Nissan 350Z Concept Cars


The 2001 Nissan Z concept car was a glimpse into what the 350Z of the future would look like.
The 2001 Nissan Z concept car was a glimpse into what the 350Z of the future would look like.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

A production-ready Nissan 350Z brought the concept cars to life on public roads.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

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1997 Nissan Mid Sport Concept Car

The Nissan Mid Sport concept car was fun to drive, but it was powered by an un-Z-like four-cylinder engine.
The Nissan Mid Sport concept car was fun to drive, but it was powered by an un-Z-like four-cylinder engine.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In the 1990s sports-car revival, the one that gave rise to the 1997 Nissan Mid Sport concept car, the emphasis was on emotional style, refined-but-attainable engineering and reasonable price.

The Japanese Bubble Economy mindset of the 1980s that had sired the high-tech, high-price Nissan 300ZX, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Mitsubishi 3000GT had gone bust, and in North America, the volume market for sports and GT cars went along with it.

None of this was lost upon John Yukawa, Chief Product Specialist, Product Planning and Strategy at the Nissan Technical Center in Atsugi, Japan. He recalled, "The 1990-1996 300ZX was priced too high for the brand." So work began on exploring the possibility of a lower-cost, more-basic sports car.

In 1997, a front mid-ship concept, dubbed MS for "Mid Sport," was built. (In a front mid-ship design, the engine's center of gravity is positioned behind the front wheel centerline.)

The low-slung coupe was based on the platform of the Silvia (the former 240SX coupe in North America) and featured a highly tuned 2.4-liter dual-overhead-cam 4-cylinder pushed as far back as was feasible to achieve a near-perfect front/rear weight distribution. A prototype was brought to the U.S. for evaluation and driven at Nissan's Arizona Test Center.

The consensus? The MS was a fun-to-drive sports car that would be less expensive to build than the 300ZX. But was it a Z? The evaluators deemed the 4-cylinder MS to be unsuitable. Z cars had always been powered by 6-cylinder engines.

Yukawa and a small band of devotees, both in Japan and the U.S., continued to think about ways a new Z might one day enter Nissan's lineup. But in the mid- to late 1990s, economic conditions were not ripe to expend a significant amount of time, energy or funds working on a small-volume car, no matter how symbolic.

Nevertheless, the dream that a new Z might someday return as a symbol of Nissan's spirit remained very much alive.

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1998 Nissan Z Concept Car

This Nissan Z clay model post-dates the 1998 version, which wasn't even finished.
This Nissan Z clay model post-dates the 1998 version, which wasn't even finished.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

By the 1998 model year, Nissan North America, Inc. had simplified its model lineup to concentrate on the higher-volume sedans and trucks, a distinct shift away from the type of emotional appeal represented by the 1998 Nissan Z concept car and its ilk. But aside from the new Frontier pickup, most of the models being sold were already a few years into their product cycles.

New product was on the way, however, and Nissan North America, Inc. got the idea to afford journalists, Wall Street analysts and key Nissan dealers a "peek under the kimono" to keep interest high until the new models in the pipeline could hit the streets. The Road Show, as it was called, would first travel to New York, then Nashville (near the Smyrna, Tennessee, Nissan assembly plant), Detroit and finally Los Angeles.

The show would include concepts as well as products slated for future production, such as the Xterra and next-generation Sentra and Maxima. In the spring of 1998, then-President of Nissan Design International Jerry Hirshberg, and former VP of External Affairs Jason Vines, got an idea to come up with a concept car that represented the soul of Nissan. What else but the Z?

Tom Semple, president of Nissan Design America at the time, remembers the excitement. "Jerry and I self-assigned ourselves to that car in a way. It started out from a little thumbnail Jerry had done in Red Studio. The idea was to look to the past and come up with an iconic car. There was a great deal of controversy here at Nissan Design International [the former name of Nissan Design America] about whether this car should be deferential to the original 240Z or a whole new statement."

Vines recalls the chain of events as they unfolded. "They brought an old 240Z owned by an NDA employee into the studio and started noodling on what a contemporary Z might be like. They played 1970s music, put pictures of 1970s things on the image board, but after a while they had to take the old Z out of the studio because it was overpowering their thought processes."

Semple continues, "In the end, we opted for something that had some references to the original Z because we wanted the concept to be seen as a Z, accepted as a Z, but not be totally retro in that sense. Some people saw it as retro; others did not."

Hirshberg and "his kids," as Vines called them, literally ran out of time and money. The NDA designers finished just three sides of the clay model, and 48 hours before the start of the New York Road Show, the Z concept was loaded into a semi in LA with two drivers and sprinted almost nonstop to the Big Apple. Literally a work in progress, one side of the Z concept remained in unfinished clay, as if to give a hint of exciting things to come.

The Z concept turned out to be a maverick trial balloon. Nissan Motor Company Chairman Yoshikazu Hanawa traveled from Tokyo to New York to view the displays.

Semple recalls, "We got a lot of reactions from that car. It made the covers of quite a few automobile magazines. There was some criticism of it looking too retro and not enough of what the future of Nissan was about. Some people loved it; some people didn't. But the important thing was people were talking about Nissan again."

