The new 2023 Nissan Z is good, but is it as good as the 2022 Ford Mustang California Special?
Read on, as Nissan's newest star athlete takes aim at Australia's sports car king.
An old adage says that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best; and the Ford Mustang has held the crown as Australia’s best-selling sports car ever since this sixth-generation vehicle lobbed onto the local scene in late 2015.
Since then, Ford Australia has sold more than 33,000 examples of its perennial pony car. So if Nissan’s new Z is targeting sub-$100k two-door sports car buyers, statistically speaking, this is the car it has to beat.
Making this two-door showdown even better? This is a driver’s test, with both cars featuring their own rev-match compatible three-pedal six-speed manuals, backdropped by the Victorian High Country to see which of these similar, but distinct, sporting coupes has more to offer the discerning enthusiast.
Both are retro renditions of 60s icons that made their international debuts in New York – the Mustang at the 1964 World’s Fair, the ‘Fairlady Z’ in the Pierre Hotel’s Grand Ballroom five years later.
In those days, the United States was the prime target of both of these cars. These days, however, in a more globalised auto industry, a sports coupe’s survival requires success in multiple markets.
Ford is already a few steps ahead of Nissan in that regard. The sixth-generation Mustang, now seven years old, was an embodiment of the “One Ford” plan, the first Mustang to be factory-produced and sold globally in both left- and right-hand-drive markets.
Nissan’s Z comes from a lower base, and has always been positioned as a more exotic and exclusive machine. Even in its 1971 debut year, the Z’s 45,000 US sales paled in comparison to the near-300,000 Mustangs let loose across America that same year.
The success of the upcoming seventh-generation Mustang is all but assured. But recent decades of financial hardship meant Nissan’s new Z remained in question until relatively recently, and it needs to succeed here and now.
- How much are they, and what do you get?
- Interior comfort, space and storage
- What are they like to drive?
- How are they on fuel?
- How safe are they?
- Warranty and running costs?
- Related videos
How much are they, and what do you get?
|2022 Ford Mustang GT California Special||2023 Nissan Z|
|19-inch alloy wheels||19-inch alloy wheels|
|8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system||8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen|
|Active exhaust||Active noise cancellation|
|Adaptive cruise control||Adaptive cruise control|
|Ambient lighting||12.3-inch digital instrument cluster|
|Apple CarPlay, Android Auto||Apple CarPlay, Android Auto|
|Automatic headlights||Autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection|
|Automatic high-beam||Blind-spot monitoring|
|B&O Play 12-speaker premium sound system||Eight-speaker Bose sound system|
|Dual-zone climate control||Electronic rev matching (manual only, activated with 'S-Mode' button)|
|Illuminated sill plates||Front and rear parking sensors|
|Keyless entry and start||Lane departure warning|
|Leather upholstery (suede in California Special)||Leather-accented upholstery|
|Leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter||Heated front seats|
|LED headlights, tail lights and front fog lights||LED headlights and tail-lights|
|Rain-sensing wipers||Launch control (automatic only)|
|Reversing camera with rear parking sensors||Mechanical limited-slip differential|
|Satellite navigation||Rear cross-traffic alert|
|Six-way power heated and cooled front seats||Reversing camera|
|Tyre pressure monitoring||Standard and Sport modes (auto only)|
This 2022 Ford Mustang GT California Special taps a 1968 dress-up edition of the same name. Just like the original, the Mustang CS/GT gains no more power than a standard Mustang GT, and mechanically presents just as your normal 5.0-litre V8 GT Fastback would.
Asking $67,290 before on-road costs – $2000 more than a standard GT manual – the California Special nets you unique five-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels, a heritage-inspired side stripe sticker, enlarged side scoops and unique CS/GT badging at the rear and on the black honeycomb front grille.
California coupes and convertibles gain a GT Performance front splitter as standard, while California Coupes also gain a single-plane rear spoiler as standard.
