Nissan is using this New York Auto Show to celebrate its performance heritage and highlight 50th anniversaries for two of its most important cars: the Z and the GT-R. With nearly any other automaker, this would be a nice gesture to the enthusiast faithful who still care about sporty cars in a world of semi-autonomous hybrid three-row crossovers. Instead, for Nissan, it turned into an unintentionally massive self-own, and one that has that faithful wondering this: What have you done for us lately?
Simply put, the Z and GT-R are old. Both have been on the market more than a decade and feel less relevant than ever. Instead of all-new versions of both ready to do battle with the most modern sports cars, which Nissan fans clearly want, what we got were enhancements to one already very fast, very expensive car and a fancy paint scheme for another. And it speaks to one of Nissan’s biggest problems at the moment: What is this brand and who is it for anymore?
Yesterday, I was adamant that the 50th Anniversary 370Z was a good-looking design. I still am, to be sure. If I were to buy a brand new 370Z right now, I would absolutely want it to have badass throwback red and white BRE livery. That car will be a major crowd-pleaser at Litwood in a couple decades.
Problem is, there’s zero reasons to buy a brand new 370Z. Literally zero. You may find joy in its design, or its beefy naturally aspirated V6, or its manual gearbox, or the fact that having been in production since 2009 there are many old-school aspects to it that you’ll find appealing in today’s tech-laden world.
(I’d argue enthusiasts can’t have it both ways, bemoaning how old the 370Z is and complaining about how overly complicated and infotainment-screen’d new cars are, but that’s an argument for another day.)
So if that’s the case and you do want a 370Z, buy used. Period, end of story. Save yourself several thousand dollars and get a pre-owned 2012 or 2016 or even 2018 model. And there’s certainly a case for the Z on the used lot! Where else are you going to get a rear-wheel drive, Japanese sports car with a manual and north of 300 horsepower?
But you do not need to spend $31,000, at a minimum, for this car in 2019, and no amount of stripes and Alcantara will change that.
There’s also something sad about the fact that the 50th Anniversary Edition Z is the same car as the 40th Anniversary Edition Z. This is some C3 Corvette kinda shit, and I don’t mean that in any kind of nice way.
Let’s bring up another performance car that debuted this week as a case study: The 2020 Ford Mustang with the 2.3L High Performance Package. Historically the Z was more a competitor to the V8 Mustang, but I don’t think you can make that case anymore.
This Mustang, though it’s down two cylinders to the Z, has the same amount of horsepower but a whopping 80 more lb-ft of torque. Its automatic has 10 gears to the Z’s seven. It’s vastly superior on fuel economy, has better tech and a much more modern interior, all for about the same price. I can’t think of any reason I’d tell you to get the Z over that Mustang. And when we’re talking about models like the 370Z Nismo that starts (!!!) at $45,790, we’re completely out of the realm of making sense.
Assuming the 370Z sticks around another year or two, it will in its life have seen the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ come and go; it will have seen the C7 Corvette launch, and then go mid-engined entirely; three generations of Porsche 911; the life and death of the Genesis Coupe; it will have seen the new Supra, a new Miata, a new Fiat Spider, a new Camaro, along with countless other go-fast BMWs and Benzes and hot hatchbacks and so on.
The point is, it’s old, and for Nissan to turn the New York Auto Show into a showcase of the legacy of its performance cars is kind of disingenuous. If anything now it’s a monument to how those cars have languished.
The GT-R, at least, fares a little better. I reviewed one last year and was delighted to find that while it’s showing its age in a few areas, it’s still brutally fast—among the fastest cars on earth. It’s an old Nissan that can still show up AMGs and Porsches and Ferraris, and the latest round of improvements is a solid one. (I’d also add it’s a bummer the Z didn’t benefit from a power bump, updated suspension and gearbox and lighter weight the way Godzilla did.)
At this point the GT-R is a kind of low-volume, bespoke six-figure performance car. And while it’s undeniably fast, it does not have the hype around it that it had a decade ago—or even half a decade ago. How could it? The GT-R, too, is old. The world needs an R36.
And yet rumors of a new and supposedly hybrid GT-R have all but gone cold. There are no prototypes out there, no camouflaged mules doing cold weather testing. We haven’t heard a peep about either of these cars. We’ve seen nothing to indicate new versions of them are coming.
Sales of either car , as you might guess, are not great. Nissan sold 263 Zs in March; on average it moves between 200 and 300 of them a month in America. 2019 is a tough market for sports cars, probably toughest since the 1990s, but Ford still managed to sell more than 6,000 Mustangs last month. Chevy moved 4,200 examples of the Camaro. The market’s still there, if you do it right. (The GT-R is firmly in the double-digit sales every month, but it’s always been on the low-volume side.)
More so than any other Japanese automaker, besides probably Mazda, performance cars put Nissan (and Datsun before it) on the map. Back in the day, club racers and tuners in Zs and 510s helped establish that brand and brought people to its more normal sedan and wagon offerings.
It’s hard to say what Nissan even stands for today besides cash-on-hood deals and making the sedan you rent the next time you’re in Minneapolis for a work conference. And Nissan’s problem is that with each passing year, fewer and fewer people remember those glory days or what a BRE livery is.
It’s hard to even discern where Nissan’s leadership landed on these cars, or what their strategy even was with them as the years went on. Deposed boss Carlos Ghosn—who has much bigger problems these days—wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review in 2017 that reviving the Z and GT-R was “about reviving our brand” and that the GT-R was “still [his] favorite car to drive today.” Again the latter one kind of gets a pass, for being still so fast and good at what it does. But did both these cars languish away in pursuit of Ghosn’s real passion: grabbing more of the American market share? More and more, it feels that way.
Maybe to Nissan, with electrification and autonomy seeming like the actual future, it doesn’t matter. If that’s the case, it may be time for the company to stop acting like it does.