When the Datsun 280ZX was introduced for the 1979 model year, the Z car would be almost a decade old. As great as it was, improvements in technology and changes in the world meant that a new and better Z had to be introduced.
But with 280Z sales still brisk, Nissan product planners were faced with the task of improving a good thing. So the Datsun 280ZX greatly resembled its predecessor: The general long-hood fastback profile remained, along with the hood bulge and sugar-scoop headlamp buckets.
There was a completely new chassis underneath, however, and a new internal designation -- S130. Nissan used the platform it had developed for the 810 sedan, introduced the year before.
The suspension was still fully independent, with struts up front (although different from the original Z's) but the rear struts were changed to semi-trailing arms. No doubt this made business sense, though enthusiasts lamented the greater camber and toe changes of the new rear setup.
The engine and drivetrain were carried over largely intact, though tightening emissions controls reduced peak horsepower to 135, with California cars catalyst-equipped and three ponies weaker. Cars with optional air conditioning had an auxiliary blower that pumped cool air onto the fuel system to prevent vapor lock, a sign of the times.
The standard 4-speed manual was replaced by a 5-speed gearbox, however, allowing a 3.70:1 final-drive ratio for quicker acceleration. The optional automatic still had only three gears.
The interior was roomier and there was a marked improvement in interior appointments; the ZX was more luxurious than its predecessor, with cut-pile carpet everywhere and full color coordination. The steering wheel had an A-shaped spoke arrangement, more disco flash than sports-car pure.
There was even a Grand Luxury package with alloy wheels, cloth upholstery (replacing vinyl) and more. A dual-needle fuel gauge metered both the whole tank and the final quarter tank. But the car, even in base form, was becoming more luxury- than sports-oriented, with added noise insulation, plus softer bushings in the suspension for a cushier ride.
That year also saw the introduction of the ZX-R package, intended to homologate a whale-tale rear wing for racing. Just 1,000 were built. In addition to the big spoiler, the ZX-R also had special badging, broad blue stripes, and was available only in Silver Mist paint.
With the Datsun 280ZX, the Z's base price reached $9,899, and destination charges pushed it over ten grand even before options. Even so, the 1979 Datsun 280ZX set the all-time annual U.S. sales record for Z cars at 86,007 units, undoubtedly helped by being named Motor Trend's "Import Car of the Year."
For 1980, a removable-panel T-top was introduced, and by year's end half of all ZXs were so equipped. Optional leather upholstery and automatic temperature control were further examples of the upmarket trend of the Z car, while horsepower sagged to 132. A special Anniversary Edition was done in black and gold, celebrating a decade of Z cars. It cost $13,850 when introduced.
The real start of the 1980s was 1981, when technology -- and a turbo -- stopped the horsepower drain. A new catalyst and higher compression raised the standard ZX's power to 145 horsepower, while the 280ZX Turbo cranked out 180. The thrill was back.
Well-equipped -- and with an automatic mandatory -- the turbo sold for a Z-car high of $16,999. But it was faster than a Corvette, turning the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds, compared to 16.0 for the 'Vette.
The "talking" ZX, with a digitized voice, debuted for 1982, along with a 5-speed manual for the Turbo. Nonetheless, sales slid from 71,533 in 1980 to 57,260 for 1982. More luxury appointments followed for 1983, but it was clearly the end of the line for the second generation.
1981-1/2 DATSUN 280ZX TURBO SPECIFICATIONS
Base price: $16,999
Layout: rear-wheel drive
Curb weight: 2,995 pounds
Wheelbase: 91.3 inches
Length: 174.0 inches
Front suspension: Independent MacPherson struts
Rear suspension: Semi-trailing arms
Seats: two or 2+2
Engine: single-overhead-cam turbocharged inline-6
Displacement: 2753 cubic centimeters
Compression ratio: 7.4:1
Horsepower: 180 @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 203 pound-feet @ 2800 rpm
Fuel supply: Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection
Transmission: 3-speed automatic
Quarter-mile: 15.6 seconds @ 88.0 mph