Nismo stands for something – something special.
It extends beyond the portmanteau it actually is – a combination of the words Nissan and motorsports – and sits somewhere near the top of the pyramid of automotive excellence. That’s especially true for those of us with a keen interest in what was happening in Japan during the 1980s and ’90s, with Nissan’s performance unit quietly and consistently churning out some outstanding products, none of which made it to this part of the world.
Surely that forbidden fruit status helped cement its spot in the eyes of enthusiasts, as did Nismo’s prominence in the Gran Turismo video game franchise that so many of us grew up playing. It wasn’t until the early part of the 21st century that we got our first official glimpse at what the good folks at Nismo were capable of, and even then it was more of an intermittent trickle than the wellspring fans were surely hoping for.
Much has changed for Nissan – and, by virtue, Nismo – since then, and not all of it’s been for the better. But a renewed focus on a niche sports car? That’s something any enthusiast can (and should) get behind.
It started last year with the launch of a redesigned Z car that paid homage to all those that came before it. Flash forward to today and there’s a new version that’s ready to take the nearly extinguished Nismo torch and attempt to ignite it anew. And the 2024 Nissan Z Nismo looks like it (mostly) has what it needs to accomplish exactly that.
Before we get too far into the Z Nismo, let’s just be clear: the GT-R remains an incredible car that’s in an entirely different strata of performance; and it’s still revered by enthusiasts everywhere, even after something like 16 years on the market in its current form. But its own Nismo version is hardly going to put asses in the seats, as the saying goes – especially not at a sticker price that’s well in excess of $300,000.
Conversely, for about the cost of a base Ford Mustang Dark Horse, the 2024 Nissan Z Nismo makes this performance nameplate available to the masses. (OK, not quite, but you get the point.) For its $75,998 asking price, this hotted-up version adds all sorts of chassis bracing, bigger brakes, upgrades to the suspension and tires, and more engine output than the regular Z generates.
It uses the same twin-turbocharged V6 as the car its based on, but a few tricks here and there – including an ignition spark timing strategy supposedly inspired by the GT-R Nismo – see the 3.0L spinning up 420 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque (compared to 400 and 350, respectively). For the sake of comparison, that’s more than the Toyota Supra’s straight six-cylinder shoves out, although they aren’t exactly natural competitors. (Meanwhile, the Mustang Dark Horse makes 500 hp and 418 lb-ft of torque.)
In something of a curious twist, the Nismo kit takes the Z in an entirely different direction than its fellow folk hero from Japan. Whereas Toyota answered the call of the vocal minority by adding a manual transmission to the new Supra’s repertoire after a few years on the market, this Nissan gets the opposite treatment. That’s right: it’s automatic-only, which at first glance seems to fly in the face of the very heritage it’s built to honour.
According to Nissan’s spokespeople, sticking with the nine-speed was a simple matter of giving customers what they want: faster lap times. Since automatics shift more quickly than any human being can, using one is an easy way to shave a few tenths of a second off each go ‘round the track. (Those still pining for a third pedal will be pleased to know that there’s nothing from an engineering perspective standing in the way of building this same car with a manual – it all comes down to customer demand.)
Either way, it’s not as if the nine-speed is identical to the one that’s offered with the regular Z, although it’s close. The clutch packs have been swapped out, with faster gear changes as a result, but that’s about it. Nissan claims downshift times have been cut in half, while the beefier clutch packs are able to better withstand hard launches from a standing start – like, say, with launch control activated. Combined with a new sport+ drive setting that’s geared toward track use, the quick-shifting transmission should be an asset.
That’s the theory, at least, but to put it to the test Nissan set aside some time at Sonoma Raceway for us to put the Z Nismo through its paces. Beyond serving as a reminder that most racers are built like jockeys for good reason, with precious little headroom to go around with a helmet on, time at the track gave this car – and its transmission – a chance to shine.
Since automakers have been known to exaggerate on occasion, Nissan’s claim that the tweaked transmission is “so responsive” that it can be left to its own devices rather than manually manipulated using the paddle shifters stood out as little more than marketing fodder. But for the sake of satisfying curiosity, your humble author decided to put that claim to the test.
Bombing around Sonoma Raceway – as well as some beautiful winding roads nearby – the nine-speed was quick to prove this theory true. With the drive mode set to sport+, never once were the paddles touched (save for slowing when entering pit lane), and yet the transmission was quick to drop a gear or two under braking while winding out almost all the way to redline with the throttle pedal pressed to the floor.
Having first spent time behind the wheel of the lesser Z Performance, the Nismo version’s ability to absolutely attack corners is perhaps its most impressive party trick. Of course, the sticky Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tires are a big help, but turn-in response is noticeably sharper thanks in part to the stiffer bushings up front as well as some traction control trickery that’s exclusive to this track-focused take on the Z.
Tossing it through the famous esses at Sonoma was entirely without drama as the car danced and moved like it was built for the moment (mostly because it was). Rolling back onto the throttle, the extra boost pressure – not to mention the resulting torque – was quick to make itself known as the car rocketed along the short straightaway before hitting the 180-degree Turn 11, where it hugged and bit before blasting through the front straight once more.
Most of the same applies to the on-road abilities, with ribbons of California blacktop gobble up with ease. However, it’s the rest of the time that leaves something to be desired. In fairness, it’s not as if this version of the Z is abhorrent on the open road; but it lacks the rounded edges of the car it’s based on.
It’s here that Z Nismo feels at least a little punishing to drive. The stiff suspension is enough to spill a drink, although it stops short of reorganizing internal organs; the brakes are grabby, but then they don’t squeal like cold carbon ceramics; and the exhaust drones no matter the drive mode, at least until the stereo is cranked to drown it out as much as possible. Alas, these are the compromises one must make when buying a track-focused car.
The rest of the package is far less problematic, with the leather and synthetic suede-wrapped Recaro seats providing gently hugging confines in which to settle. No, they aren’t heated, but the bolsters are wide enough to accommodate a variety of body shapes and sizes; and while the Z Nismo may be geared towards track days, it’s not an entirely stripped-down affair. There’s an eight-speaker stereo, nine-inch touchscreen display, and wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connections, as well as power windows and locks, and more.
There’s even an entire suite of advanced safety and driver assistance features, although they don’t exactly belong in a track special like this one. (Parking sensors that are prone to incessant beeping on the grid or in the pits are bound to get into any weekend racer’s head.)
If it’s true that the take rate for the manual transmission was about half in the Z’s first year on the market, then there’s surely a good portion of potential buyers who will be put off by the automatic-only 2024 Nissan Z Nismo. The nine-speed is more than serviceable on the track (and on the street), but that’s not the point. For a car that provides so much feel when flying around a course like Sonoma Raceway, the lack of a third pedal robs it of that extra sense of engagement. There’s also the question of how much those fractions of a second really mean to a car made for open lapping rather than sanctioned racing.
Otherwise, the Z Nismo is an excellently executed sports car that delivers everything an enthusiast could hope for. The Z it’s based on is good, but this package makes it great. Better still, it feels purpose-built rather than a sort of parts-bin special. If it’s the transmission that’s holding you back, then let Nissan know. If not – or if you’re at least willing to live with the nine-speed – then you’re in for a treat.