Nissan's new 370Z Roadster packs a lot of visual punch. It goes hard, feels tough and comes across as an honest, meaty, traditional sportster. It'll be a strong new image-builder for Nissan, a pretty successor to the open 350Z.
Not everyone is quite so bowled over, though. The way Yutaka Katayama sees it, the 370Z is not what it could or indeed should be. To Katayama – better known as “Mr. K” – the current iteration of Z-car is simply too big, too heavy and fiscally out of reach of the car's traditional fan base. “It should be simpler,” he says – more in the mold of the classic Datsun 240Z. The car he pioneered 41 years ago still looks the business.
Heresy? Nostalgia gone mad? Let the debate begin. In the meantime, Mr. K is not on a total downer. “I like the car,” he says, sitting behind the wheel. Then he sighs. “But this is too much,” he says, surveying the 370Z's instruments and wheel.
Mr. K may be a relative unknown nowadays, but he's long been one of Japan's A-list car guys. He's the sort of guy who is regularly called upon to sign his biography, Love Cars, Love People, Love Life. In Japan, he's the celebrated “Father of the Z-car.” While he was president of Nissan's (then known as Datsun) U.S. sales operations in the 1960s and 1970s, he was the force behind the early Z-cars, which almost single-handedly changed Americans' perceptions of Japanese vehicles. Nissan – and other Japanese car makers – owe him a great deal.
Mr. K is tall, friendly and approachable and has a wicked sense of humor. He also happens to be a bright and sprightly 100 years old – but he looks 30 years younger.
And he's still driving. He has a Nissan 350Z in the garage and recently renewed his driving license for another three years. “The police sent me a congratulatory telegram,” he laughs.
Mr. K joined Nissan in 1933. As something of a free spirit, he railed against the company's bureaucratic culture and union. Eventually he was “exiled” to the U.S. in 1960, to look into Nissan's then-fledgling Datsun sales operations. Nissan saw it as punishment; to Mr. K, America's open, free-wheeling ways were a revelation.
The early years in L.A. were tough, but through perseverance and sheer strength of personality he built the business up. And when cars like the Datsun 510 and 240Z (below) came along – good-looking, sporty cars that he really fought for – Nissan's sales in the U.S. simply exploded.
Ironically, his American chapter was almost too successful in the end, as far as some of his Japanese colleagues were concerned. His outspoken comments didn't go down well at Nissan's Tokyo HQ, either. But the American dealers loved him.
In 1977, he was hauled back to Japan. With his feel for cars and high-energy, personable character, Mr. K would have made a brilliant Nissan CEO. But that was never to be.
Today, I meet Mr. K outside Komazawa Olympic Park in Tokyo. He grimaces when he sees the “Fairlady Z” badge that Nissan still uses in Japan. When the first Z-car came along in 1969, Mr. K disobeyed orders and used the model's internal code – 240Z – instead. His nomenclature stuck and it has outlived the Fairlady name in many markets, thank heaven.
I ask him whether he'd like to drive the 370Z, but he's recently been having trouble with his right knee. So I get to drive this 100-year-old legend (who was inducted into America's Automobile Hall of Fame in 1998) around Tokyo. And, on this sunny morning, the Z's a fine place to be.
Nissan has cleverly refined the 350Z's makeup to create the 370Z, which exudes that same simple, honest sports car feel, but also feels stiffer, grippier, and is definitely better presented. It's certainly not short of speed or power, either. Still, this muscle car approach cuts little ice with Mr. K. Sitting later in his office in Jiyugaoka, he bemoans the fact that the car is too heavy and gaudy. And actually quite expensive. At just shy of 5 million yen ($54k), it's in a different league from early Z-cars, which cost ¥3 million to ¥4 million ($30k to $40k) in Japan.
To Mr. K, the Z-car should be simpler – styled like a thoroughbred, but with a price accessible to young people. It should offer the same kind of character and involvement that you get from a Mazda MX-5, or even a Caterham (yes, he loves those, too).
Something like a reborn 200SX might suit him down to the ground, then, but Nissan's long-running on-off flirtation with the idea is currently in the off position. Still, Mr. K saw Toyota's FT-86 concept at the Tokyo show, and he concedes with a smile that this Subaru-engined, rear-drive coupe “is something like a new Z should be.”
“Two hundred years ago we were riding horses, but we've lost that feeling of uncomplicated freedom nowadays,” sighs Mr. K, who plonks a toy horse on the table to illustrate his point. “Look, this horse has no tachometer or speedometer or whatever, but man can still control the speed and enjoy riding the horse. Keep it simple – that's the way it should be.”
And yet, horsepower aside, when it comes to the next Z-car, Mr. K is prepared to think the unthinkable. Could it be a hybrid? “Hybrid is sometimes OK,” he admits, “but I don't know which way Nissan will go.”
An electric Z, perhaps, based on the Leaf? “Yes, it could be. Nissan is trying very hard with a lot of money, so it will come.” The problem, he reckons, is the battery: “It is too heavy and needs to be simplified.”
What does he think of the Tesla Roadster? “No interest! Without any sound, maybe they will have to use a bell.” OK, but what about these clever new sound synthesis systems that Lotus and others are working on for hybrids and EVs? “No, don't imitate anything. It has to be original,” says Mr. K, a purist who attributes reaching 100 years of age to something as straightforward as drinking water. Lots and lots of water.
On the future of the Z, he's not finished yet. Today's car uses a relatively thirsty, noisy 3.7-liter V6. But Mr. K is more enamored by VW's smaller-capacity, turbocharged engines. And the growing automation in cars is another no-no for him; the driver should be in control.
“Driving with the top down is fantastic,” he adds, his face breaking into another infectious grin.