The 350Z is not quite the car that saved the company, but it reminded us – dramatically - why this company was worth saving.
Back in 1999 Nissan was famously close to bankruptcy, a business in so much trouble that both Ford and Mercedes ran frightened after openings its books, scared off by a debt mountain big enough to sink a small island.
Renault’s audacious buy into the company, the appointment of the imperiously effective former Michelin executive Carlos Ghosn (pictured) to run it, the successful delivery of his Nissan Recovery Plan - in two years rather than the planned three – and the overturning of ossified Japanese business practices is now the stuff of corporate legend.
The idea of an outsider transforming the fortunes of a struggling Japanese giant made such good headlines that product, fundamental to the revival of any car-maker, attracted less attention, even though it was central to Ghosn’s strategy. In part, that was because the new range very obviously couldn’t be revealed until it was created.
But Nissan’s frustrated North American studio, its efforts often thwarted by the previous regime, had been developing a Datsun 240Z replacement on the side, and showed it in concept form at the 1999 Detroit show (pictured) shortly before Ghosn’s arrival. Unsurprisingly, reaction to this recreation of the legendary 240Z, the car that cemented Nissan’s place in the US, ignited a fire of desire that soon had it incorporated into the official product plan.
It was far from the only car around which the rescue would be built –the 2002 Micra (pictured), one of the recovery plan’s 22 new models, was commercially more crucial – but it was an exciting symbol of the new Nissan, both for insiders and the outside world. And it also demonstrated Ghosn’s collaborative approach to managing, the finished car a product of Nissan’s design and engineering facilities in the US, Japan and Europe.
None of which was likely to trouble the mind of anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a 350Z back in 2003; the production model was delayed because when Ghosn first saw it, he noticed that it only had a single tailpipe; he observed that no sports car was taken seriously without at least two. Told by engineers that it wasn’t needed, he told them that it most certainly was.
That this was the sexiest-looking Nissan since – well, the 240Z (pictured) – was one reason, and road noise occasionally overwhelming enough to drown all thought was another, but it was a terrific drive. The promise began with a just-so driving stance comfortably arranged behind a barrage of semi-retro instruments and the meaty feel of a gearshift whose molasses-smooth, lead-heavy action was a substantial clue to the experience that lay ahead.
Which was swift, dynamic and assured in a heavy-duty kind of way, the heft of that gearchange matched by the grunt – physical and aural – of a potent V6 that had bunked off finishing school. Quick, satin-slick steering and heart-calmingly effective brakes completed the effect, together with a ride that put you in touch. Though not with quite the harshness you’d expect of a car whose twin strut braces, strictly two-seat cockpit and low-riding rubber suggested.
On the road
The Z’s sophisticated suspension also scored for preventing the Z’s shapely body from rolling, and still more for allowing it to spear bends with the quicksilver accuracy of a hunger-struck Inuit fisherman.
The tautly leathered wheel heightened the pleasure to create a traditional front-engine, rear-drive grab-it-by the throat sports car with modern trimmings, right down to electric seats and a stop-watch. It was a big hit – though not as big a bullseye as the Carlos Ghosn rescue plan that allowed it to happen.