Inside, the instrument panel is finished in carbon hex aluminium while the door trims and seats gain black suede inserts, red stitching and special embossed iconography.
Of course, all Mustang California Specials also gain a serialised interior plaque. Range-wide updates for all Australia-bound MY22 Mustangs included a standard-fit Line-Lock function and new paint options.
At $73,300 (before on-road costs), with no price disparity between the slick six-speed manual or Mercedes-sourced nine-speed auto, the Nissan Z occupies a compelling space within the five-figure sports coupe arena – asking $6010 over Ford’s Mustang CS/GT manual but undercutting the more focused Toyota Supra by about $14,000.
New Z pricing represents an almost 14 per cent increase over the superseded flagship 370Z Nismo, but the Australian-spec car is packed standard with all the bits you want: limited-slip diff, four-pot Akebono brakes, boot lip spoiler, 19-inch wheels and power-adjusted seats.
Despite constrained development budgets, the rejuvenated cabin of Nissan’s sports coupe presents impressively, with the 12.3-inch digital multi-function driver display and 8.0-inch central touchscreen doing the heavy lifting of modernising the faithful Z.
We observed carryover bits, yes, but Nissan has executed this redesign deftly. The triple dash-top gauges remain and, frankly, we’d be sad if they didn’t.
The Mustang’s cabin leans a little heavier into its retro charm, with super-sized dials and large Nokia-like buttons but also boasts an 8.0-inch central screen and a similar 12.0-inch digital driver display. Both vehicles’ digital clusters can be switched between various graphic layouts with many further personalisation options.
It must be noted, though, that Ford’s Sync3 system is noticeably more rich in features, as well as in graphic and haptic response. The Nissan’s navigation-free infotainment is perhaps the biggest giveaway to its reskinned roots, but wired Android and Apple smartphone mirroring makes the best of both vehicles’ screens.
The Ford system does have in-built navigation, though, and both have heated seats (Ford also has cooling functions). Both are left wanting for a wireless phone charger, however.
Mustang vs Nissan Z: Interior comfort, space and storage
While standard feature sets are rather similar between these two coupes, inherent packaging differences may present unavoidable quirks for some.
The Z, for instance, is purely a two-seat affair and there will be buyers for whom this is an irredeemable trait when measured against the pragmatic needs of daily life.
As a driver's comparison between two manually shifted coupes, this is of less weighting here – but it's a fact we'd be remiss not to mention.
Elsewhere, the Z's heated seats are nicely bolstered with manual lumbar and thigh support, plus power-adjustable slide and tilt. The seats have nice and grippy suede-like centre inserts and red leather outers. Despite its two-seat status, the Nissan's cabin has agreeable headroom for taller folk.
The driving position is spot on, with the ability to mount yourself low and close, virtually sitting on top of the car's hip point. The shifter is close to hand, and the action is among the best on sale today.
Designed to match the steering wheel of an old R32 Skyline in profile and diameter, the Z's wheel feels positively wonderful in your hands.
Functionally, the cabin works to great effect with easy steering-wheel-mounted shortcuts for cruise control and media, three simple climate control dials and some handy physical shortcut buttons below the central 12.3-inch touchscreen.
Nissan provides two cup holders, bottle pockets in the doors and both USB-A and USB-C ports up front for phone connectivity in the Z. A large storage pocket sits behind each front seat as well.
The Mustang's cabin is a familiar setting, with nice materials and comfy wide-set seats that don't offer quite the same lateral support as the Nissan. This California Special's suede upholstery does look and feel very smart, however.
You'll also find a USB-A port and a 12-volt plug beneath the centre stack, however, unlike the Nissan, there is little storage beyond what looks to be a small coin or key tray.
On the other side of the shifter, however, sit two large central cup holders and a storage bin with a second USB port beneath the armrest.
