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.
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.