Jay Leno doesn’t have a ton of Japanese cars on his show, but the last two were both Zs. And they couldn’t be more different. One is a 1970 Honda Z600, a 2-cylinder front-wheel-drive compact making about 36 horsepower; the other is a brand new rear-wheel-drive Nissan Z with a twin-turbo V6 making 400-horsepower. Both are enjoyable drives in their own way.
Most of the cars that appear on Leno’s show are factory fresh, but the Honda Z600 is a bit rough around the edges. The product of a father/son project, who say they found it sitting outside of a Pasadena shop after 30 years or so. Turns out, the dad had been a Honda dealer since he was 25 years old and the Z600 was one of the first cars he sold. It made for the perfect classic to bond with his now-23-year-old son over.
The 600 is the US-spec “big block” compared to the 360cc unit found on Japanese versions (which were limited in displacement as per kei-class regulations). Even so, the engine is practically as big as those federally mandated side markers.
During the test drive portion the Honda does the unthinkable and breaks down. Leno, with his lifetime of old car tinkering experience, is able to diagnose from the driver’s seat that the fuel cap breather was clogged. Once it’s popped off the car is on its merry way again. You can see Leno gets more joy out of figuring out the issue than a dog with a bone. These cars are surprisingly sprightly and love to rev, so driving a 50-year-old, 36-horsepower car in LA traffic isn’t nearly as nightmarish as it sounds.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is his turn behind the 2023 Nissan Z. Leno has high praise for Nissan being able to launch a 2-seater sports car in current market conditions. He also commends Nissan for building an accessible performance machine in the same spirit as the 240Z. If you can look past his boomer-centric opinions, like about how the Z was the first Japanese car designed specifically for the US market, it’s an enjoyable ride.
There’s even a flashback portion in the middle of the video, in which Leno visits the Nissan design studio in Japan under Shiro Nakamura‘s reign. It took place in 2012 and it was interesting to see Nakamura-san say he hoped Nissan would debut a successor to the Z in time for Nissan’s 80th anniversary, which happened in 2013. History shows that was a pipe dream, but it proves Nissan designers were hard at work sketching ideas and trying to make them a reality.
With over 11 times the horsepower of the Honda, the Nissan feels like a closing chapter in a long novel. The Honda represents the dawn of Japanese imports to the US, when Japanese companies were willing to try anything. The Z was essentially a motorcycle engine with a kei car built around it and Soichiro Honda was like, “Hey, let’s give it a shot!” The Nissan represents the end of that era, a car that had to jump through a zillion safety regulation hoops and fight a crossover-happy market for every inch of its life. Maybe it’s appropriate that alphabet ends in Z.