I learned to drive on a 1972 Datsun 240Z.
I mean, officially, I had behind-the-wheel instruction with the high school football coach during his off-season. He took two of us out at a time, using his instructor’s brake pedal as necessary and reaching across to grab the steering wheel once when my friend Lisa attempted a hard right turn without slowing, signaling, or verbalizing her intent. We met the inevitable compromise: landing a brand new driver’s ed car in a ditch.
But my dad taught me to drive stick in his Z.
[Like the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Datsun Z is one of those cars that’s a part of our collective memories. My mom learned to drive on one and has been talking about it ever since. So, when she devoured photos and reviews of the new 2023 Z, I decided to put one in her driveway for a few days to see what she thought of it. Thanks for being a good sport, Mom. — Maddox Kay, Social Media Editor]
Dad had put in a pre-order when automotive magazines first catcalled it the poor man’s Porsche and the everyman’s E-Type. He requested silver. Months later, the local dealership called him, informing him that silver would be a long wait, but there was an orange one coming in. Did he want it? He did. He figured he could have it repainted later. He was 37 and wanted a two-seater with just enough room in the back for his tennis bag. Dad was a dentist before cosmetic procedures were a thing. He wore leisure suits and, on the weekends, tennis shorts and rubber-toed Jack Purcells, the right toe worn through from dragging it on his serve. He vied for best ride with my friend Meg’s father, a neurosurgeon who raced his Lotus on the weekends. I don’t think my mother ever drove Dad’s car.
I was nine or 10 years old when he took delivery of what was briefly known as the Great Pumpkin. The first Halloween, Dad drove me and my two younger sisters trick-or-treating to friends’ houses. This could be deemed an act of protective parenting only if one ignored the fact that we girls rode unsecured in the back, holding the hatchback open with our hands.
By the time I got to drive it in 1979, the Z had indeed been painted silver. Dad taught me the basics: clutch, gearshift, parking brake, manual choke in the winter. (None of that was as John Irving as it sounds.) I learned to back into parking spaces and into our narrow 1930s garage. Dad taught me to spend as little time as possible in parking lots—as he explained, legal right-of-way was unclear on private property.
On flat roads, the Z was relatively easy to master and fun to drive. It was light and spry, responsive and, well, cool. But hills were unavoidable. Did I mention we lived off the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the mountains of North Carolina? “Hill hold” was unimaginable.
Holding the Z still on our steep driveway—without using the brake pedal—was Dad’s ultimate test. He didn’t want me to roll back into another car, or to stall out merging into traffic at the top of an exit ramp (my personal failure-on-repeat, and the only time he would lose his patience and switch seats with me). Oh, and using the parking brake was cheating.
I didn’t feel ready to test for my license until well after my January birthday, even if that meant limiting boyfriend access to double dates.
My driving test was administered by an NC patrolman with whom my dad regularly played tennis. He was surprised that I was testing on Dad’s manual transmission Z. But he gamely lowered himself into the passenger seat and began giving me directions. I passed the test. He actually said it was the best manual test he had experienced. The next year my sister got her license. And Dad had to replace the clutch.
I got my only moving violation for zipping through an arguably yellow light in that Z when I was 16. It was late and I was coming home from working at the single-screen movie theater across town (a job I got through the friend who literally ditched the driver’s ed car.) I must have looked like I was having fun. The police officer followed me another two blocks before pulling me over, hoping to catch me not making a complete stop at the next intersection.
So, getting a turn with the new 2023 Nissan Z wasn’t so much about taking it from zero to 60 as it was about taking me from 60 to 16.
I went all in for my first drive, wearing my now retro-cool Tretorns, and the jeans I had patched with a few surviving pieces of my great-grandmother’s quilt (her daughters drove a convoy of Model T’s to move the family from Illinois to North Carolina). I even created a mixtape of late-‘70s hit songs.
