The key to a successful sports car, Lotus founder Colin Chapman famously said, is to “simplify, and add lightness.” Chapman’s advice was more of an option when Lotus cars debuted in the 1950s; there was no such thing as CAFE. It is also more important than ever. In addition to stricter environmental regulations, modern cars are weighed down by a lot of safety equipment, “infotainment” systems, and sound dampening. That’s why Nissan is thinking about downsizing its 370Z sports car, or building a second, smaller model.
Nissan’s head designer, Shiro Nakamura, told the Australian magazine Drive that the 370Z’s successor could have a smaller engine. “With 370Z, we still don’t know next generation will have a larger or smaller engine,” Nakamura said; he would prefer that the car be smaller and lighter. If Nissan does this, it will be the first time in the Z’s history that the engine will not increase in size between generations.
Would a 250Z tarnish the line’s reputation? The original Datsun 240Z had a four-cylinder engine, and was meant to render tiny British MGs and Triumphs obsolete. A downsized Z could, in a way, bring the car back to its roots. Since the first model, the Z has grown in size and power. The current 370Z packs a 3.7-liter V6, with 332 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque in basic trim. However, it is actually smaller than the 350Z it replaced. Perhaps there is a happy medium. It all comes down to the engine.
Downsizing engines is very popular right now for reasons of fuel economy; everyone from Fiat to Mercedes is doing it. The trick is getting the same performance from that smaller engine. That’s not impossible, and sometimes a car’s appeal can be improved in the process. V6 Ford Mustangs used to be jokes, until Ford put a turbocharged EcoBoost engine in 2011 models; the Blue Oval is even considering a four-cylinder EcoBoost in the 2015 ‘Stang. Chevy was able to improve the handling balance of the Camaro by dropping the direct-injected V6 from the Cadillac CTS in its engine bay.
Power is especially important to the Nissan Z; it separates it from slow-but-fun cars like the Mazda Miata, and justifies a price premium. That is where a second Nissan sports car could help.
Nakamura said he liked the idea of reviving the Nissan Silvia, a popular compact sports car sold in the United States as the 200SX and 240SX throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A new 240SX could emphasize handling over raw power, meaning the car could be made lighter and with a much smaller engine. It could compete effectively against the Miata, Subaru BRZ, and Scion FR-S without watering down the Z name. So far, Nissan has no plans to revive the Silvia/240SX.
Car enthusiasts don’t like change, so Nissan needs to be careful about whatever alterations it makes to the Z. Nonetheless, a smaller, more efficient Z is a smart idea, if it’s done right. Weight is the enemy of performance, and as long as Nissan doesn’t sacrifice too much performance to keep weight down, it might have a winner.