Vines adds, "The dealers were over the moon. They had tears in their eyes. Some of them actually cried with joy."

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1999 Nissan Z Concept Car

The 1999 Nissan Z concept car was introduced in a Field of Dreams setting in New York.
The 1999 Nissan Z concept car was introduced in a Field of Dreams setting in New York.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1999 Nissan Z concept car was built as a running model for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit after its predecessor from the previous year was well-received by dealers.

Like the Nissan Mid Sport prototype from 1997, the 1999 Nissan Z concept car used the rear-drive platform of the Silvia coupe (240S IX in the U.S.) and a 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. The concept car wasn't an approved project by Nissan Motor Company in Japan, so funding was unavailable. But Mike Seergy, then Vice President of Nissan Division, cleverly tapped other budgets, and the Z concept was off to the races.

Within 12 weeks, from first drawing to running vehicle, the 1999 Nissan Z concept car took shape. With its long hood and abbreviated tail, "this vehicle is the antithesis of the current cab forward school of design," exclaimed Tom Semple, then president of Nissan Design America. "We want the casual onlooker to know this is a powerful front-engine, rear-drive vehicle," he said.

Apparently, observers saw the sugar-scoop headlamps, large rectangular radiator cutout and overall aggressive, sporty look of the car and concurred. Despite a huge January blizzard that stranded thousands and kept many attendees from making it to Detroit, the 1999 Nissan Z concept car was The Buzz of the show. The big question was, would Nissan build it?

The answer came four months later in dramatic fashion at the New York International Auto Show. Taking a cue from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, the show stage found Minoru Nakamura, then President of Nissan North America, Inc., on a bench beside a field of showbiz corn.

He held an enlarged copy of Road & Track magazine, which featured on its cover International Editor Sam Mitani's Z-concept story. As Nakamura read Mitani's entreaty to Nissan, "If you build it, they will come" the "corn" parted to reveal the Z concept. Nakamura stood and announced to a packed auditorium at the Jacob Javits Convention Center that Nissan would build a production Z.

In truth, approval to build it came just on the eve of the show. Understandably, Nissan Motor Company Chairman Yoshikazu Hanawa was preoccupied with the corporation's partnership with Renault. With billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake, finding funds to produce a relatively low-volume sports car would seem a low priority.

But Hanawa recognized the Z's symbolic value to the brand. Upon the announcement, a huge banner unfurled from the top floors of Nissan North America's Gardena, California, headquarters proclaiming, "We will build it." No one had to explain what "it" was.

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Planning the 350Z Concept Cars

This 350Z sketch, from Nissan Design Center in Japan, was an evolution of the 300ZX.
This 350Z sketch, from Nissan Design Center in Japan, was an evolution of the 300ZX.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Planning the 350Z was far more complicated than just building a production version of the 1999 concept car. In fact, all three Nissan design studios -- Nissan Design Center in Atsugi, Japan; Nissan Design America in La Jolla, California; and Nissan Design Europe in Geretsried, Bayern, Germany -- were asked for new proposals.

Nissan was sold on the Z "idea." The how and when had to be worked out.

Tom Semple, president of Nissan Design America at the time, remembered, "When the Nissan-Renault alliance was inked, one of the first projects approved for design was the new Z, I think largely because Chief Operating Officer Carlos Ghosn always loved the Z. He owned one when he ran the U.S. operations of Michelin Tire in the early 1990s. Ghosn once remarked that his only good memory of Nissan was the 300ZX, and 'this is what we must revive.'"

Semple continued, "In the summer of '99, he just bought into the idea and gave us the go to start the project again. At NDA, that was handled once again in Red Studio under the direction of Diane Allen."

Patrick Pelata, then the executive vice president, recalled the thinking at Nissan Motor Company: "The first concept car was kind of a draft that said we need the Z. After that, we went through a true, normal, product-planning process: What are the links to the present generation? What are our customer's wants? Their dreams? What is important to them?

"Simultaneously," Pelata continued, "we were doing our brand-identity work where, to be bold, you don't do just small changes from car to car. From time to time, you need to make a clear cut. You need to get the best of the brand-DNA and make a totally advanced design.

"We look to the future; we're not hung up on the past. Our target customers may be influenced by the past, they have their souvenirs and their youth and they are proud of that. But at the same time, they call on the future. They want to progress, to improve their lives and have new pleasures. And that's why we worked so hard to have both Z-ness and modernity at the same time."

The European Nissan 350Z sketch had a boat-tail theme.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

So each studio re-evaluated the direction it intended to pursue. Semple explained the thinking at NDA. "For so long the sports car had been passé, Then there was a resurgence with the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes SLK, BMW Z3 and Honda S2000. We decided this needed to be a pure sports car, not necessarily a GT car.

"There was a lot of back and forth with product planning in Nissan North America as to what constituted a GT car versus a sports car. We put up pictures of all the aspiration cars: the mid-1960s Ferraris, Maseratis and all the cars we thought were benchmarks we should shoot for.