At first, though, I couldn’t look the new Z in the eye. Its gaze is less wide-eyed than the original, more cunning. The grille is huge—I’m told, to fit the large intercooler its twin-turbocharged engine requires. I missed the old car’s sharper nose and metal bumper, both of which are surely lethal to pedestrians. The new Z is much beefier than the original (3,519 pounds vs 2,302) and more powerful (400 horsepower vs 151); Michael B. Jordan in Creed condition. I cannot imagine handing off the keys to a 16-year-old. Or making use of the required child-seat anchor clearly marked on the cargo area carpet.
But the Z’s classic profile silhouette is still there: the stretch of the hood, the long curve over the roof and down the back. If it sounds like my gaze is caressing a memory, that’s fair. The nostalgia overlay is real. The Z emblem returns on the door sills, B-pillars, floor mats, and steering wheel. The back end gets one more Z, plus those throwback lozenge brake lights. And the color of our tester is a gorgeous blue Dad would never have painted over.
Sitting low, practically on the floor, is still the only driving position that feels right. The driver’s seat is comfortable and secure, its bolstered combination of leather and suede holding me in place. It’s a better fit (and more luxurious) than the old Z, with plenty of head- and legroom, though at five-foot-four I don’t exactly need it. In fact, it’s a little hard to get in and out, given how close I sit to the pedals. The canted door swing helps.
The cargo area is smaller than I remember but still plenty practical for everyday items and even small suitcases. Safety developments and shock towers take up room; I’m not complaining. Two small ledges behind the seats for stowing purse-size items are genuinely thoughtful and easy to reach.
The gear knob provides a little throb in the palm. It’s odd that this is the only place I feel the engine. I seem to remember that the 240Z was a more immersive experience. Part of the iconic vibe was actual vibration. This probably correlates with the quiet cocoon that is the new Z’s interior. The comfort and compliance surprised me; with the windows up, the engine and road are barely audible. If anyone laughed at how I chirped the tires attempting a quick left turn across traffic from a dead stop, with more confidence than skill, I couldn’t hear it. Maybe my Earth, Wind, and Fire was turned up too loud. The side skid of the rear tires on that turn was a surprise, but, again, I was still reviving my clutch-release game.
I’m glad I first took the Z out early on a clear Saturday morning. (Monday rush hour traffic turned out to be an endless round of first-to-second calf-cramping frustration.) I tried waving pedestrians across intersections only to be waved back at from the sidewalks. Drivers in front of me on major roads changed lanes, clearing the way for me, expecting me to shoot out ahead. The street cred on this car is strong. I bet I still look like I’m having fun.
As I got used to the car, I made adjustments, giving it less gas and eeeeeasing the clutch out. It took a while, but I achieved smooth, respectable shifts into first and second. From there, it was joyful muscle memory. The shifter felt familiar. The big touchscreen could be ignored when I was driving, though its presence did limit visibility and access to the knobs for heat and air conditioning. This Z is solid, low, and wide, holding the road firmly, downshifting eagerly before every corner (that’s got to be my favorite part of driving a manual; maybe the eagerness is all me), and hitting speeds it might be best not to admit to in print.
The turning radius is tight, but you have to really mean it to get the manual transmission into reverse. Clearly, this Z would rather make a U-turn than back up. In fact, the rear visibility is limited, given that the glass portion of the hatchback is smaller than it used to be. More safety/stability infrastructure, no doubt. The new tech, of course, provides a backup camera with green-yellow-red guidance zones. And the side view mirrors (there are two now!) are large enough to cover a lot of territory. A retro win: the tactile feedback of a physical parking brake. There’s nothing more satisfying than yanking that handle up, even when parking the car in first gear.
The melding of the original’s sporty handling and stunning good looks with today’s turbo-boosted performance and modern safety protections works. Nissan has nearly tripled the horsepower while holding onto the 20-ish mpg. If anything is lost, it’s that sense of road-skimming playfulness that allowed a 16-year-old driver to feel every bump in the pavement. This Z demands to be taken seriously. Here’s hoping for another run of the 240’s long-term reliability and, um, a spot on the local dealer’s waiting list.
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