As the 20th Century was drawing to a close, the Nissan 350Z concept cars seemed no more than a dream as the company had lost money for seven fiscal years in the mid- to late 1990s. Nissan's days of record sales and profits were becoming a distant memory. Indeed, the interest payments on a mountain of debt were affecting Nissan's ability to fund new vehicle programs and remain competitive.
In 1998, Nissan Motor Company Chairman Yoshikazu Hanawa indicated that the company would be receptive to taking on a strategic partner. As it turned out, the French automaker Renault was also beginning to doubt its ability to compete in the mega-merger climate of the auto industry.
A deal was struck, and on March 27, 1999, Renault injected $6 billion in capital and purchased a controlling 36.8 percent interest in Nissan Motor Company. Renault Chairman Louis Schweitzer dispatched Carlos Ghosn to Tokyo as Chief Operating Officer.
Almost immediately, Ghosn gave a major clue to his vision of the company's future. At the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show he announced, "Product development will be at the heart of Nissan's revival. There is no problem at a car company that good products can't solve." And so began Nissan's journey to recapture the excitement that its products had been lacking.
The need for such a mission was taken up by others, both inside and outside the company. It wasn't long after Nissan stopped selling the 300ZX in the United States that pundits noted something seemed to be missing from the lineup.
Certainly, the low sales of the specialty sports car had sunk to unsustainable levels. A three-sedan strategy being pursued at Nissan North America at that time addressed the majority of the market's needs and made sound business sense. But the emotive edge the Nissan brand had always possessed was missing the focal point the Z provided.
By the mid-1990s, some European auto manufacturers had discovered ways to capitalize on their traditional luxury-brand character by introducing popularly priced sports models in the $30,000- to $40,000-range. It started with roadsters.
First the BMW Z3 tickled enthusiasts' fancy with a retro-styled two-seater just a hair larger than a Mazda Miata. That was followed almost immediately by the supercharged 4-cylinder Mercedes-Benz SLK230 and rear mid-ship 6-cylinder Porsche Boxster.
A few seasons later the front-wheel-drive Audi TT Coupe made its debut. Though that brand was known for sedans, not sports cars, the rotund TT pushed the design envelope in new and hitherto unexplored ways.
At decade's end, Honda had joined the sports-car fray with the S2000 roadster. Suddenly the sports-car market, which had been contracting in the early 1990s, was vibrant once again.