Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3
It is always hard to follow up a brilliant first model car with subsequent iterations. Manufacturers really have no choice - they have to keep their product fresh in an attempt to lure buyers into their showrooms. The 240Z
was brilliant, and the 260Z
was very good - although it was arguably simply a case of offering a little more power. Disappointingly, given the pollution gear required to meet US legislation, the 260Z
was actually a little slower than the 240Z
, and a little less sporting. Both models would go on to accumulate more than 550,000 sales before being pensioned off.
The 280 ZX was Nissan's third bite at the cherry, and by the time it hit the showrooms, the Z wasn't packing 'em in like it used to. It was getting long in the tooth and soft in the gut. Disappointing to a degree - particularly as it seemed the design remained fundamentally the same. Design changes aside, the biggest problem for the "Z" was that the competition had got a lot better, and it could no longer out-draw, out-shoot and out-run the then current crop of middle size sports cars.
That's not to say that driving the 280ZX was anything less than impressive. The 260Z
had become more Grand Tourer than sports car - and the 280ZX went further down that road. The challenge was to get past the fact that its grandparent, the 240Z, was a brilliant little sports car - and by way of maturing, the 280 ZX had become a GT with some sports car traits.
Performance, Price and Character
Where the 280ZX departed sharply from tradition was in performance, price and character. In those areas the 280 ZX was a far cry from the 240Z
that started the series back in 1969
. The original Z was leaner and meaner, slicker and quicker. It was in fact a step forward in design for the popular sports coupe class. The 280ZX wasn't so much another advance as a sideways shuffle. That move was a very deliberate part of Datsun's strategy.
The ZX related directly to the 240Z
only in some very basic features including six-cylinder sohc engine, all-independent suspension
, five-speed gearbox and unitary chassis-body
construction. That, and the inescapable family resemblance in styling. What the ZX appeared to have lost in the translation was the sportily purposeful image that helped make the Z not just a favorite but a classic. One of the things the Z had that the ZX didn't was Albrecht Goertz' influence. It was while a consultant to Datsun that Goertz, a German-American with the BMW 507
sportster and other noted cars to his credit sparked the 240Z
design. The 280ZX, on the other hand, was strictly an in-house effort. And it showed.
was, of course, not only first but also the sportiest of its family. Weighing just over a tonne, the crisp two-seater would run to about 195 km/h flat out. From standstill it could hit 110 km/h in about 11 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in the mid-16s. While it wasn't a true thoroughbred in comparison with, say, an E-Type Jaguar
, it was a pretty fair sports coupe as it stood and clearly had the makings of something really good. Given a bit more development and refinement in its running gear the Z wouldn't have left much to be desired. Not by enthusiasts anyway.
Why The 2 + 2?
It made sense that Datsun
decided to only offer the 2 + 2 version in Australia. Since the introduction of the 260Z 2 + 2 in 1974
, that configuration had easily out-sold the two-seater on all markets except the USA and Canada. Locally the 2 + 2 in 1974
sold 599 against the two-seater's 442. The next year saw the difference increase more than threefold with 742 + 2s and 198 two-seaters. In 1976
the respective figures were 1615 and 385, while in 1977
the two-seater managed only 98 against 990.
With those figures as a background it's understandable that the two-seater ZX wasn't brought to Australia. It just couldn't command the numbers to justify the huge cost and considerable effort of meeting the Design Rules. So far as ADRs were concerned, the two-seater would in some important (meaning expensive) ways be considered a completely different car to the +2 which was an altogether more viable proposition with projected annual sales around the 1000 mark.
In spite of having wheelbase 85 mm shorter than that of the 260Z 2 + 2, and also being shorter in overall length, the 280 ZX 2 + 2 was the heavier by about 75 kg. Even so, it was the better performer by clear margins. The 2.8-litre sohc six did a good job, performing smoothly and strongly, if not exactly sportily. The ZX's acceleration was respectable for a car of this weight - not brilliant but satisfying. Punch it through the gears and you could pull-off the 0-400 m sprint in the low 17s. And when hurried along the ZX would feel even quicker than it actually was because every enthusiastic upshift brought with it lots of nose-lift and tail-squat, accentuating the impression of powerful acceleration.
On the Road
Though fairly healthy for its size and type, the ZX engine was no fire-breather. It was very smooth and civilised, and wasn't in an advanced stage of tune - which afforded excellent drivability and effortless flexibility. It sometimes snatched slightly on overrun below about 1750 rpm but, thanks largely to the fuel injection system, pulled cleanly from 1000 rpm even in fifth gear. The only slightly sour note road testers of the time commented on was an initial touchiness to the accelerator pedal which "...made light-throttle response a bit lumpy for driving around town. No problem out on the open road though. That's where the ZX is in its element, eating up the distance with its long-legged fifth gear".