"We opted to have it be as close to a real sports car as we could, which means somewhat smaller, spare, two-passenger only. The interior needed to be comfortable enough once you were in the car, but you should be willing to get on your hands and knees to get in and out if you have to. It's a sports car and a mindset car. It needed to have a big engine in front, rear drive, a long hood, a spare cabin and have the wheels right out on the ends. It required almost a square footprint."

Semple continued, "As things progressed, we had several clay one-quarter-scale models going. Diane Allen did the original design scale model chosen to go full-size. It was a fuselage theme with connected wheel openings not unlike the final production Z. But it had this high arch in the beltline and body side. That program got delayed and we had to start over some months later on a completely different version of the Z."

As with the exterior, all three studios cooperated in the initial concepting of the Z's interior and it was determined the NDC design would move from the Advanced Phase to the Production Phase.

For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out:

Refining the 350Z Concept Cars

The full-size clay model from the American Nissan design studio was developed as the new 350Z.
The full-size clay model from the American Nissan design studio was developed as the new 350Z.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In October 1999, the refining of the 350Z concept cars began as Nissan Design America produced one-quarter-scale models for the car's production phase. Ajay Panchal's exterior design was selected by Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president, design, Nissan Motor Company. By December 1999, the time had come to build a full-scale version.

But what platform should it be tailored for? The existing Silvia platform wouldn't accommodate a V-6 engine, and building a specific platform for the Z would be prohibitively expensive.

The answer, of course, was the brand-new front mid-ship platform already under development for the high-performance Nissan Skyline and other products. Diane Allen, who directed the design process, recalled the thinking then. "The stage was set for kind of a package-check. What do we really have to work with here? Early on, it seemed that the front mid-ship platform was just too big. It was too tall, and we didn't have enough dash-to-axle ratio to celebrate the front-engine/rear-drive layout. It looked like a little midsize sedan lopped off. And so there was a lot of discussion about how to carve away some of this meat in order for this to look like an agile performer."

Tom Semple, then president of Nissan Design America, remembers, "We had to carry over certain front mid-ship parts, such as the front bulkhead, wheel inners, and that made it difficult to get just the right stance. They worked and reworked it, over and over again, in conjunction with the engineers.

"The chief engineer, Kazutoshi Mizuno, did a great job. He's a real car guy and racing-car nut. He wanted this to be the fastest, best in the world, and design wanted it to be the highest performance car in its class, but we also needed it to be at a certain price point. We wanted all the interior amenities. If we had a certain material, it had to be real. We didn't want anything phony about it.

"The dilemma was having all this stuff; the great performance, great quality both perceived and natural, and priced under $30,000," Semple continued. "We wanted to take the German cars head on with the best of Japanese engineering and quality. We'd also give them performance for the price."

"The price was important," Semple said, "We were arguing this is our 'halo' car, so why can't we get this money from here or there, and why would it matter if we go a little bit over budget? Mr. Ghosn said, 'Absolutely not; every car we do must make a profit, including this one.'"

More than two years before the start of production, the finished full-size clay was sent from NDA to Nissan Design Center in Atsugi, Japan, for final production-phase work under the direction of product chief designer Mamoru Aoki.

Semple asserted, "The process of working with the engineers is a key one. Specification changes from suppliers come in all the time, especially on the interior. It's an unsung part of what designers do. It's their job to balance the engineering requests with the design intention.

"For example, I think that the roof upper was changed for a better fit over the driver's head. Working with the engineers to get the stance just right, to have those fender shapes work into the body sides just so, is a difficult process. The designers have in the corner the original model sitting there all shiny and that is their touchstone. They have this other clay beast in front of them that they have to make some adjustments or compromises to make everything fit, but still keep the original intent.

"I think the Japanese designers did a tremendous job holding onto the original design and, in many ways, improving it. During this production-design phase, I think the designers made the Z more voluptuous and a bit less angular. They took some stiffness out, though it still has a machine ethic to it."

For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out:

350Z Design Philosophy

The rear-quarter view of the 350Z is the favorite angle of chief designer Mamoru Aoki.
The rear-quarter view of the 350Z is the favorite angle of chief designer Mamoru Aoki.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 350Z design philosophy is full of dichotomies, from soft curves offset by hard geometric forms, to the delicate balance of fitting a modern look to the objectives of the original 240Z.

"The Z's newness begins with its nimble form -- like a Formula One car or Lotus Super Seven," product chief designer Mamoru Aoki explained. "We tried to shift the mass of the car to the center by using a curved body plan and moving the wheels as far to the corners as possible." The 350Z's new look was also supported by a long wheelbase and short overhangs -- about four inches shorter than those on the 1990-1996 300ZX.

Tapered corners also contributed to the design. "If you see the car from a quarter-view, the overhang looks like almost nothing. We reduced the corner mass to emphasize the short overhang proportion," Aoki said. "A concave top body section above the side creases also helped reduce the volume feeling."

Certainly, a new direction was being cultivated in the Z with what Aoki called a "fusion of contrast. We tried to create a new design direction for Nissan by mixing emotional and geometric expression. You can see it in the very soft and emotional body shape contrasted with the sharp and rectangular outside door handle."