Further back, the Mustang's rear seats offer limited use cases beyond the transport of children. Legroom isn't the problem, it's headroom, though against the Z, it's better than nothing.
The Ford Mustang's measures in at a respectable 408 litres while Nissan's more specialised Z offers just 241L.
What are they like to drive?
|Ford Mustang GT California Special||Nissan Z|
|Power||339kW @ 7000rpm||298kW @ 6400rpm|
|Torque||556Nm @ 4600rpm||475Nm @ 1600-5600rpm|
|Transmission||six-speed manual (w/ rev-match)||six-speed manual (w/ rev-match)|
|Fuel/tank||98 RON / 61 litres||98 RON / 62 litres|
|Economy||13.79L/100km (tested)||11.38L/100km (tested)|
On urban transit roads out of town, the Mustang is effortless, with tall gears, boatloads of torque and a rocking soundtrack to match.
This CS/GT misses out on the optional $2750 Magneride adaptive dampers, which are an all-but-essential option for any owner with long-distance intentions for their new Mustang.
Standard fixed-rate dampers are firm but palatable at low urban speeds, with a short stroke and quick damping action quickly wrangling body movements over bumps. Faster highway speeds over potted and poorly surfaced roads, however, can cause crashing and quickly becomes tiring.
The Nissan, by comparison, breathes down the road more comfortably and feels to have a longer damping stroke with body movements lingering a touch longer than the tightly-sprung Ford.
More pronounced vertical movements and moments of slight head toss occur at higher speeds when the Z is faced with road imperfections but there’s composure to the Nissan, quickly regaining confidence and never succumbing to any hint of bump steer or tramlining.
Despite carrying over Nissan’s internal chassis designation of ‘Z34’, Nissan has made considered improvements in all the right places. The suspension has been revised to handle the massive increase in torque, with new damper mounts, modified bump stop touch points, increased front caster, and increased front and rear spring rates, though the dampers are softened by 20 per cent.
Front crash structures, part of the front firewall, rear subframe and most of the rear hatch have been redesigned and braced, with torsional stiffness increased by 10.9 per cent over the preceding 370Z.
All are necessary revisions to cater for that powerhouse 298kW/475Nm 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6. The Infiniti-sourced VR30DDTT engine leverages an 18 per cent increase in power and 28 per cent increase in torque over the old 370Z and is the biggest transformer of the new Z’s character.
The trusty Mustang, by comparison, is very familiar to Australian motorists, having enjoyed consistent success over the past seven years on sale.
Spec-savvy readers will notice that, despite the Z’s new twin-turbo V6, the Mustang’s 339kW/556Nm outputs comfortably outgun Nissan’s newest star athlete.
In both performance and pure strength of character, the Mustang’s V8 overwhelms the Z’s twin-turbo V6, which in isolation is an effective powerplant that doesn’t feel in any way weak or slow.
But driving the Z behind the Mustang during the early highway and transit stages of our test, the Nissan’s zippy V6 was simply inaudible behind the backdrop of Ford’s almost antisocial 5.0-litre soundtrack.
In isolation, it must be said, the Z’s V6 is a satisfying unit with a classically-charged charm of its own. A measure of tangible turbo lag doesn't feel out of place here, with a mid-range wave of torque swelling from 1600rpm and peaking at 5600rpm.
It’s initially underwhelming that the Z’s engine never quite crescendos, with increased revs signalled more by induction noise than any meaningful exhaust vocality, but you can bet that, in true Z fashion, there are already more aftermarket options under development than you can poke a stick at.
The Z Coupe might weigh a neat 100kg less than the Mustang but, in the real world, the Mustang has a superior power-to-weight ratio of 199kW/tonne, compared to the Z’s 186kW/tonne, and frequently puts car lengths on the Nissan both from a standstill and often on corner-exit – leaning lazily on those long gears without any affliction of boost-induced lag.