Given a flat, windless, speed-limitless road the ZX would drive the speedo needle past the 200 km/h mark. But as is the norm, the speedo was always a little optimistic, so the actual speed was more likely 190 km/h @ 5300 rpm. Drop a cog and the engine would happily edge towards the 6000 rpm red-line. The engine could be thrust beyond that point in the lower gears but it would run out of puff pretty quickly. On the road the ZX always impressed with unruffled highspeed cruising and confident directional stability, even when buffeted by gusty cross winds. That, and the welcome lack of obtrusive wind noise suggested that Datsun
got its aerodynamic
sums mostly right.
At the time it was claimed that the ZX had an aerodynamic
drag coefficient of 0.385 against the Z's 0.467. If nothing else, it indicated that the shape worked better than it looked, in which case it could also take some of the credit for car's good fuel consumption. Road testers claimed brillliant averages in the low to mid 7's per 100 km, and better still Datsun
provided a decent-size 80-litre tank to allow ample cruising range here in Australia.
As a daily around-town drive the 280ZX was not in its element. Not that it did anything badly. But it longed for the open road. The aforementioned sticky low-speed throttle action made it ill at ease in congested conditions, and some drivers said the car was very wide (and long) for a car with sports pretentions, and that made lane-changing much more difficult than compared to, say, a TR6
. The long wide bonnet that looked so cool when eating up the miles on the highway would seem too long around town, even managing to restrict fields of view. In spite of its ample glass areas and three large mirrors, the ZX didn't provide great flexibility.
The ZX wasn't the most ideal of cars for manoeuvring at close quarters either. You needed very accurate depth perception to gauge just where the front corners lay beyond and below what you could see of the horizon-reaching bonnet. And the fairly ponderous turning circle didn't help matters when you were in a tight spot. It was a different story out on the open road however, and that's where the ZX was at home. The Datsun
could simply reel in the long grey-black ribbon as though winding it onto a spool. But the ZX was more than just a highway hauler. While not as nimble as smaller, lighter and sportier models, the Datsun
could give a very good account of itself through the twisty bits when you were motoring briskly without trying hard.
In those conditions the ZX had a lot going for it; the engine was nicely punchy, the chassis worked well, and from the five gears available you always had one that suited the situation. Very often when just stooging around in no particular hurry, you could forget fourth gear and simply go direct from third to fifth because the gap between their ratios wasn't so wide that it hindered the broad-shouldered power band. The gearshift was very good. The lever was well placed to be within comfortable reach for short and tall alike; it was not a stretch for first, third and fifth positions, and nor were second, fourth and reverse too close. The change action had pleasantly short, easy and positive throws between each position. And unlike some five-speeders, fast second-third and fifth-fourth changes in the ZX were virtually fool-proof.
A Brilliant Transmission
was available and some may have felt that an Atmo was more in keeping with the Gran-Tourer character of the ZX. But we have been hard pressed to find any detractors for the manual shifter. To all accounts, it was an utterly brilliant box - one you would never pay more to have replaced with a self-shifter - unless of course you were unable to do the changing yourself. Sure, around town the automatic
had its advantages, but wherever the road was not flat and/or straight, the manual would come into its own, allowing you to use the smoothly tractable engine to maximum advantage and enjoy it all the more.
The ZX was a car you could enjoy, especially at medium to brisk speeds through the bendy bits. When trying hard, however, you had to put something more into it, expend some concentration and effort, because it was a fairly big and heavy thing to be pushing along at the speeds it invited. On smooth to average surfaces the roadholding was very good. The ZX hung on well beyond the point where you might have expected it to have begun getting edgy, and ordinarily remained in attitudes varying only slightly from mild understeer to virtual neutrality. Nearing the limit of adhesion, it was progressive and predictable.
Plough understeer could be induced through tight turns of course, but that was more a reflection on the driver's inability than a fault of the ZX. That was also the case with power-provoked over-steer in sharp corners, resulting from too low a gear and too much loud pedal. The ZX was, however, nicely responsive to having its high-speed handling fine-tuned with the throttle, so allowing you to use more or less power to adjust your cornering line. In that way the accelerator pedal complemented the steering
wheel, which was welcome because the steering
was the only real flaw in the ZX's running gear.
Very Light Power Steering
For a car of this class, type and price, the ZX came to Australia with power assisted steering
as standard. Around town and casual country cruising the system was satisfactory in that it took almost all the effort out of steering
and gave fast changes of direction without any obvious disadvantages. But if you were hunting it along on unfamiliar roads, the steering became a liability. The trouble was that for really serious motoring the "made-under-ZF-licence" power-assisted recirculating ball system was much too light, lacking in feel and far too direct. Datsun claimed 2.7 turns lock to lock; but every road test we have read claimes it took over 3 - and even at that it was unnecessarily quick in relation to its easy turning.
The result was that when punting the ZX very enthusiastically into unfamiliar corners there's an almost unavoidable tendency to apply a little too much lock, so you instantly have to wind some off and continue adding and subtracting until you get it right, by which time you may be through the corner. The adjustments are only fractional but they cause the car to squiggle untidily and you're denied the feel that marks good "sports" steering. The only feeling that really comes across is one of detachment between you and the front wheels.