Aoki continued, "The soft, warm emotional forms are juxtaposed against the sharp, cold geometric ones. There are wild and bold elements that make the design dynamic combined with elegant and simple ones that are more sensitive."

Also important to the design of the new Z was a feeling of high quality. Aoki explained, "The new Z is actually affordable, but aesthetically of high quality like a more-expensive car. You can see it in the parts quality, from the projector free-form headlamps, to the door handles, to the dual exhaust outlets."

And Z-ness represented another major design objective. Aoki continued, "The original 240Z represented nimbleness and affordability. From it, we adopted the small, triangular-shaped cabin, long nose and short deck. And the last 300ZX represented contemporary design. We used its C-pillar treatment and hatchback cut-line."

Aoki admitted his favorite angle of the 350Z is the three-quarter rear, but Patrick Pelata, executive vice president during the 350Z design phase, had many favorite views. "The rear is very powerful with the dual exhausts and rounded corners. You can almost feel the stability and its short-coupled character. The side view is very characteristic of the car's Z-ness."

Pelata continued, "The front was difficult in the beginning, but I think it's now very distinctive and everyone will recognize its Z family legacy. But if I had to choose one angle, it would be the side view, because there you have both the history of the Z and the new Z with its very large wheels and tires stretching out of the body."

Designers even found a way to convey their philosophy in the 350Z badge.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Aoki summed up the design efforts succinctly. "We wanted to create a modern, contemporary sports car that looked totally new, but would be immediately recognizable as a Nissan Z. The new car would be very affordable, but have the appearance of a much more expensive car."

His favorite detail? The Z badge itself, and the symbolic meaning it carries. "The three square-chisel dots or hash marks on the diagonal of the Z badge represent the qualities we were trying to embody in the car: newness, high quality and Z-ness."

It was these qualities that would guide practically every step of the designers, engineers and product planners as their long journey continued.

For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out:

350Z Interior Design Concept

This Nissan Design Center sketch of the 350Z interior shows how it tapers away from the occupants.
This Nissan Design Center sketch of the 350Z interior shows how it tapers away from the occupants.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

As with the exterior design of the Z, all three studios -- Nissan Design Center in Atsugi, Japan; Nissan Design America in La Jolla, California; and Nissan Design Europe in Bayern, Germany -- cooperated in the creation of the 350Z interior design concept.

After all Advanced Phase interior concepts were evaluated, it was determined the NDC design would move forward to the production phase. In the ensuing months, NDC designers worked with engineers to refine the details, and the finished product is the one you see in the 350Z today.

Newness, high quality and Z-ness were also hallmarks of the new car's interior design. The cockpit had a spindle-like shape when viewed from the top. It kept maximum cabin width where the driver and passenger sit, tapering like a speedboat fore and aft to create a sporty feel.

The fusion of contrast that guided overall 350 Z design was applied to the interior as well. The door, for example, had a soft, emotional shape but the inside parts like the door release handle were geometric for contrast.

New vinyl grain contrasted the mechanical look of high-tech metal versus the animal-like warmth of leather-like grain. Even the Z's strut tower brace carried a message about the design with a special aluminum finish to emphasize superior chassis performance.

The use of high-quality materials inside the car was of paramount importance because this is where the driver spends most of his time.

"You'll see that quest for quality in aluminum details on the new Z's door pulls, steering wheel, shifter, handbrake lever and rear strut brace cover," said Tom Semple, president of Nissan Design America during the 350Z's development.

"There's real leather on the shift knob, steering wheel and handbrake lever. The back of the main instrument tilt meter that [product chief designer Mamoru] Aoki's group did at NDC looks like expensive clocks or stopwatches. Switchgear mirrors Sony products in look and feel."

An interior proposal from Nissan Design America portends the use of aluminum on the center console.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Nissan also investigated the function of interior components in competitors such as the BMW M Coupe, Porsche Boxster S and Honda S2000. They evaluted armrest placement and comfort, stereo sound quality and volume, cupholder/coinholder/ashtray location and ease of use, and available storage room for valuables, cell phone, purse and CDs.

The 350Z kept the feeling of the 240Z with triple gauges in the center stack for oil pressure, voltage and drive computer, while being more modern with a gently slanted, T-shaped dashboard not unlike the last 300ZX. Z emblems on the steering wheel, dash vents, kick plate, strut tower bar and front fenders further celebrated Z-ness. The Z emblem itself was a symbol of parts design, an arching, geometric rectangular combination.

Overall, the interior of the 350Z was designed to provide both a tailored, anchored feeling during spirited driving and a livable feeling when cruising at a relaxed pace. The design became a mindset.

"I'm going to buy a Z car until I can't walk anymore," Semple said. "I've always loved sports cars. It doesn't have to do with the age of the person; it's the 'want' value. When you look at this car, you want it, you need to have it and you will do whatever you can to get it."

For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out:

350Z Chief Designer Interview

Shiro Nakamura, Nissan senior vice president of design, shows off the 2001 Z concept car.
Shiro Nakamura, Nissan senior vice president of design, shows off the 2001 Z concept car.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In a 2002 interview, Shiro Nakamura, the senior vice president of design for the Nissan Motor Company, talked about what the 350Z meant to Nissan.