Ford's Coyote V8 makes a higher peak torque at 4600rpm, a whole 1000rpm lower than the Nissan VR30DDTT. Nevertheless, it did come as a bit of a surprise to see the Mustang shrinking ahead from behind the wheel of the Z.
Early points go to the Mustang for its straight-line prowess, and perhaps its initial charisma, but there’s a lot more to unpack here.
Both cars’ rear axles are shod with 275-section tyres, but the Mustang makes more meaningful progress with superior Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, while the Z’s softer Bridgestone Potenza S007 hoops more often devolve into wheelspin under corner exit power down.
It must be said that the ESC calibrations of both of these cars are rather loose, with frequent hints of slip and yaw requiring corrective lock, even when all systems are on.
The Mustang delivers bigger moments, delivering a more rapid pendulum effect given its larger kerb weight and longer wheelbase.
Both vehicles will catch you if they think you’ve tipped it over the edge, but get comfortable with the confines of both systems and both of these vehicles will allow you to satisfyingly steer into yaw while feathering the throttle – as long as you don’t get too out of shape.
It sure makes for an entertaining drive, though. And when push comes to shove on a twisting Australian back road, these two coupes diverge.
The Mustang feels big on the road and is never entirely comfortable being pushed beyond seven-tenths.
The steering is heavy by default and translates little road texture and shape to the hands, with little variance in feel as the pace increases.
Sportier steering modes add needless heft and no tangible benefit in terms of feel but there is a Light option you can set up under custom, which is preferred at urban speeds but exacerbates the lack of front-end feedback under dynamic circumstances.
Fixed-rate dampers are inherently firm but well-judged when pressing on, with body control maintained and recovering quickly when upset by sharp mid-corner bumps.
The Mustang’s ergonomics, however, don’t make hustling this horse a comfortable affair, with wide-set seats that lack lateral support for those slighter of frame and a shifter that feels high and too far back for someone who likes to sit low and close.
An enduring highlight is the six-speed Getrag’s burly shift action and though the spacing of brake and throttle pedals doesn't make heel-and-toe actions a natural affair, the auto-blip is mightily effective and satisfying to engage with when rowing down gears on a hot corner entry.
By contrast, the Nissan’s pedal box is more heel-toe friendly but you have to be deep in the brakes to make it fluid. Still, the Z feels totally different in this setting; lithe, agile and nails everything that the Mustang GT just misses the mark on when it comes to being a serious drivers car.
The lighter steering doesn’t significantly load up in weight through a corner, but is filled with texture and communicates the road surface to your hands in detail.
A tighter spread of ratios requires more gear changes and produces much more engagement with the machine. There’s also a quicker steering ratio (15:1 v 16:1) in the Z, which lends itself to an overall feeling of nimbleness and agility, while the Mustang’s slower steering exacerbates its lack of front-end accuracy.
The Nissan’s soft suspension produces large body motions at speed, but the car’s contact patch never wavers. The Bridgestone-clad rears of the Z may break away earlier than the Mustang's French hoops, but they do so with progression and a level of adjustability beyond the reach of the blunt-force Blue Oval coupe.
How are they on fuel?
Over the course of our test with the new Nissan Z and Ford Mustang GT California Special, it was the Z that came out the lighter drinker of the two.
The Nissan Z registered 11.38L/100km, against the V8 Mustang's 13.79L/100km.
Nissan's official combined fuel claim for the Z coupe is 10.8L/100km, while Ford claims a combined 12.7L/100km for the Mustang GT.
How safe are they?
The Nissan Z is yet to be assessed by ANCAP and remains unrated.
Nevertheless, it has taken a big step up in passive and active safety features and includes as standard: adaptive cruise control, auto emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning.
It features six airbags comprising dual front, side and curtain units.
The Ford Mustang GT wears a three-star ANCAP rating based on tests conducted in 2017.
Standard with the Mustang are adaptive cruise control, AEB with pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist.
The Mustang also features front, front-side, curtain and driver's knee airbags.
