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The Z31-generation Nissan coupé, sold in most of the world as the 300ZX, is seen by many as the low-point of the Z-car canon.
Powered by a 3-litre V6, it’s regarded as too squishy and too American.
But here we have something that is a rare sight in the West: a Fairlady 200ZR, which features a turbocharged – and much lighter – 2-litre straight-six.
Could it be that Japan saved the best Z31 for itself?
Whatever enthusiasts might think of the 300ZX decades later, there’s no doubt that Nissan knew its market when it made the car comfier, heavier and less sporting.
In the USA, by far the world’s largest market for this sort of mid-range coupé, the Nissan Z-series consistently posted annual sales of around 70,000 from its launch in 1969 well into the 1980s.
In Europe, however, the transatlantic influences in 1975’s 280ZX and then the 300ZX of 1983 had created a car that many felt was too orientated towards comfort compared to its rivals.
In the UK, the 300ZX never reached the dominant position it did in the USA, instead looking pricey in a market full of lithe coupés better suited to the twisty roads of the old world – cars such as the Mitsubishi Starion EX.
Mitsubishi had gone with a 2-litre turbo for the Starion for no small reason: engines over this size attracted harsh taxation in Japan.
Indeed, plenty of Japanese cars were available in the home market with 2-litre engines not offered elsewhere – including the Z-car that started it all, the original Fairlady.
With the advent of reliable turbocharging in the early ’80s, local manufacturers finally had a means of making fast Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars that weren’t made unaffordable by taxation; by the end of the decade, the 2-litre turbo was the go-to choice for all but the top-performing machinery on home shores.
Nissan’s first go at forced induction was actually in the Z31’s predecessor, the S130, sold in the UK as the 280ZX.
In 1981, the 2.8- and JDM 2-litre powerplants received low-pressure, non-intercooled turbochargers that provided a relatively modest boost in power.
Just two years later, the Z31 featured entirely new engines and a much more advanced turbocharging system.
Gone was the old Mercedes-Benz-derived, reverse-flow cylinder-head L-series straight-six.
Most of the world got a 3-litre V6, with or without turbocharging, and once again Japan got a 2-litre turbo version, too.
At launch this was just a shrunken V6, but in 1985 Nissan treated Japanese customers to a taste of a now legendary engine, the RB.
Having developed Japan’s first V6 in the early 1980s, Nissan decided there was life in the old straight-six yet.
Just a couple of years later, it had begun to develop the RB using the basic dimensions of the old L-series.
With twin cams and four valves per cylinder, the RB20DET made its production debut in the HR31-generation Skyline and the 200ZR.
Deliberately over-engineered, and a technological step on from the V6, it would become a darling of the tuning community, especially when the 1989 Skyline GT-R’s twin-turbo RB26DETT arrived.
In the JDM-only 200ZR, this aggressive 2-litre was able to produce 178bhp and a much more impressive specific output figure than the V6.
The real boon, though, was the weight saved by swapping out the big V6 (and some of the 300ZX’s more luxurious equipment): a hefty 171kg.
For this reason, while the 200ZR became the budget offering in the domestic Fairlady Z range, it also received the ‘ZR’ suffix reserved for the sportiest-specification cars.
Before we get too excited about the 200ZR, let’s remember that Mitsubishi had arguably got it right at the first attempt with the Starion.
Launched the year before the Z31, and three years before the 200ZR appeared, here was a 2-litre turbocharged coupé producing identical horsepower.
It’s a less impressive engine on paper – four cylinders instead of six, a single overhead cam and just two valves per cylinder – but it’s one Mitsubishi had been developing for longer.
Upgrading the engine from the Lancer Turbo of 1980, the Starion arrived on British shores as the fastest Japanese car on sale.
An early deployment of what would become Mitsubishi’s most famous engine, the 2-litre Sirius unit is better known by its code, 4G63.
It would go on to power the Galant VR-4, then the Lancer Evo I-IX, and famously makes use of a balancer-shaft system to smooth out the four-cylinder’s inherent vibrations.
Out on the road, however, it’s the Nissan’s ‘six’ that impresses with its smoothness.
With such relatively small cylinders it’s a delightfully revvy unit and one with a playful eagerness to its throttle response.
It has that paper-tearing quality to its exhaust note for which the best straight-sixes are famous, plus a pleasingly metallic rasp that lingers on the overrun.
It’s surprising that, despite a lower peak torque figure than the Starion, slightly higher in the rev range, the Nissan feels more energetic.
The Starion’s conservative 7.6:1 compression ratio means it can feel pretty lifeless before the turbocharger comes on song, demonstrating a torque curve that doesn’t appear to pick up until 2500rpm, and it’s still not at its best for another 1000rpm after that.
It isn’t a snappy, smack-in-the-back kind of turbo, as became popular in the late ’80s, but a mechanical whoosh that builds as you reach the mid-range.
Once you’re up there, the Mitsubishi does finally become entertaining to power along, so long as you always have the right gear lined up to keep the turbocharger on the boil.
Nissan took the opposite route with the 200ZR, trading a lower boost pressure for more compression, and it’s a much more flexible engine as a result.
You’re left with the feeling that, while the Starion’s engine is adequate, the RB20DET in the Nissan is a gem.
It’s the first of a few areas in which the 200ZR demonstrates the benefit of Nissan’s greater experience in building sporting coupés.
The rack-and-pinion steering, for example, is tight, quick and communicative.