Q: In today's marketplace, there are many sports cars from a variety of automakers. What characteristics did you incorporate into the new Z to make it stand out?

Nakamura: We want a design that's unique and perhaps reflective of Japanese culture. So the Z should be a Japanese sports car. In the Z, there's a certain balance of attributes that represents our core values: Performance with relaxation. Organic beauty with mechanical detail. Excitement with practicality. These are some attributes we were seeking in this

new car.

Q: Some might consider sports cars a window into the soul of an automaker. What does the all-new Z say about Nissan?

Nakamura: When we started the design, we explored concepts of newness and Z-ness. We felt the strongest places to look for Z-ness were the first 240Z and the last 300ZX. There are elements of these cars you'll see in the new Z.

At the same time, we didn't want to go retro like a BMW Z8 or Ford Thunderbird. We felt we needed to move ahead to the 21st Century. We didn't want to be stuck looking back, but felt it was good to study the design language to determine what we were doing right back then.

The proportions of the new Z are much different than anything we have done before. The wheelbase is longer, tires are at the corners of the body, and the beltline and hip point are higher. That makes the new car much easier for ingress and egress. That's important because as you get older, it's much tougher to get into your average sports car.

There's more headroom and greater outward visibility now, too. So proportionally, the 350Z is all new. We carefully studied sports-car architecture, but the new Z is a completely new statement.

The vibrant color red was included as part of an early interior proposal for the 350Z.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Q: How did the interior design evolve?

Nakamura: The first interior design we worked with was more futuristic, more angular. The difference between the asymmetric front seats was more pronounced, with the driver's seat much closer to a full racing seat. I decided a sports car interior needed to be long-lasting and a bit more functional and authentic, yet dynamic. We worked toward creating an atmosphere where the driver is comfortable and can easily concentrate on the joy of driving.

There was also a lot of attention to making the details delightful to look at, to touch and, in the case of controls, to use. We took note of the use of real aluminum in the Audi TT and came up with our own creative use of that material. The upper part of the dash is curved away, creating a feeling of openness and lightness not unlike the concave upper body sections.

We developed orange illumination for interior lights and controls because it is distinctive and soothing. The manual shifter is shaped and padded in certain areas to feel pleasing in the driver's grasp, yet has a direct feel for moving side to side between gates. Switches and controls have a precision feel like an SLR camera or well-made tool.

There's a gorgeous trimmed strut bar in the cargo area that aids handling and is a focal point of Z-ness. No one else has that. We spent money inside the car where the driver spends his time and can enjoy it.

You know, I am involved in numerous new car projects, but I spent a disproportionately large amount time paying attention to the details of the new Z. I felt the buyer will judge Nissan by the quality of the Z. It's everything for Nissan. If the Z car has good quality, then Nissan gains credibility.

Q: Many car enthusiasts grew up on reliable, inexpensive-to-operate Japanese cars such as Sentras, Corollas and so forth. Now that they may be successful and are thinking about perhaps buying a sports car, many are looking to European brands that have cultivated the sporty image for many years. How will the new Z make them think of going toward a Nissan instead?

Nakamura: I think we need to embody all of the elements that made the first Z such a success: crisp styling, good performance and an affordable price. But we need to do so in a 21st-century landscape, not using the styling of the first Z but rather the innovative thinking that sired it. No other sports car can quite equal the Z's balance of performance, design and practicality.

For more on Nissan Zs and other great sports cars, check out:

350Z Designers Interview: Objectives

Diane Allen was the chief designer of the 350Z.
Diane Allen was the chief designer of the 350Z.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

A 350Z sketch from Japan shows the emphasis on pushing the tires out to the corners.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

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350Z Designers Interview: Design Details

Ajay Panchal was a designer of the 350Z.
Ajay Panchal was a designer of the 350Z.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In a 2002 interview, Nissan 350Z designers discussed design details. The designers included Diane Allen, chief designer, Red Studio, Nissan Design America; and Ajay Panchal, designer exploratory group, Nissan Design America.

Q: Can we talk about some of the details? Where did the idea for the door handles come from?

Panchal: The classic designs that last are very simple, so we tried to accentuate the details as much as possible and to make them iconic. I love architecture, cool stereos, cool objects that are not always automotive. The door handle is maybe like a cell phone. It bridges the whole section. It plays up the fact that the section is hollow because you have a contact that is positive above it.

Q: It is in contrast to the concavity of that whole panel?

Panchal: Exactly, it's the opposite. Once again we talk about the car being seen as a lot of contrasts and then we have this softening versus the techno, the hard and soft, curves and straight. There are just so many contrasts to the car; positive and negative.

Q: Was the lip at the rear edge of the hatch for aerodynamic purposes, for styling or to increase interior volume and practicality of the car?

Panchal: A combination, but definitely aerodynamics. It's a very fast car and as far as touring down the road it must handle very well. That break [the widest part of the car, kept low on the 350Z] really helps by keeping the car on the road.

