1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo Automatic Widens the Appeal

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From the September 1990 issue of Car and Driver.

You’ve got two ways to pound the pave­ment: row the twin-turbo 300ZX’s stan­dard five-speed gearbox for all you’re worth, or make little more than polite waves of the shifter atop Nissan’s new four-speed automatic.

The automatic transmission takes the edge off the powertrain’s visceral feel but improves straight-line performance. It delivers bulleting acceleration and smooth shifts, and it sports a lockup torque converter for fuel efficiency at highway speeds. It has the same gut as the muscular automatic introduced in the high-performance Q45 sedan sold by Infiniti, Nissan’s fancy-pants division.

The automatic offers its own two ways to go: you can sit calmly at idle and mash the throttle for a zooming rush of turbo boost, or you can build the boost first by using the drag-racing technique of brake-torquing the engine. This calls for holding the car still with the brakes while building revs, boost, and wheelspin, then sidestepping the brake pedal and bury­ing the throttle. Brake-torquing pro­duced our 0-to-60-mph time of 5.9 sec­onds. Flooring the throttle from rest without benefit of brake-torquing raises the time to the mid-six-second bracket (but requires less planning).

Quarter-mile times and trap speeds with both transmissions wind up within a tick of each other. But above 60 mph, the automatic 300ZX Turbo becomes Ja­pan’s next best thing to a time machine. Belting the five-speeder from 0 to 100 mph eats up 16.3 seconds, but the auto­matic bites it off in only 15.8. The auto­matic’s advantage widens to 1.2 seconds at 120 mph, 24.5 seconds versus 25.7.

How can this be? The auto-car weighs 30 pounds more and, says Nissan, pro­duces 280 hp, 20 less than the five-speed­er. Well, an automatic typically complements a turbo engine. The torque converter launches the car strongly, and the nonstop power delivery keeps the turbo boosting without disruption. The rush barely tapers as the automatic rips up through its gears.

The five-speed’s clear advantage is its direct effect on both forward motion and cornering attitude. Still, the automatic suffers only one functional shortcoming: the otherwise nifty action of the shifter finishes at third gear, leaving you to en­gage fourth with a button. The small but­ton tucks awkwardly beneath a larger shift-release button, and the poor ergonomics interrupt the flow established by the lever’s moves through the first three gears. You could leave the unit in over­drive and let it kick out and in according to throttle angle—not much fun in a car that prompts you to stir well. In the big Infiniti, the automatic sports a slotted shift gate with notchy stops for all four gears. They eliminate miscues, making it a more logical setup for a car capable of covering ground like a guided missile on Spandex legs.

The ability to run and gun is what first propelled the twin-turbo Nissan into our hearts. It offers the performance of Chevrolet’s Corvette with notably better build quality and sensory satisfaction. It even stands comparison with the twice-­as-costly Porsche 928GT. Nissan under­stands that subjective nuances make the difference between good and great. The Turbo’s price of $34,075 (including an $800 premium for the automatic) strikes few as dirt cheap, but this is pay dirt that Nissan has mined and refined.

The Turbo’s straight-ahead perfor­mance comes in a chassis ready for most all the road rocketing the engine can throw at it. The best engineers know cars can only be their best when they do your bidding without bother or guile. Count Nissan’s current thinkers among the best. Into an organically slick body that schusses down the road looking like a Venusian hovercraft, the Nissan team has poured an engine that scoots like quick­silver. It whirs within the solid breast­works of a thoroughly designed and de­veloped structure and suspension. These contribute to the ZX’s feeling of well­being, creating a sense that the car can do no wrong, or at least little wrong. And that it will do its doggonedest to help make up for mistakes.

The springs, shocks, and geometry of the all-independent suspension jell to a firmness that produces jiggles over bad pavement but works masterfully for the driver. The steering needs more feel, and the brakes could use more fade resis­tance for onslaughts of switchbacks. Yet they feel decently suited to Nissan’s bold­ly stated purpose, which was to make the 300ZX the world’s best (though heavy) sports car.

Larry Griffin|Car and Driver

The sticky-tired coupe turns in 0.87 g of grip on the skidpad and, thanks to anti­lock four-wheel disc brakes, an arresting 164-foot stop from 70 mph. The ZX’s dy­namics give you pause simply because their limits loom so high yet beckon so reachably. Unlike our long-term five­-speed Turbo, which showed up on Michelin MXX tires and recorded 0.89-g cornering, our automatic skulks on Dun­lop D40 M2 meats. The Dunlops feel more predictable near the limit but less crisp at lower speeds. Still, few chassis/tire combos compare to either of these in terms of manners and magic.

Nissan’s engineers also hooked up their trains of thought on the integration of interior form and function. The 300’s firm, well-formed seats, covered in appealing cloth (hides are optional), grip your caboose like the coupler on a switch engine. They support your rib cage like new roadbed shoring up old rails. Their upholstery, like the entire layout, looks classy. Alas, the gauges, depending upon your driving position, may play coy with your line of sight through the artful steer­ing wheel.

The EPA reports 18 mpg for the automatic on the city fuel-economy cycle. Overall, we managed a so-so 16 mpg. But that’s hardly the point of such a car.

Nissan’s point was to create a fast shortcut between the points A and B of motoring legends. And never mind if the big guns’ established property lines get bent in this showdown between tradition and tomorrow. The high ground is not only up for grabs but undergoing a rigor­ous title search. As of mid-1990, squat­ter’s rights go to Nissan. Its twin-turbo became the most important performance car introduced to America last year. Whether you want to sit and git or row your own, the automatic widens the ZX’s wicked appeal.

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1990 Nissan 300ZX
Vehicle Type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 3-door coupe


Base/As Tested: $33,800/$34,075

twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve V-6, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 181 in3, 2960 cm3
Power: 280 hp @ 6400 rpm


4-speed automatic 


Wheelbase: 96.5 in
Length: 169.5 in
Curb Weight: 3562 lb


60 mph: 5.9 sec
1/4-Mile: 14.5 sec @ 95 mph
100 mph: 15.8 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 164 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft Skidpad: 0.87 g

Observed: 16 mpg

City: 18 mpg 


Source: Reviews -


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