Nissan working on “Mini-Z” to take on FR-S and BRZ

Nissan Compact Sport Concept front three-quarter viewAt Nissan, small is the new big. Back in April, Nissan head designer Shiro Nakamura talked about downsizing the company’s 370Z sports car, saying that he wanted the car to lose weight and come with a smaller engine. The Japanese company could show a downsized Z at the 2014 Detroit auto show as a 2015 model. There has also been talk of a smaller model that would fit beneath the Z in Nissan’s range.

Nissan is indeed working on a smaller sports car, a source close to the project told Motor Trend. Code named “Mini-Z,” the compact sports car will have the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ in its sights.

Nissan used to make a compact sports car, the 240SX, but the Mini-Z will not be a revival of that nameplate. Unlike the 240SX, and the Scion/Subaru twins, the new Nissan will be front-wheel drive.

The production Mini-Z will be based on the Compact Sport Concept (pictured) shown at last year’s Shanghai auto show. It’s based on the Nissan Juke crossover, and is powered by the Juke’s 1.6-liter, 190 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. A highly-modified version of this engine was used in the DeltaWing racecar.

Since the Juke is sold in both front- and all-wheel drive configurations, a Mini-Z with four powered wheels isn’t out of the question.

With crossover underpinnings and front-wheel drive, the Mini-Z doesn’t sound like much of a sports car. It’s 1.6-liter engine only has 10 fewer horsepower than the rear-drive competition, but the Scion and Subaru’s handling prowess will probably make them more fun on twisty roads.

Nissan also needs to drop a more coupe-like body onto the Compact Sport Concept, or it will end up looking more like a hot hatchback than a descendent of the mighty Z.

One area where the Mini-Z might have an advantage is price. Nissan hopes to undercut Scion and Subaru by 10 percent, and have the Mini-Z start below $22,000. It can do that because the Mini-Z is based on an existing platform and uses an unmodified engine, unlike the FR-S and BRZ, which had to be designed almost completely from scratch.Nissan Compact Sport Concept profile view

The Mini-Z’s likely success might be a moot point, since it is unclear whether the pint size performance car is coming to the United States. The car will primarily be sold in China; it’s development was a joint effort between Nissan’s Japanese and Chinese units. Japan and Europe will receive a few cars, but there are no definite plans to bring the Mini-Z to the U.S.

Is the Mini-Z the right car for the times? Enthusiasts would probably prefer a revived 240SX, but perhaps that car would be too similar to the leaner Z Nissan has in the works. Either way, the future of Nissan performance will be revealed in the next two years: the Mini-Z could see production in 2013, with the big Z following a year or two later.