Speed, precision, safety – developing a world-class sports car requires meticulous planning and countless hours of testing to ensure a thrilling driving experience. The car also has to perform over long drives while keeping its occupants safe. Defining the driving character of a new sports car is therefore a monumental task. It's usually undertaken by dozens of engineers and test drivers on different roads and tracks all over the world.
As one of the most popular and long-running Japan-developed sports cars in history, people from around the globe have strong opinions on how the new Nissan Z should drive. The marketability team at Nissan's Arizona Testing Center (ATC) helped to ensure that the all-new Nissan Z lives up to the high expectations of the model's fans in the North American driving environment. According to Performance Development Senior Manager Christian Spencer, local customer expectations played a key role in helping them define how the car would feel in the hands of drivers in the market.
Speaking of Nissan's global approach to vehicle development, Spencer said: "We looked to the customer to help focus our development and tuning decisions. A ride in the all-new Z needed to be heritage inspired, iconic and fun, but also comfortable. Acceleration and handling were top priorities, which we precisely tailored to pair with an improved ride quality and enhanced quietness in the cabin. This is a complete Z package that brings joy no matter how you drive it."
Christian Spencer, senior manager, Performance Development
Familiar, but with a new flavor of thrill
One of the major challenges when molding the all-new Z's driving character was to remain faithful and representative of previous iterations of the Z, while at the same time offering excitement to all who sat behind the wheel.
"This generation of the Nissan Z has very few competitors," said Matthew Wright, manager, Nissan Marketability. "Cars with about the same output feel noticeably bigger—like a GT—and those with similar chassis sizes have significantly less power. So, the intention of the development team in Japan was to retain the Nissan Z's essence as an agile sports car, but enhance through the bump in power to differentiate it from others. The new hardware was tuned to maximize overall driving feel, taking it beyond what the previous generation, the 370Z, offered."
Matthew Wright, manager, Nissan Marketability
Performance that "wows"
Some elements of the new chassis were carried over from the previous model. However, the on-road feel and performance has now reached a much higher level, said Brandon LaBorde, senior manager, Nissan chassis performance.
"We concentrated on the places where the customer would see the greatest chassis benefits, namely the dampers, tires and the new electronic power steering (EPS)," he said. "The EPS system provides exceptional steering feedback and precision over that of the outgoing hydraulic system. This new steering alone brings the entire chassis alive and will definitely ‘wow' drivers."
Brandon LaBorde, senior manager, Nissan chassis performance.
For the dampers, the development team opted for a new monotube setup at all four corners of the chassis to replace the previous model's twin-tubes. This resulted in greater shock-absorber response, which in turn enhanced both handling and ride quality. But according to LaBorde, the real "magic" happened when the new tires were developed.
"Everything about the car seemed to get better, from grip level to initial response to the tires' reserve capacity, and oddly enough, we found that they were also more comfortable with significantly reduced interior noise levels," he said. "The tires provided a great foundation for the suspension and steering and the overall performance of the all-new Z."
A sports car for any occasion
When it came to the new drivetrain, the developers and engineers concentrated their efforts on the new 9-speed automatic transmission, specifically Sport Mode, a new setting for the Z-car.
"If you're just driving around the city, the previous Z's 7-speed transmission was calibrated very well. The difference between the old and new becomes apparent when the customer drives the new Z in a more spirited manner," said Paul Cullen, Nissan powertrain performance engineer. "We added adaptive shift control tuning, where the system can understand the driver's style and tolerance for assertiveness. Then it adapts gear changes accordingly. In Sport Mode, the transmission will hold gears longer, extend upshift points, and it will downshift during braking to deliver the same level of performance as manual shifting. Some of our test drivers opted to keep the transmission in full-automatic mode when hot-lapping, that's how good it is."
The all-new Nissan Z's 9-speed AT
Owen Thunes, senior manager, Nissan Powertrain Performance, explains how the revised chassis forms a perfect match with the new twin-turbocharged engine, both complementing each other to deliver an unforgettable driving experience. "The intensity of the new Z is far more apparent than the previous car," he said. "When you tip into the throttle or when you make an aggressive move, the car responds with you. The more you ask of the car, the more this car will give you."
A team effort: Collaboration that spans shores
So, how exactly does the team at ATC give Nissan vehicles their special local flavor? What exactly is the process for ensuring that cars like the new Z live up to the driving potential envisioned by its creators and expected by customers in different markets?
"It's a total collaborative effort. Throughout the tuning process, we need to see how all the changes we make affect the car in its entirety, and how each change affects another. This way, we can ensure that the finished product works in harmony," Thunes said.
For vehicles to be introduced in the North American market, each goes through a variety of tests at Nissan's test center in Arizona, from standard acceleration and handling tests to measuring NVH levels and ride quality. The team also takes to public roads and evaluates each vehicle in real-world settings, whether that be the city, the open highway or on mountain roads. This means that everyone on the team is required to have a high level of driving experience and skill.
"We all participate in an internal driving program because we keep almost of all of the test driving here in-house, meaning we don't hire race drivers to put a certain vehicle through its paces at our facilities. It's very important that we are comfortable in the driver's seat when pushing our test cars to the limit," said Cullen.
The team often works physically alongside chief product specialists (CPS) and chief vehicle engineers (CVE) when evaluating test cars, but for the new Z, the case was a bit different.
"Our standard process would be to have the CPS and CVE come to the United States and experience the vehicle in these settings and conditions. However, with the new Z, that was not possible because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. So, we did a lot of back and forth by sending our recommendations to Japan, and then waiting for their feedback. There was plenty of communication among us, but much of it was done remotely," Wright said.
Still, all on the team said that working on a car like the Z was a special experience, one that they were excited and honored to be a part of.
"The Nissan Z has been part of American automotive culture for more than 50 years. Making sure the product lived up to the expectations of enthusiasts over multiple generations was paramount. Additionally, my great grandfather was a Nissan powertrain advisor in the 1950s, so I have a strong personal legacy to respect as well," Spencer said.