Behind the design: Nissan Z Proto

Nissan design chief on how the prototype car came to life, honors more than 50 years of Z heritage

Sep 16, 2020
  • People

The Z nameplate has been cherished worldwide for more than 50 years. The Nissan Z Proto, unveiled on Sept. 16, signals a renewal for the legendary sports car at a time when Nissan is also transforming itself as a company. As both the Z and Nissan embark on a new chapter, the model is a key ingredient in maintaining Nissan’s heritage of passion, excitement and innovation.

In this interview, Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan's senior vice president of global design, talks about what the Z Proto means for Nissan. He also tells the story of how his design team brought the Z Proto to life, and discusses the delicate balance of paying homage to past Z cars while modernizing design and performance.

Q: What's the purpose of the Z Proto?

Albaisa: Above all, we want to tell the world that the next Z is coming! The Z is a key model for Nissan. It represents how we democratize technology, such as with the Nissan LEAF, which was the world's first mass-market electric vehicle. The Z is the democratization of a true sports car.

Q: What was your approach to designing the Z Proto?

Albaisa: We explored two directions – one with a strong homage tone, and one with a futuristic feeling throughout. Our designers made countless studies and sketches, researching each generation to better understand what made it such a success with generations of fans and owners. Ultimately, we agreed that this new Z Proto should travel between the decades, including the future.

Q: How important was it to include references to the original Z?

Albaisa: Making a car with such an iconic history is a big challenge. Roughly 1.8 million Z cars have been sold around the world, including more than 1.3 million in North America. That means there are millions of past and current owners with their own unique history and stories with the Z. People remember the first time they saw one. We wanted to take a different journey than a purely retro look with the car, to see what fond memories would surface, and tap into them with a sincerity that builds on those memories and brings a smile to everyone's face.

I remember seeing the first-generation Z when I was a six-year-old boy growing up in Miami. It made a big impression on me. Somehow, it always looked fast, even when parked. Since first laying eyes on it, I always followed the Z through the generations – from a pure precision machine to the 300ZX of the '80s and '90s with the latest in tech. Eventually, my own hands would help bring the 350Z to a new generation of wide-eyed wonderers, sharing the same aspirations and intrigue that I felt.

Q: Did any other Z models besides the first generation (S30) inspire your team?

Albaisa: We took inspiration from all generations during the initial design phase, with a strong homage to the first-generation Z but also with nods to the 300ZX. The 300ZX represented a technological breakthrough for Z and Nissan. The seamless surfaces and absence of bodylines gave it a river stone-like, smooth quality. The extremely slanted projector headlamps communicated a sleek, advanced look. You can see that in the Z Proto. The smooth exterior surfaces give it a dream-like, clean aerodynamic shape.

Q: Besides the profile silhouette, where else can we see references to past Zs?

Albaisa: There are nods to the past throughout, some more apparent than others. One key exterior design element we wanted to get right was the height of the hood. Just like the first generation Z (S30), the hood is higher than the tail. This was quite difficult for our designers to achieve, but we knew we wanted to keep that iconic silhouette.

Also, the LED headlights have two half-circles that owners of the first-generation ZG "G-nose" model may recognize. The ZG features a clear dome lens over the headlight bucket. Under light, that dome shape gives off two circular reflections. We liked that unique characteristic and discovered it naturally fit with the Z Proto's identity.

The rear taillights were inspired by the 300ZX's illuminated pill-shaped taillights design. Just as that 300ZX was a symbol of a technological leap for Z, we applied the latest design methods on the Z Proto's taillights to create a clean, sharp edge illumination that beams bright, day or night.

Q: What are the standout characteristics of the Z Proto?

Albaisa: Even with elements of the first Z, this car has a different attitude. The "aggressively low" center of gravity gives the Z Proto a completely new posture. The exterior sculpting gives it a natural, alluring look while also maintaining muscular dynamism. The low, rear-fender haunches push the wheels outward, giving the impression of a cat ready to pounce.

The first-generation Z was lighter and more agile. This Z Proto has a muscularity that builds on that. It hints at the "hair raising" power within, ready to release on a cool morning run, blipping between gears while carving around terra firma.

Q: The Z Proto has a striking yellow paint job. Is this another hint at the past?

Albaisa: Yes, we chose a pearlescent yellow as a nod to the original Z and 300ZX yellow color option. We added the pearlescent quality to add a brilliant, shimmering look under the sun. The 300ZX had a color in this range but due to technologies of the day was not able to maintain the level of chroma of the Z Proto.

Q: What approach did you take with the interior design?

Albaisa: It was important to us that stepping into the cabin should be a transformative experience. The interior needed to fit like a glove, creating a direct physical bond with the driver's body and quick visual access to drive information. Of course, the cockpit is also an enjoyable space both visually and physically during relaxing cruises on open roads.

We put a heavy focus on ensuring that vehicle information could be understood at a glance, to allow the driving experience to be pure and uninterrupted. This is why the digital instrument gauges have a uniform readout. The steering wheel puts infotainment and vehicle controls at the driver's fingertips while still maintaining a classic sports car look.

That said, the interior has a strong modern feeling, with digital elements in just the right places to match the needs of today's drivers without distracting or adding complexity.

Q: What message do you want to send with the Z Proto?

Albaisa: The Z Proto represents a commitment to our fans, to our heritage, and staying true to Nissan's DNA. This is not a concept or study of a potential model. The Z Proto is a statement that a new Z is coming, period.

Some may wonder why we are continuing to develop the Z. To me, that's like asking why humans breathe – it's an integral part of life for Nissan. Nissan is a creative community with a diverse product lineup and history. We hope people feel our passion for the past as much as for the future. We love creating automobiles that our customers emotionally connect with. The Z Proto is a homage, but it also speaks of the technology of today, with advanced touches inside and out.

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