and 306 hp and 268 lb-ft of torque is now yours. The engine's new dual-path intake that now features two throttle bodies and two intake tracts as well as the equal-length exhaust manifold contributes to the power bump.
VQ37VHR: Those restless engine developers did it again when the 370Z was introduced, stroking the original VQ engine but without sacrificing the engine's ability to rev, which is often a by-product of that sort of bottom-end wizardry. That means 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque are standard, which, by the way, was about 30 hp more than Ford's V-8 Mustang was good for back then but with two fewer cylinders. And for the first time, Nissan's VVEL (Variable Valve Event and Lift) is also now standard on the VQ.
Z BUYER'S GUIDE
Scouring for a used Z is no different than it is for any other car. Get an expert inspection if you don't know how to change your own oil or bring along a friend who's smarter than you. Here, Nissan's interiors aren't known for durability, so beware of excessive wear and electrical bits that might not work. The coupe's rear hatch struts could be blown and the roadster's fabric top might be trashed, neither of which should be deal breakers. Suspension bushings, clutch discs, and brake pads all wear faster than you think they should, so be sure to give all of those a once-over before settling on a price. Wheel bearings also wear quickly, especially when subjected to the sorts of loads that sticky tires and track days yield. Leaking fluid-filled rear differential mounts aren't uncommon, either, as aren't oil pressure sensors that've been know to wig out. All told, there's no shortage of Z's for sale, so if something doesn't add up, move along to the next one.
'03-'06: Somebody over at Nissan went apeshit when it came time to figure out just how many versions of its 350Z there'd be. For '03, it was a coupe or nothing at all, but it was sold in variations that included base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring, and Track trims. The following year, the coupe, available in the same five versions, was complemented by the roadster with its retractable soft-top, which was offered in both Enthusiast and Touring trims. You care about the Track trim, though, because of its lightweight Rays wheels and Brembo brakes and because you couldn't get it with the automatic gearbox that resulted in an engine that made slightly less power. If you also care about things like limited-slip differentials and traction control, avoid the base model. And if you need leather and the heated seats your girlfriend wants, you'll have to go looking for Touring trims.
Inaugural models like these are known to have a few issues, most of which have likely been taken care of by now; manufacturer recalls include those for the clutch, fuel filler, and circuitry for crankshaft and camshaft position sensors. Watch out for notchy transmissions, too, where third gear grinds can be common due to synchros exclusive to early transmissions. Faulty power window motors and incorrect alignment settings that lead to premature tire wear are other known concerns.
For '05, the Z's 35th-anniversary edition was introduced, which was good for 300 hp but only with the six-speed, manual transmission that'd been used for the previous two years. That's fine because nobody ever bought an automatic on purpose. All other trims remained. That same 300hp engine—also known as the Rev-up engine—was used on all six-speed-equipped cars for '06 when the front bumper, headlights, and taillights were updated and the Performance trim level was nixed. A Grand Touring edition was also added, which was similar to the Touring trim but featured the Brembo brakes and Rays wheels that Track trims had. Watch out for excessive oil consumption on models featuring the Rev-Up engine, though, of which Nissan had issued a recall for at one point.
'07-'08: The following year the VQ35HR was introduced and it was sayonara for Track models, which were replaced with the coupe-only Nismo trim that featured a stiffer, seam-welded chassis, aero upgrades that paid homage to Nissan's Super GT cars, and a special red-and-black cloth interior. Nismo models also included more aggressive cams, 18-inch Rays wheels, a Nismo exhaust system, and Brembo brakes all around. You wouldn't be able to get your hands on a coupe or a Nismo-edition model after '08, though. As far as popularity goes, any '07-'08 model Z is among the best because of its more powerful engines and revised transmissions that eliminate earlier problems.
'09: For '09, you had your pick between the 350Z roadster or the all-new 370Z coupe and, once again, a 350hp Nismo option was available, this time complementing base and Touring trims. Nismo trims feature 19-inch rims, a limited-slip differential, a stiffer suspension, bigger brakes, and key aero bits like front and rear spoilers and a rear wing. For slightly less money you can add the Sport package onto base and Touring trims that's virtually a tuned-down Nismo model. Despite the previous 300ZX's turbocharged V-6, the 370Z now claimed title to the fastest Z to date.
'10-'17: The convertible roadster showed up in '10 as did a 40th-anniversary-edition package that included its own color scheme and badges. Little else changed for the next two years. Minor body changes showed up for '13, leading to four more years of the same 370Z, more or less.