Allen: Aerodynamics were a big deal. The rear was originally much lower; we thought carving away that implied-trunk was the best thing we could do to communicate the sports-car image. But the aero numbers came in, and the Audi TT was dealing with that problem over in Germany, and we knew we had to get the tail up higher. And we wanted to do it without a spoiler.

As we worked it out, we realized the car didn't lose any integrity. If anything, it started to convey much more motion. By bringing the tail up and introducing larger tires than we initially had I think we helped the design.

The vertical door handle is a distinctive 350Z feature.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Q: What inspired the shape of the headlights and the taillamps?

Panchal: That's a tough one. Sometimes you just do stuff. At the rear, the shape seems to lock in the design. In car design you want things to lock into place so they just don't feel like they are there for styling. It's not added on. This is the inherent element of this car. I think the taillights help communicate the overall shape of this car. I love that.

Q: What was your thinking about the headlamp design? Was it to make the new Z look menacing with its "eyes" coming at you?

Allen: Actually the one sinister cue was worth a lot. We didn't want the car to be seen as cute, friendly or just handsome. The new Z needed to have somewhat of a sinister quality.

Panchal: The way I see it, every line has a purpose and function. Nothing on this car is extra. We really thought about everything and got rid of anything that wasn't going to make a statement to help this car in every view. The tail, vertical details are something you never see on a sports car. Usually, sports-car detailing is horizontal, long and thin. This is just reverse, flipped over. I think this is what feels pretty fresh about all these details.

Q: So the door handles and the front marker running lights are vertical details?

Panchal: Right. We need to celebrate things that you know you are going to touch or you are going to notice. When this car is driving at night you are going to notice the turn indicator flashing. And when you walk up to the car, the door handle is going to be a cool experience because no other car in the world has one like this.

Allen: So you can see there was a real balance to get the beauty countered with super dynamic form and then accent it with techo detailing. It was a real conscious effort, not accidental.

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Reviving the Nissan Z Tradition

The Nissan 350Z testing program included the Mid Sport concept (foreground), a 350Z test mule (center), and a 350Z prototype.
The Nissan 350Z testing program included the Mid Sport concept (foreground), a 350Z test mule (center), and a 350Z prototype.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

When Nissan Chairman Yoshikazu Hanawa agreed to let design work proceed on a new Z in the spring of 1999, the intent for reviving the Nissan Z tradition was there, but all the basic research that normally preceded the production of any new vehicle had yet to begin. However, his approval really represented concurrence that a new Z should be in Nissan's lineup.

At this point, the new Z was just a "gut car," one that a great deal of people both in Japan and the United States knew would be an important symbol of a resurgent and vibrant Nissan.

The problem was that money was tight and Nissan was in the midst of executing its alliance with Renault. The existing 300ZX (Fairlady Z in Japan) was too expensive to produce and priced too high for the market. And there were no funds available to build a new Z-specific platform.

The MS mid-sports concept that John Yukawa (principle product designer for Silvia at the time ) and his group put together in 1996 addressed the need to lower the cost of any Z replacement to increase its market acceptance and volume sales. And the mid-ship front-engine and rear-drive configuration showed great promise in terms of balanced sports-car handling.

Four-cylinder power, however, was seen as unacceptable because Zs have always been powered by six-cylinder engines. A V-6 wouldn't fit in the MS engine bay.

So some other solution would be required, one that moved toward a new-generation Z and synthesized Nissan's sports-car tradition with innovative design and cutting-edge technologies. One that also embodied the great Z heritage of performance, design and value in a package relevant to the wants and needs of today's buyers.

And frankly, as Chief Product Specialist John Yukawa was proud to point out in a marketplace filled with German offerings, "a real Japanese sports car. Perhaps not the fastest car in the world, or the most exclusive, but one with a balance of qualities today's buyers are seeking. One with distinctive design, gobs of easy power and great handling, but also with hatchback practicality and interior thoughtfulness. A car sports-car enthusiasts could live with every day. A car sports-car enthusiasts would look forward to driving every day."

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350Z Development Research

A Nissan 300ZX Turbo was among the cars Nissan tested to establish 350Z driving characteristics.
A Nissan 300ZX Turbo was among the cars Nissan tested to establish 350Z driving characteristics.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In the summer of 1999, Nissan North America Product Planning Director Pete Haidos and a core group of planners and engineers engaged in 350Z development research. This research involved a sports-car comparison drive, the purpose of which was to evaluate current offerings in the marketplace and compare their characteristics against what would be deemed desirable for a new Z.

The competitive cars covered the full sports-car and GT-car spectrum, from the entry-level front-drive Mitsubishi Eclipse to the semi-exotic midengine Acura NSX. Also included in the drive were a Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro Z28, Porsche Boxster, Porsche 911, Mazda RX-7, BMW M Coupe, a 1996 Nissan 300ZX and a Japan-market Nissan Skyline GT-R.

The ride route took the participants north from Nissan North America's headquarters near Los Angeles, through city streets, over Interstate highways, and onto twisty two-lane roads in the back country near Morro Bay, California.

