Celebrating History + Rejecting Homogeneity With The New 2023 Nissan Z

We speak with the driving forces behind the sports car that almost never got built

According to Hiroshi Tamura, the 2023 Nissan Z is a car that almost shouldn’t exist. At the car’s debut yesterday, Tamura (the car’s chief product specialist) along with Alfonso Albaisa (Nissan’s senior vice president of global design) explained how Nissan—a company that’s on a huge push to electrify everything they make, but also has been through a terrible economic mess and executive scandal—created the two-seat sports car with a twin-turbocharged gasoline-burning engine that will hit American streets next spring.

“He was very specific. Annoyingly specific,” Albaisa jokes about Tamura’s styling suggestions on the 2023 car. “And you have to remember, when he came to me, Nissan wasn’t just on one knee or both knees, we were on our backs. I almost thought he was joking that we’d build another Z car.” Tamura explains, however, that the car in these photos wasn’t his idea alone. (Tamura is also the person behind the most recent GT-R though, and also the original 1980s Maxima, so he clearly has the right eye for iconic vehicles.) He says what convinced executives to build the new Z wasn’t just him, but also existing Z car owners; what he was hearing from Z fans all over the world was that they weren’t paying attention to Nissan’s struggles—just that they wanted a more sensual Z than the very muscular, outgoing 370Z.

Still, before even the first sketch, Tamura says, “My job was to listen to what the customer wants. You know, the political thing to say this car exists because of some product planning or some marketing study. My answer about ‘Why this car? Why now?’ is because life is too short.” The process wasn’t easy, however. Tamura had to fight to make the vehicle the way he wanted, “I went to the executive side and whispered, ‘Give me money.’ They said, ‘Tamura-san, No way. What you want is too expensive for us.’ But our executives approved it. Normally if the bank guy alone gets to judge, maybe this car will not happen. But we are lucky. They loved the car. So we got it.”

And what they got is the simply stunning Z.

To understand the car, we have to examine at the original Z’s DNA. “We looked at the original 240,” Albaisa explains. “There are two points that are important. From just ahead of the A-pillar to the trailing edge of the 240, the rear of the car is lower than the front. The 370 is the other way. Having the back lower than the front is not normal in the modern era.” Yet Albaisa says they didn’t want to do “normal,” and were inspired by older, less angular sports cars. “If you look at a cat that’s about to leap, most people think that it leans forward. Actually, a cat drops its butt. So it’s getting its very powerful rear legs beneath it. That’s an expression of energy and in a car an expression of rear-wheel drive.”

The other way the team conveyed that force was by creating more volume over the rear wheel. “We went all the way out to a very wide line,” Albaisa says.

While the new Z isn’t actually any wider than the outgoing car, the front end is nearly five inches longer, which allowed designers to carve away a lot of the volume in the passenger cell. This means that from the side, the car appears to have a waist and where the car widens back out at the rear, visually one gets a “dynamism that’s very powerful and low.”

Albaisa says it’s not just all machismo; the intention is also something sensual and sultry, “a voluptuous… curviness” because this new car had to stand in contrast to the angularity and very modern appearance of the 350Z and the 370Z.

Albaisa and his team still had several problems to solve. One being the crease at the door line that dives from the mid-point of the front fender, back and through the door—but then what? Albaisa explains the line enhances the look of the tucked tail (the cat crouching) but that legendary racer Peter Brock suggested “sucking in the door handles.” Brock (who raced Zs and Datsun 510s) felt like the car might be sleeker with a reversed rather than horizontal door handle and, in fact, this idea provided a solution because otherwise Albaisa wasn’t happy having the hard-diving line intersect the more anthropomorphic rear fender. “Now that very muscular shape doesn’t get lost,” he explains.

Another challenge was resolving the rear, as well as the face of the car. At the back, designers drew inspiration from the 1990-96 300ZX, which had a boxed black housing for the tail-lamps. The new Z draws inspiration from that, but its modern, oval LEDs create visual depth, and the entire piece wraps around the tail, further enhancing the car’s stance.

An oval pattern is repeated in the grille. To echo but not ape the 240Z, Albaisa came across more issues. The hood had to have a muscular bulge (just like the original car) and, like the 240Z, the grille is a rectangle, defined by the twin lines of the opening of the hood itself. Albaisa says “we fell in love with [the oval patterns] on the rear, even though that 300ZX is from the 1990s—that pattern is actually very 1970s,” so incorporating it in the front of the car (in the echo of the iconic square grille of the 240Z) has the subtle effect of unifying different Z eras into the new 2023 car.

We’re human, we’re attracted to the unusual

The new design isn’t strictly serious and Albaisa explains that this is obvious from the softer, sensual shapes merged with harder lines, and also with the twin arches of LED lighting within the headlamps that provides “eyelids” on the car’s face. “There’s a Japanese word called ‘kabuku’ that is sort of about something crazy. It’s like in a bamboo forest with all the trees perfectly straight and then there’s that one that’s leaning, that’s strange or unusual, and that’s embraced by Japanese culture. We’re human. We’re attracted to the unusual.”

Albaisa and Tamura agree this concept is something that’s also essential to Nissan as a whole. “The most arrogant thing is when companies say that no matter what model it is, there must be a character line through the body that’s identical. That might be Branding 101, but those customers are very different. The world is not homogenous, so we make cars that connect to all kinds of human beings and make them fall in love. I firmly believe that’s a better way.”

Images courtesy of Nissan