After reading Autocar, it seems the lower (3.5 turns) non-assisted rack and pinion system available in other countries was an improvement for driving's sake - although not so much around town. Because of the steering the good aspects of the chassis and handling
could be fully appreciated only after running through a corner more than once or twice to become familiar with how light a touch and how little wheel was needed for smoothly precise control. When you got it to that point the Datsun was found to have a very competent chassis and the power steering simply disguised that fact.
A Sorted Body & Suspension
One of the things that made a sports car a sports car was scuttle shake. Something evident from the very early days, and more pronounced when production switched to monoque, scuttle shake became a prerequisite for anything with sporting pretence. Thankfully the ZX didn't have it. Even on severe washboard surfaces the body impressed with its integrity and freedom from vibrations and rattles. The taut shell and supple suspension
combined to give ride comfort which was in the best of Grand Touring tradition. The ride was absorbent yet well controlled so the car didn't wallow or become mushy across undulations. There was not much roll when cornering but wide-spaced ripples in the road could promote considerable pitching with the big body rocking noticably backward and forward.
Thanks to its good ride and self-control, the ZX suspension
became a thing of legend. As on previous "Z's", front suspension
was by MacPherson struts with coil springs
and anti-roll bar
. The lower control arms were located longitudinally by tension (trailing) rods instead of the compression (leading) rods used on previous Zs. Apart from differences in the spring and anti-roll rates the ZX had different rubber bushings and internal modifications to the struts which were claimed to have reduced friction by 25 percent. The rear suspension
was a complete departure from previous Z practice. Instead of the strut type rear suspension
used on the earlier cars the ZX had semi-trailing arms. The coil springs
were mounted high on strut-like telescopic dampers, and an anti-roll bar
Though given to tail squat during hard acceleration, the semi-trailing system had relative simplicity and cost advantages on its side. It also reduced tail-lift during hard braking. Datsun
claimed there was 38 pecent less friction in this design than in the previous strut system. That must have made a significant contribution to the ZX's notably good ride qualities at low speeds as well as high. Worthwhile improvements were also claimed for stopping distances. At 90 km/h, for example, the ZX was claimed (by Datsun
) to be able to stop in 47.6 m compared to 52.7 m for the previous 2 + 2. Instead of the disc/drum system used before, the ZX used rear discs to complement the front discs which were now ventilated. Unlike the steering
, the power-assisted brakes
weren't too light. They had a good pedal, with well modulated response that increased from fairly soft to nicely firm as you put the pressure on. A pressure-proportioning valve minimised the rear brakes' susceptibility to lock-up. While there was some mechanical clatter over 160 clicks, below that the car was generally quiet.
Behind the Wheel
Opulent was an apt description of the accommodation and equipment levels - although only when judged against cars from the era of course. Around town you did sit very low in the ZX - and we have talked above about the visibility and agility of the car in traffic. According to one car review, "...the front passenger's cushion is too flat for optimum comfort in the long run because it lacks the cushion-tilt and lumbar support adjustments included in the driver's bucket. Comfortable driving position is available to most drivers, yet would be even better with an adjustable steering wheel, the lack of which seems an oversight." We are not sure if that is a reflection on how bad the front passengers seat was, or how good the drivers seat was - you can decide.
There was no arguing that the instrumentation was brilliant. The binnacle directly ahead of the inverted-U-spoked wheel had speedo
, water temp
and fuel. On the facia to the left, and angled for line of sight viewing, were combined oil pressure
/temp, voltmeter and clock. They were easily legible by day and even more so at night when illuminated (like the heater control panel) in an orange shade. Air-conditioning
was standard, and it worked well in an Australian summer. There was an AM/FM radio and stereo cassette player with a gimbal type control lever for distributing the sound between the four speakers. For its day, it was a superb system, arguably the best you could get in a car at this price point.
Though loaded with features the ZX was tastefully free from blatant (Nipponese) gimmicks. Even the trick little systems-monitor between the speedo and tacho (with its sequential Okay/Malfunction display) was technology that served a useful purpose. There was a rear window wash/wipe (although budget hatches had this too), and the automatically retracting radio antenna added a little class. Electric windows were standard, and the driver's control featured a one-touch automatic control - a nice touch missing on cars a decade after the ZX hit the showrooms. Both rear-view mirrors featured remotel controll.
The list of standard kit was a long one. The main ones were: halogen headlights with washer system, luggage compartment cover, and remote release for the hatchback rear door. The best thing about the rear seat was its backrest, divided in two so either or both halves could be folded to increase the luggage capacity. Just as well, given the spare wheel sat in the middle of the rear floor and left little room for anything else. The ZX was designed to use a space-saver spare, but at the time the space-saver was legal only in NSW where it was offered as a $200-plus option.