A series of challenging mountain roads over the coastal range inland from there was the ultimate destination. The mountain redoubt provided a full complement of elevation changes, off-camber turns, fast sweepers, decreasing radius turns, rough pavement, blind rises, dips and switchbacks to take a sports-car chassis through its paces.

The idea was to weed out competitive vehicles that didn't measure up to the criteria set up for the new Z, namely small, light and nimble. The Eclipse fell out because it was a sporty front-drive car, not a true sports car. The NSX and 911 were eliminated due to their high price and rear-biased handling (although their pleasing induction-system sounds were noted).

The Mazda RX-7 was indeed light and nimble, but its cockpit was too confining for driver comfort. Likewise, the blustery Z28 felt claustrophobic inside even though its footprint was large and its handling a bit lumbering. The Corvette also seemed somewhat large for the mountain roads, but it, along with the much-more-nimble Boxster, M Coupe and Skyline, was selected for further evaluation.

The cobbled-up bodywork on the 350Z test mule disguised production-Z components.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

That evaluation would come later that summer at Nissan's Arizona Test Center south of Phoenix. This time, Chief Product Specialist John Yukawa joined the drive, which took place on the Market Evaluation Course, a twisty but flat road course inside Nissan's high-speed high-bank oval. Here the Corvette and Nissan Skyline excelled, but the M Coupe and Boxster exhibited oversteer and didn't meet the stability criteria established for the test.

Armed with these observations, Yukawa and his engineering team, as well as North American product planners, now had a better focus on what characteristics they would try to embody in the new Z. And by and large, the sports-car experience they were looking to create didn't already exist. According to Haidos, all participants agreed the new Z car "should look the way it drives and drive the way it looks."

At least that sounded simple enough. The Z DNA should emanate a "functional beauty." Where Haidos and others at Nissan saw a largely unfilled gap in the market is what they called the Neo Dynamics zone.

The original sports cars designed in the 1950s and early 1960s were simple designs that were small, light and nimble. In the late 1960s and beyond, more refined, high-end GT cars took center stage; while in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, sedan-based sporty coupes proliferated. Neo Dynamics sports cars would seek to rekindle the simple joys and sensations of driving smaller, lighter and more-nimble machines, at an affordable price.

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350Z Platform Development

Nissan always knew the 350Z would have to be built on a rear-drive platform.
Nissan always knew the 350Z would have to be built on a rear-drive platform.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

While designers worked at creating the look that would capture the spirit of the next Z, product planners and engineers proceeded with the 350Z platform development. What they ended up with was a platform called front mid-ship.

This was the first in a series of all-new, state-of-the-art, rear-drive platforms from Nissan. Featuring a front mid-ship engine layout, long wheelbase, four-wheel multi-link suspension, rigid body structure and zero-lift aerodynamics, it was designed to form the basis of several premium and sporty vehicles. Thus, the cost of this platform could be shared with such cars as the Japan-market Skyline, U.S.-market Infiniti G35 Sport Sedan and G35 Sport Coupe, plus other models.

Using such a platform for the new Z allowed it to comply with Nissan President Carlos Ghosn's edict that all models must turn a profit. That left no room for a limited-production, expensive flagship that didn't contribute to the company's bottom line.

That was great news for sports-car enthusiasts. By sharing such pieces as wheelhouse inner panels, partial floorpans, front bulkheads, basic suspension, steering, brake and drivetrain design, unit costs could be trimmed to make lower-volume, higher-visibility cars profitable at attractive prices.

Money saved by not designing every part from scratch could then be applied to adding value in the form of more-expensive interior fitments, surprise-and-delight details and added technical and convenience features. The parts of the cars the buyer saw and used could then be customized to fit the character of the model, be it by changing sheet metal, wheelbase, engine size and power, suspension and steering tuning, available features, or all of these things.

But while any competent, sporty and adaptable platform would meet the letter of such a plan, it needed to offer a host of other virtues if it were to be in keeping with the spirit of a Z.

As 350Z Chief Vehicle Engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno explained it, "We are seeking to achieve a balance of all forces that engage the driver, relaxes the driver and lets him enjoy the sports-driving experience. All these attributes of the car -- the suspension, the steering, the structure, the tires -- these work together.

He continued, "The ergonomics and the visibility around the car help make the driver more centered, more in tune with what he is doing and not distracted by noises and bumps and things that take away from the experience. The mark of a good sports car is one that is supportive in the driving role." In other words, less fatigue equals more driving pleasure.

Achieving such an ideal meant reconciling some vehicle traits that inherently tend to be at odds. Foremost among the contradictory elements the FM platform needed to resolve was the balance between ride comfort and handling.

To make a sports car suitably athletic typically means using high spring rates in the suspension, usually at the expense of compliance. Nissan engineers didn't want such a compromise.

To resolve this quandary, they found inspiration among what are typically some of the harshest-riding vehicles built.

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350Z Racing Research

Kazutoshi Mizuno, 350Z chief vehicle engineer, spent many hours at the wheel of the test mule.
Kazutoshi Mizuno, 350Z chief vehicle engineer, spent many hours at the wheel of the test mule.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

It's an overused saw to say that racing improves the breed, but in the case of 350Z racing research as applied by Chief Vehicle Engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno, nothing could be more to the point. In the 1980s, he was involved with Nissan racing cars, during which time he pioneered a new human-centered approach called the Flat Ride concept.