The only thing not so enjoyable about it is that the very period Momo aftermarket wheel is a bit too small given the level of assistance, making it heavier than it should be.
Yet it’s a much better set-up than the Starion’s recirculating-ball system, which reveals the car’s Colt Sapporo-based underpinnings.
It’s overly light at the centre, while a steering wheel that is too large with a ratio too slow creates uncharacteristic amounts of wheel-twirling for a sports car.
Though not intimidatingly tail-happy, the Starion is light enough at the back to be easily encouraged into oversteer, for which a responsive helm is crucial to maintain proper control.
Instead, the Mitsubishi driver will find themselves caught unwinding turns of lock, shuffling the wheel or polishing it around with one hand, when the determined driver would much rather have a quick and sure response.
The same is true of the two cars’ other inputs. The Starion’s clutch, for example, is bizarrely long in travel, forcing its driver to position themselves uncomfortably close to the steering wheel.
The gearshift and brakes are good enough, but stepping back into the 200ZR there’s an immediate sense of relief that here is a car whose tactile inputs have all been properly honed.
Indeed, it’s where the lineage of the 240Z feels most present in the 200ZR, continuing a Z-car tradition of getting these ergonomic fundamentals right.
The Starion can’t hide its saloon-car origins, with a much higher and more upright driving position to boot, although this does bring advantages; vision and access are better, and there’s a spacious-feeling cabin.
But what’s most impressive of all is that, despite those not-quite-right details, on a twisty British back-road the Mitsubishi is still the most fun.
It has an agility that allows it to be chucked from corner to corner where the Nissan flows.
While neither car is hugely firm in its springing, the Starion feels that bit tighter, lighter and more playful.
The ZR is probably the more capable car when it comes to outright lateral grip, thanks to its lower centre of gravity, but on the road rather than the track, the Starion is the more fun in the corners.
It’s a bit puzzling how the Nissan still manages to feel a touch heavy.
In 200ZR form it has an identical weight to the Starion and, even as the longer-wheelbase 2+2, its dimensions aren’t wildly different.
Ultimately, it comes down to the chassis tuning of these cars and, even in this lightest, most sporty form, the ZR can’t fully escape the American angling of the Z31 platform.
Perhaps the shorter 2320mm wheelbase or the adjustable dampers from the 300ZX turbos set to their firmest setting might provide that bit more of a lively spirit.
The ZR still exhibits the existing skills of the 300ZX, however: it’s a comfortable, well-equipped GT with styling that most can appreciate, even if some accuse it of being a bit fussy.
The two-seater variants, rather than the 2+2 here, are better-looking still, with 200mm taken out of the wheelbase and roof, plus more aggressively raked rear glass.
‘Our’ 1988 car has the benefit of the Z31’s mid-life facelift, which softened some of the original design’s sharper edges and generally ran a campaign of decluttering.
It’s also refreshing to see the model in a sporting colour palette: black inside with a fetching striped seat trim unique to the 200ZR, in marked contrast to the very transatlantically styled interiors found in most 300ZXs.
It’s a well-built cabin, too: not incredibly plasticky as many ’80s Nissans are, while the climate controls, set into a brushed-chrome panel, scream bubble-era Japan.
The Starion, meanwhile, feels older in its design, inside and out.
It didn’t receive a major mid-life facelift like the Z31 did, and its blocky body, a mash-up of Porsche 924, Mazda RX-7 and third-generation Chevrolet Camaro, is handsome but very much of the early 1980s and dated quickly.
Inside, it’s all black, angular, and with novel but confusing pushbutton controls for the headlights mounted on the instrument binnacle.
The leather seats are a particular highlight: comfortable, supportive and adjustable in many directions.
The window line is surprisingly high, however, which is bound to be because of its saloon-car ancestry forcing certain fixed points, such as the strut-tops and bulkhead set at given heights.
The conclusion has to be quite similar to those who tested the 300ZX against the Starion when these cars first appeared in Europe.
The Nissan is better equipped, more comfortable, has nicer controls, features a superior engine and is arguably better looking, but the Mitsubishi is more suited to European roads, at least in the hands of enthusiasts.
But, with another Z thrown into the works, the gap is narrowed and it seems a glaring omission that Nissan never offered the 200ZR outside Japan.
Is it the silver bullet to the 300ZX’s ills we’d hoped for? Not quite.
Is this JDM special the best Z31? It’s certainly the one I’d have.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Fairmont Sports & Classics
Mitsubishi Starion EX
- Sold/number built 1982-’90/49,659
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1997cc ‘four’, Mitsubishi TC06-11A turbocharger, fuel injection
- Max power 177bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 181lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear struts located by lower wishbones; coil springs, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes ventilated discs
- Length 14ft 5in (4400mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1685mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1320mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft (2435mm)
- Weight 2883Ib (1308kg)
- 0-60mph 6.9 secs
- Top speed 133mph
- Mpg 20-30
- Price new £16,149 (1987)
- Price now £8-25,000*
Nissan Fairlady 200ZR
- Sold/number built 1983-’89/329,900 (all Z31 models)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1998cc straight-six, Garrett T3 turbocharger, fuel injection
- Max power 178bhp @ 6400rpm
- Max torque 167lb ft @ 3600rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, telescopic dampers; coil springs, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs front, solid discs rear
- Length 15ft 3in (4605mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1690mm)
- Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2520mm)
- Weight 2888Ib (1310kg)
- 0-60mph 7.6 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 20-30
- Price new £20,875 (300ZX, 1987)
- Price now £5-25,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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