WHAT THE CLASSIFIEDS SAY
Craigslist says that if you can cobble together close to $6,000, an early-model 350Z without any frills can be yours. Plan on spending at least twice that if you want an '07-'08 model with fewer than 100K miles that hasn't been wrecked and isn't an automatic. Plan on shelling out at least $20K for the newer and more powerful 370Z and more if you want anything that's got an Infiniti badge on it.
You want to build a Z but you want something reliable and without the illegal smog tests. As it turns out, a 280-whp weekend track car that'll still get you back and forth to work on Monday isn't all that hard to put together.
The powertrain: Making more power starts with whatever VQ you've got and allowing it to breathe better with the intake, headers, high-flow cats, and cat-back exhaust you know you need. Look for even more power by means of a larger plenum or plenum spacer that'll give it the volume Nissan's engineers didn't, cams and valvesprings, and an ECU reflash to tie it all together. Early VQ engines are mass-airflow-based, which means their ECUs are able to make a lot of corrections even after you go generating all of that extra airflow, but sooner or later that reflash will be necessary. And finally, you know you need an upgraded clutch, but what you don't know is that the stock flywheel weighs a whopping 29 pounds and has got to go. Remember those transmission problems we talked about earlier? That big old lug of a flywheel could have something to do with it.
The chassis: Any time you go hunting for better performance, your search ought to bring you to stickier tires, lightweight wheels, and some sort of adjustable coilovers. With the Z, you don't need a whole lot more than that.
BALLS TO THE WALL
You're done driving that Z of yours on the street, which means making as much power as the VQ says you can and getting the whole thing to handle better than Nissan says it should just became your reality.
The powertrain: Forced induction systems for the VQ abound, of which a common setup is a pair of GT35R turbos, for instance, that'll get you past the 700hp mark in a hurry. You'll need to address all sorts of things to get to that level, though. As far as early VQ engines are concerned, it's their rod bolts that'll stretch and cause all sorts of problems. And later engines aren't indestructible, either, so plan on the usual forged bottom end bits and fuel system upgrades if big power's in your future. The oiling system will also have to be addressed if you plan on spending time at the track, too. When cornering, oil can slosh away from the engine's pickup, resulting in starvation, which can damage important things like rod bearings and cylinder walls. An oil pan spacer, for example, can yield an additional quart of fluid and submerge the pickup even further.
The chassis: Besides whatever suspension mods you made while driving your Z on the street, now's the time to consider stiffer, adjustable antisway bars and polyurethane bushings to replace the rubber ones that've probably already failed and thrown off your alignment. Adjustable antisway bars mean you can change your suspension setup based on whether or not you'll be road racing or drifting, and polyurethane bushings will get rid of the slop. You also have to consider your alignment if you want to go racing. In stock form, only toe is adjustable at both ends along with minor camber changes that can be made in the rear. If you want to maximize whatever tires you've got, you'll need more negative camber and more positive caster than what the stock suspension says you can have. Negative camber will help keep the tires' tread planted and the extra caster will help increase that negative camber as the wheels turn in as well as keep things more stable. You'll need adjustable upper control arms up front to do all of this as well as adjustable links or lower arms out back. You're going faster now, too, which means your brakes will be fading. But you can't simply slap on the biggest rotors you can find. Older Z's are known to have weak front wheel bearings; the larger the rotor, the more likely you'll notice the problem.
BUT CAN IT DRIFT?
In a word: Yes. But you'll need a Z with a limited-slip differential to do it. Try it without one and you'll spin that inside tire into a whole mess of understeer. You'll also need an upgraded clutch that won't slip while keeping the car drifting and suspension bits that'll correct the car's excessive body roll and all of that understeer. Once you break the factory limited-slip differential and upgrade to something stronger, it's time to look for more top-end power and increase the car's steering angle with extended tie rods. Perform the right safety mods, align it, and you're on your way to a solid, entry-level drift car that you won't look like a fool in.
First-gen: Nissan introduced the '70 S30-chassis Fairlady Z in Japan followed by the North American equivalent, the Datsun 240Z. U.S. versions featured a carbureted, 2.4L inline-six that was good for 151 hp. Within the next 10 years, a larger-displacement 260Z and later 280Z were introduced.
Second-gen: Not to be confused with the older 280Z, Datsun released the S130-chassis 280ZX for the '79 model year followed by a turbocharged version in '81.
Third-gen: The mid-'80s Z31-chassis 300ZX was good for about 200 hp in turbocharged trim and was responsible for the introduction of the venerable VG series of engines.
Fourth-gen: It's the Z32 300ZX that pitted the model against the likes of supercars like Toyota's Supra and Acura's NSX. Its 300hp, twin-turbocharged V-6 and its ability to make a whole lot more power than that is what gave it that status. After being discontinued in '96, it'd take another seven years before the Z name would reemerge.