Mizuno explained, "I developed a purpose-oriented rationale for the front mid-ship concept in 1989 when I was a race-car developer and team supervisor for NISMO. We were heavily involved in building a Group C car for the 24 Hours endurance races at Daytona and LeMans. We developed a racing car with full active suspension, but due to regulation difficulties, the car never made it to the track.

"Not too many people know about it, but the ride of this machine was incredible. You could slam on the brakes and it wouldn't dive. You could turn hard and it wouldn't roll through the turns. It was stable on the straightaways at any speed. The car was always flat.

"The drivers were excited," Mizuno continueed. "This is what I call sport! This is the car of the future!"

To Mizuno, the benefits seemed obvious. "Up to that point, race cars had super-tight suspensions, and you couldn't drive them without strapping yourself down into the bucket seats for the inevitable cornering forces and hard ride.

"But in our race car the drivers could concentrate on the race track and not even break a sweat. All they had to do was concentrate on controlling their car. This is what Flat Ride is all about. The concept of sport has been redefined. That's when I realized that this is the ride of the 21st Century."

The Nissan Group C car didn't compete at LeMans that year, but a production-class Nissan Skyline GT-R did and finished 10th overall. Mizuno and his team members transferred some of the Flat Ride thinking from the active-suspension car to the LeMans GT-Rs.

"We placed the engine and fuel tanks towards the car's center of gravity," he said. "To improve the straight-line stability through the long straightaways at LeMans, we increased the wheelbase and redesigned the undercarriage for better aerodynamics. To accommodate different drivers during the endurance race, the gauges were tilt adjustable. We didn't know it then, but this thinking eventually became the origin of the front mid-ship package."

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350Z Suspension Development

The long wheelbase of the 350Z contributed to its handling prowess, as did a wide track.
The long wheelbase of the 350Z contributed to its handling prowess, as did a wide track.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The Flat Ride sports-car concept used in the 350Z suspension development started with a wide track (60.4 inches) and long wheelbase (104.3 inches), providing a stable platform that was almost the size of a Corvette.

Yet overall length was kept to a trim 169.7 inches, shorter than that of a Porsche Boxster. With tires placed at the four corners of the car, uncomfortable roll-and-pitch motions were minimized with vehicle-load changes.

Working within the framework of the front mid-ship platform, engineers and product planners carefully began to select and tune components. As a "Neo Dynamic" sports car, Nissan North America Product Planning Director Pete Haidos pointed out, "the 350Z performance had to be natural, gymnastic and accessible."

In terms of nuts and bolts, that meant a powerful, great-sounding engine, advanced, driver-involved transmissions; and the very latest in suspension design, precise steering and high-capacity brakes.

350Z Chief Vehicle Engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno and his team began applying some of that "LeMans magic" to the Z program. All-new front and rear multi-link suspensions were developed. They made extensive use of aluminum components to reduce unsprung weight, which in turn allowed the wheels to more precisely follow the contours of the road.

The new suspensions also employed "ripple-control" shock absorbers with internal damping-control lips that suppressed high-frequency vibrations. As a result, wide-cross-section 50-series 17-inch or 45-series 18-inch tires could be used for superb cornering performance without any increase in ride harshness.

The 350Z enjoyed a well-balanced 53 percent/47 percent front-rear weight distribution. The engine's center of gravity was positioned behind the front wheel center, which had a positive effect on handling, ride quality and stability.

With the weight on the front wheels deliberately made 3 percent greater, the front wheels were preloaded when the driver steered into a curve. There was a natural weight transfer to the rear as the driver accelerated out of the curve, approximating a 50/50 front/rear split. Therefore, the front mid-ship layout gave the best of both worlds: superb cornering ability and acceleration performance.

The Flat Ride concept was designed to provide stability in hard cornering. This is the 350Z prototype on the banking at the Tochigi high-speed test track.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Elsewhere on the car, engineers worked with quality experts to achieve the right look and "feel" of many components. A newly developed undercoating expanded during the paint-baking process, filling in small gaps and aiding body damping. It actually became part of the structure in the same sense as a carbon-fiber tennis racket or fishing rod.

Doors had inner reinforcement panels to give a quality closing feel, and triple door seals to keep things quiet inside. The gas-assist struts for the aluminum hood (which weighed nearly 18-pounds less than an equivalent steel hood) were eliminated so customers could see how light the hood was. For a finished look and feel, sealing rubber was added between the hood and front bumper, hatch and rear fenders, and between the resin outside door handles and door panels.

The hard work and attention to detail was immense, but it took just that to build a machine worthy of Nissan's most-famous sports-car name. Chief Product Specialist John Yukawa summed it up best. "With this new car, we have tried to keep the spirit of the Z alive based on its style, its performance and value for the money. It's the Real McCoy of Z-ness. It embodies human-factor technology to find the sweet spot of driving. But most importantly, we have strived to design a sports car for the 21st century.

"We truly believe that the 350Z is a symbol of a new Nissan."

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