A blue 2023 Nissan Z is shown from the front at an angle.

What’s So Special About the Nissan Z?

The 2023 North American Car of the Year award finalists were announced on November 17, 2022, at the Los Angeles Auto Show’s AutoMobility LA showcase. To the surprise of several critics, the 2023 Nissan Z made the final three. But why the surprise? Just one look at the new Nissan Z is enough to see that this is a very different vehicle from its 240Z and 370Z ancestors. It shares their simple, sleek, aerodynamic body style, but there’s something a bit different about this generation. It’s easy to see why a Nissan dealer would want a Z front and center on their lot; it’s an exquisite car. But you don’t get to be a Car of the Year finalist by just looks alone.

The official winner of North American Car of the Year will be announced at the Detroit North American International Auto Show and will be the result of careful testing and analysis by a panel of 50 jurors, who then conduct three rounds of voting to determine the overall winner. Let’s take a look at how the new Z managed to wrangle the honor of being nominated alongside the newly redesigned Acura Integra and Genesis G80 EV.

Performance: It’s in the Name

The Nissan Z was not built for life in the slow lane. Over the 50-plus years of the Z history, it has always been a performance-oriented sports car. This is evidenced by the careful engineering and thought put into every inch of the 2023 Z. Both the 2023 Nissan Z Sport and aptly named Performance trims are powered by a 3.0L Turbo V6 engine that provides a generous 400 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. For a power-on-power comparison, the 2023 Nissan Titan also enjoys 400 hp.

The Z also takes an interesting approach toward drivability, highlighting the connection between a car and driver. The standard close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission is engineered to provide an almost intuitive connection between the driver and the shifter. However, if shifting isn’t your thing, Nissan offers an optional quick-response 9-speed automatic transmission with aluminum paddle shifters.

Drivers who select the automatic transmission get a standard launch control system, which is also included on Performance models with a manual transmission. This system provides even more direct engagement between the driver and the Z, synching Gs for high-speed cornering and goosebump-inducing acceleration.

The blue interior of a 2023 Nissan Z is shown from the driver's seat.

Filled With Driver-Centric Features

While the connection of driver to vehicle is central to the 2023 Nissan Z’s engineering, the interior design also reflects this synchronicity. The Z’s expert design team consulted with Nissan Super GT500 driver Tsugio Matsuda to ensure the cockpit layout took a supercar driver’s needs into consideration. As such, the infotainment touchscreen, 8 inches in the Sport trim and 9 inches in the Performance trim, is specifically laid out so drivers can intuitively use its features while calmly accelerating, braking, and steering.

Additionally, the 12.3-inch TFT meter display is placed right in the driver’s line of vision and offers different display modes to provide exactly the right details. Normal mode includes navigation, audio, and vehicle details, while Enhanced mode increases the size of the navigation screen, as well as the tachometer and speedometer. Sport mode prominently displays the tachometer with a well-placed up-shift signal to help drivers find perfect timing and can include the G force meter or boost meter, depending on driver preference.

Even the suede seatbacks and overall seat design reflect the needs of the driver. Borrowing a few concepts from the Nissan GT-R, the seats help absorb and reduce the impact of shake, acceleration, and cornering on the driver and passenger. Other standard features include automatic temperature control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, streaming audio and hands-free device connection with voice operation, and front and rear sonar sensors. The Performance trim provides a little extra enhancement to your driving playlist with an 8-speaker Bose audio system with Active Noise Cancellation and Active Sound Enhancement.

The Practical, “Approachable” Supercar

The 2023 Nissan Z is a powerful vehicle uniquely engineered to help man and machine work as one. However, one area in which it exceeds expectations is its overall personality. The 2023 model inherits its ideal as an “approachable sports car” from previous generations. According to Michael Colleran, senior vice president of Nissan US Marketing and Sales, “The 2023 Z makes sports car design, performance, and excitement accessible for a wide range of customers… The all-new Z delivers on Nissan’s long-time promise of an ‘attainable dream car,’ bringing passion and enthusiasm to the marketplace for a new generation of fans.”

This is reflected not just in the price of the all-new Z, which is similar to the starting MSRP of a 2023 Maxima or Titan, but in the road-friendly features built into this supercar. The Nissan Z will never be a carpool car, mainly due to its lack of a rear seat. However, Nissan still believes an approachable sports car should be safe. Not only does the Z include a full host of airbags, but also a full suite of standard driver assistance features, such as intelligent cruise control, intelligent forward collision warning, blind spot warning, and lane departure warning.

Nissan kept the small details in mind, too, with the steering wheel, shifter, and parking brake wrapped in leather. This may sound like a reasonable luxury touch until you consider how the Z is meant to be driven. That leather wrapping can provide an even deeper level of connection between driver and car, enhancing grip and control while steering through hard turns.

The new deep-dish steering wheel is also set up for driver comfort, control, and convenience, with driver controls helpfully mounted on the wheel in intuitive positions. Are steering wheel-mounted controls a new thing? No, they’ve been around for over a decade. But it’s the level of care that Nissan has placed into making sure drivers have the right functions in the right place that makes driving a vehicle like the 2023 Z an incredibly special experience.

A yellow 2023 Nissan Z is shown from the rear at an angle after leaving a Nissan dealer.

Famous for a Reason

The 2023 Nissan Z is the kind of sports car nearly any driver would like to try at least once. It lacks the notoriety associated with many high-ticket sports cars, yet it offers performance levels that will provide most drivers with a reasonable amount of goosebumps. It has all the top-shelf accouterments you’d expect from a sports car without losing focus on the fact that a car is meant to be driven and enjoyed.

So which of these qualities made the 2023 Nissan Z stand out to the North American Car of the Year award jury? While we may never know the exact recipe for the Z’s long-standing success, a few ingredients truly stand out. The Z is a performance-oriented vehicle that produces big, fast numbers when the gas pedal is pressed, but it’s also a car that can behave itself on the road. The seats are intended to help the body absorb G-force, but the audio controls are nicely placed so you can access your “Hardcore Driving” playlist.

The Nissan Z truly lives up to the vision of an accessible sports car, but it’s not only accessible; it’s accommodating. Even welcoming. With its intuitive engineering, reasonable price point, and “just right” selection of standard features, the Z somehow exudes the spirit of a family-oriented vehicle like the Maxima with the attitude of a track boss like the GT-R.