What about warranty and running costs?
The Nissan Z is covered by Nissan Australia's five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with service intervals occurring every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first.
Ford Australia also offers a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, though the Mustang's service intervals better suit high-milers as they run every 12 months or 15,000km (whichever occurs first).
Both cars here run on a 98 RON fuel diet.
Pushing the Mustang on the road can be unnerving; pushing the Z is wonderfully addictive.
Throughout a day of back-to-backs on some of our favourite roads in Victoria, a trend emerges by day’s end. Whoever got in the Nissan would naturally motion the Mustang ahead. The brutish Ford deploys more power and torque through better tyres and is more often able to hold a higher mid-corner speed than the Z.
You’ll be in the Nissan coupe and the Ford might be slowly producing a gap ahead, but you won’t care. Pushing the Mustang on the road can be unnerving; pushing the Z is wonderfully addictive.
If you’re a car buyer and all you care about is engines, or if all you want to know is how to acquire the most kilowatts for the least amount of dollars – read no further and buy a Mustang, you’re going to have a wonderful time.
Upon reflection, while these two sports coupes may have lived an adjacent existence, they are two distinct products for two distinct buyers.
The Ford Mustang, especially as this fetching California Special, offers its ownership payoff in the strength of its character, in the way the rev-flare tickles your neck every time you fire up the V8, and the way it makes you feel – whether you’re crawling along in traffic or munching kilometres on the highway.
Nissan’s intriguing new Z, however, is a comparatively multi-dimensional thing and, against the Mustang’s shock and awe, could be misinterpreted as initially soft or underwhelming. There’s more to unpack here though, and as an owner, it’ll beg you to set early Sunday morning alarms, to go driving and to subtly peel back its layers.
It’s a close fight, but here and now, in the High Country, Nissan’s Z emerges as the sharper and more intoxicating tool.
But the war is not lost. Next year Ford will swing back with a new-generation Mustang, and we know there are harder, more focused Z variants in the pipeline.
This feud, almost 60 years in the making, will wage on. Long may it continue.
Nissan Z: 8.5/10
What we liked
- Ride and composure
- Breadth of talent
- Chassis balance
Not so much
- Lacks engine vocality
- Dated infotainment
- Stock tyres aren't the most focused
Mustang GT CS: 8.0/10
What we liked
- The vibes
- V8 soundtrack
- Power-per-dollar equation
Not so much
- Back-seat headroom
- Firm fixed-rate dampers
- Dull front axle
|Ford Mustang GT California Special||Nissan Z|
|Price||$70,290 (as tested) + on-road costs||$73,300 (as tested) + on-road costs|
|Engine||V8, dohc, direct-injected 32v petrol||V6, dohc, direct-injected, 24v twin-turbo petrol|
|Layout||front engine (north-south), rear-wheel drive||front-engine (north-south), rear-wheel drive|
|Gearbox||six-speed manual + auto rev match||six-speed manual + auto rev match|
|Body||steel, 2-door, 4-seat coupe||steel, 2-door, 2-seat coupe|
|Track (F/R)||1642mm||Front: 1555mm. Rear: 1565mm|
|Fuel/tank||98 RON / 61 litres||98 RON / 62 litres|
|Economy||13.8L/100km (tested)||11.4L/100km (tested)|
|Suspension||Front: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Front: double wishbone, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Steering||electric, rack and pinion||electric, rack and pinion|
|Front brakes||ventilated discs (380mm)||ventilated discs (356mm)|
|Rear brakes||ventilated discs (330mm)||ventilated discs (351mm)|
|Tyres||Michelin Pilot Sport 4S||Bridgestone Potenza S007|
|Tyre size||Front: 255/40R19. Rear: 275/40/19||Front: 255/40/19. Rear: 275/35/19|
|ANCAP rating||3 stars||unrated|
|0-100km/h||4.6sec (tested)||4.7sec (estimated)|