In a 2002 interview, the Nissan 350Z designers discussed objectives of the design process. The designers included Diane Allen, chief designer, Red Studio, Nissan Design America; and Ajay Panchal, designer exploratory group, Nissan Design America.
Q: The Z car is quite a legacy. When you first put pen to paper, started moving clay around, what was running through your minds?
Allen: Do we pay homage to our past 240Z or 300ZX more literally or do we metaphorically or philosophically represent it? We knew we must show a vision of the future. Nissan is the comeback kid. If you show something that you already did, that's not visionary to the modern eye.
Panchal: I think we were after something more abstract. We were looking for styling cues in the car without directly referring to anything typically 240Z. Our car doesn't have scooped headlamps. It has its own language. I think its appeal is more in the present. Each car has to be relevant to its time to make an impact on each new generation.
Allen: The debate between the design groups and between Nakamura and Jerry Hirshberg was a rich discussion. It really empowered the designers to find and embody the essence of the Z without just duplicating it. That dialogue was about Z-ness.
Q: So you found that thread of DNA?
Allen: The first goal we set out to achieve was high quality. The new Z should look like it cost $40,000 even though it is going to be priced several points lower. It should be new, yet timeless. Sometimes these products get so new that they don't have legs or lasting balance. The one thing we could bring to the table was Z-ness. That's where the car's uniqueness should come from.
We did a DNA Z list to determine if we could take the best of the two: 300ZX and 240Z. The core attributes of the 240Z were discussed with all the Nissan design groups in Japan, Europe and the U.S. Not surprisingly, we agreed that the 240Z was fun to drive, light and agile, industrial-chic and high testosterone.
We trimmed off some of the crudeness, the derivative cues from the 1970s and the thin-walled quality. On the 300ZX we wanted the sleekness, the gait, the refinement and sophistication, but we thought it was a bit too sweet, too luxurious and too big a scale. So we got rid of that. And that was kind of a nice launchpad for the production phase of the 350Z.
Panchal: What we wanted are gorgeous sets. Many of the really high-class expensive cars have beautiful sets, and I wondered why lower priced cars can't have them too. We're combining those beautiful sets and very mechanical detailing. The contrasts of those elements are what make the car feel new. Usually, you'll see a car that's very organic with smooth details, or a car that's very mechanical-looking with hard-edged details. You rarely see a car with soft surfaces and hard details.
Q: You've synthesized those two?
Panchal: Exactly, it's the best of both worlds. We have a gorgeous surface that you want to wash and then you have these mechanical details.
Allen: I think part of the talk there was to get back to the real sound of an engine, the smell of the leather, the chunk of the door shutting. We wanted all the senses to be aroused. It's not just a visual thing. It is everything. The new Z had to be masculine, but not macho. The newness that emerged was a romance of motoring, this relationship with the road.
Panchal: With the new Z, we wanted the exterior to communicate the emotion and passion of driving. We took test drives on our Arizona test track and really got a sense of the car. I see a lot of curved lines, and the speed of these lines is very important to this car.
Q: Product chief designer Mamoru Aoki said the Z car's wheels pushed out to the corners suggested mechanical strength, like a formula race car, and that the body was sort of stretching and bulging with muscles.
Allen: It helped to create a dynamic stance. Then by creating the fuselage with the pronounced wheel form the whole thing became this super energy, like tight, wound-up rubber bands ready to jump. Which brings to mind another goal we set for ourselves. The new Z shouldn't look like it could just sit still. It should look like it wants to go about 90 mph when it is just parked.
Panchal: When we were designing the Z, we had images of classic sports cars like Lamborghini to look at. There was so much passion involved with those cars that they always felt like they were moving even when they were standing still. In the recent past, some mass-produced sports cars missed that element, a ready-to-pounce, ready-to-go look. I think we captured that.
Allen: And as far as being a hatchback compared to a coupe with a trunk, you can put much longer objects in a hatchback car. It got sold to management that way. I think one of the most interesting things is that vehicle is so three-dimensional in its proportions. This arching belt line is not just curved around you; it has an incredible plan view. It helps celebrate the fuselage theme, but what is unusual is the hollow section along the upper body sides. That creates incredible shadowing.
Panchal: We talked about carving out part of the body side to make the car feel smaller than it actually was, to make it feel lighter and more agile. It works well in lightening up the whole vehicle.
Allen: We negotiated to move the A-pillar back so we could get more dash-to-axle ratio and get more shape in there. And that helped us get some real estate for wheel development. It made the cabin feel more selfish. It let the cockpit slip back a little bit, which feels more front-engine/rear-drive. There is something about that upright cockpit feeling that feels like performance.
Panchal: That vertical combined with these concave lines just shooting back really gives the car a great sense of speed. Also, the break -- the widest part of the car -- is a lot lower than most cars'. By pushing this much lower than normal, you tend to see the wheel point as being much larger. Things like that really help capture the car on the road, give it stance.
For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out: