Home » You Got A ‘Fast’ Car: 1981 Datsun 280ZX Turbo vs 1983 Pontiac Trans Am

You Got A ‘Fast’ Car: 1981 Datsun 280ZX Turbo vs 1983 Pontiac Trans Am

Sbsd 5 19 2023
ADVERTISEMENT

Good morning, Autopians, and welcome once again to the only two-crappy-car shootout that matters: Shitbox Showdown! It’s Friday, which means it’s time for something a little bit special. Today we’re going to be looking at a pair of high-performance coupes from a time when the light was just barely visible at the end of the ’70s tunnel. But first, let’s see what you made of yesterday’s odd couple:

Screen Shot 2023 05 18 At 5.45.40 Pm

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Looks like the Nova wins, although from the sounds of it, many of you were simply voting against the Fiat and its perceived title problems. Really, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal; estates sell cars all the time, and I can’t imagine every one of them has the title in hand. Anyway, for my money, it’s that Nova and its tacky-in-all-the-right-ways interior.

Today’s matchup was brought to mind by the latest installment of Jason’s brilliant “Glorious Garbage” feature, which showcased another vehicle that was tacky in all the right ways: the 1978 Plymouth Volaré “Street Kit Car.” This goofy NASCAR cosplay package was no one’s idea of a muscle car, at least by the standards of a few years prior. But this was 1978, when even Chevy’s mighty Corvette was taking seven and a half seconds to reach 60 mph, one hash-mark past the Federally-required giant orange “55” marking on the speedometer. That ’78 Nova we looked at yesterday, a fairly typical family car for the time, took nearly twelve seconds to reach the same speed. The Plymouth’s performance wasn’t all that shabby, all things considered.

Fast-forward 45 years, and a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, a fairly typical family car today, can out-accelerate the ‘Vette to 60 by a couple tenths (7.3 seconds, per Car and Driver), and absolutely blow the doors off anything else from 1978 short of a Ferrari or Porsche. Maybe performance and speed need to be “adjusted for inflation” like prices are. Or at the very least, performance cars from slower eras deserve a little sympathy.

ADVERTISEMENT

So today we’re going back to a time when the worst of the malaise era was coming to an end, when power and performance were starting to creep ever so slowly back into sporty cars. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

1981 Datsun 280ZX Turbo – $9,800

00l0l 84psibzxymc 0ci0t2 1200x900

Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 2.8 liter overhead cam inline 6, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Dallas, TX

Odometer reading: 58,000 miles

ADVERTISEMENT

Quicker than a RAV4 Hybrid? Yes, but only a little

Datsun’s Z car was already a hero by the time the 280ZX gained a turbocharger in 1980, but the addition of forced induction gave the Z the power to back up its sporty looks: 180 horsepower, to be exact. This was good enough to take the 280ZX to 60 miles an hour in a little over seven seconds, at least with an automatic. The five-speed manual, surprisingly, was about a half a second slower.

00b0b Jfg4a0zcbyv 0ci0t2 1200x900

This Z is an automatic, and is equipped with T-tops, a perfect combination for cruising around, or taking Jennifer Jason Leigh on a date. As Nissan’s flagship sports coupe, it’s loaded with other goodies as well: leather seats, power windows, and a very ’80s tape deck. It’s one year too early for the 280ZX’s best parlor trick, however; the voice warning module wasn’t available until 1982.

00505 9ugldxadvmx 0ci0t2 1200x900

ADVERTISEMENT

The seller says this car’s 2.8 liter inline six has had a lot of recent maintenance done on it, and it runs beautifully and accelerates like it should. The air conditioning doesn’t work, nor does the radio apparently, so there’s some work to be done still. The odometer shows only 58,000 miles, which if correct likely means this car was sitting around for a long time instead of being enjoyed like it should have been. It’s cool that there are some survivors like this still around, and available for sale, but honestly, I don’t mind seeing them rusty and beat-up and with 300,000 miles on the clock, because every mile and every ding and scratch tells a story.

00i0i 8bueczhjsa7 0ci0t2 1200x900

Stylistically, this car is like a greatest-hits of the early ’80s. In addition to the T-tops, it has louvers on the rear windows, gold-painted alloy wheels, a NACA duct on the hood, and of course, 5 mph bumpers. The bronze-gold paint is definitely of the era as well. The paint is original, and pretty shiny, but there is a bit of rust along the bottom edge. It would be worth investigating how serious that is.

00p0p 3wxwkl3nty0 0ci0t2 1200x900

Still, even as it is, you could have a lot of fun cruising around in this car. It’s quick enough to effortlessly keep up with modern traffic, and as popular as these once were, there aren’t many left these days; expect to draw some attention. Fix the tape deck, slide in Journey’s Greatest Hits, pop the collar on your dress shirt, and paint the town bronze.

ADVERTISEMENT

1983 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – $11,975

00i0i 35rdutfdn2r 0ak07k 1200x900

Engine/drivetrain: 5.0 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: San Jose, CA

Odometer reading: 61,000 miles

Quicker than a RAV4 Hybrid? Nope, sorry

ADVERTISEMENT

High-tech turbocharged engines were one way of accelerating out of the malaise era, but General Motors took a different approach, or rather, the same old approach with some new technology thrown at it. The third-generation Firebird and Camaro arrived on the scene in 1982 with a new trick: electronic fuel injection, but only at the bottom and top of the engine range. The 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” four-cylinder had a single throttle body, and the Trans Am’s 305 V8 received the “Cross-Fire Injection” system, with two throttle bodies. This fancy new induction method didn’t make a ton of power; it was only rated at 165 horsepower, a mere shadow of the “Super Duty” Trans Ams of a decade earlier.

00q0q Bdefpuixgld 0ak07k 1200x900

But even a low-output V8 makes the proper sort of noises for a car like the Trans Am, and gives it the proper attitude. And the 305 had a lot less weight to haul around; the third generation F-body weighed 500 pounds less than the second generation. An automatic transmission was compulsory with this engine; in 1983 this meant a TH700R4 four-speed with overdrive.

00z0z 83ycokzdaum 0ak07k 1200x900

This car became famous on TV, of course, but these days the idea of a black Trans Am with a yoke for a steering wheel and a bunch of blinky lights on the dashboard is as tired and overdone as a pearl-white Beetle with stripes and roundels and the number 53 on it. It’s refreshing to see a nice clean steel-blue Trans Am like this with no hint of Knight Rider to it. And I like the turbine-style wheels without the “bowling ball” wheel covers, especially with the white-letter tires to set them off.

ADVERTISEMENT

00c0c 2lb4lrxc5ln 0ak07k 1200x900

This 61,000-mile car is just about as clean as an ’83 Trans Am has been since probably 1986 or so. It looks practically new, inside and out. Now, it is still a Firebird, so I’m sure that dash top squeaks and rattles and the windows wobble in the doors when they’re halfway down. These cars were always more about style than substance.

00r0r L5ok09uuksn 0ak07k 1200x900

But if you are of a certain age and background, this car’s style speaks to you. No, not speaks; it shouts at you like Vince Neil shouts at the devil. I remember seeing a Trans Am similar to this in the window of Jim Detzler Pontiac when I was young, and being absolutely transfixed. It’s the automotive equivalent of a chunky riff being hammered out on a Jackson guitar through a Marshall stack, and it makes no apologies for it, and I love it for that.

Neither one of these cars is going to win any drag races today. The Chrysler 300 I drive every day would leave either of them in a cloud of dust, and even an average minivan would give them a run for their money. But that isn’t really the point. In their day, they were decent performers, and they still have the fast-car attitude. At the end of the day, if you feel cool driving it, who cares how fast it actually is? All that’s left for you is to make your power choice: high-tech Japanese turbo wizardry, or good ol’ American V8 rumble?

ADVERTISEMENT

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
94 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Xpumpx
Xpumpx
9 months ago

im pickin the chicken. just barely, i love em both

bmw325_num99
bmw325_num99
9 months ago

The rear wiper on the Trans Am is very rare for F-body’s of any decade or generation. In fact, I think 83 was the ONLY year (or maybe 83 and 84) that any rear wiper was offered on any Camaro of Firebird on any generation. This car is history on wheels!

Cautionary Tail-Light
Cautionary Tail-Light
9 months ago

I guess you have to be of a certain age to get the Fast Car reference in the headline… https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/30/Fastcar_tchapman.jpg

Last edited 9 months ago by Cautionary Tail-Light
PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
9 months ago

The Nissan would be far better if the condition of these two were equal, but they’re not. The Pontiac is the clear winner here.

You’ll have a lot of work ahead of you cleaning up the rusty edges of that Nissan. And can you get body panels if you find hidden problems? The Nissan automatic has to go, but sourcing a manual and all the related parts and trim is sure to be difficult.

The Trans Am is a true gently used California car, rust free and nearly spotless. An eventual LS solves almost every issue it has. And because it’s a GM F-body, you can build it into almost anything you want it to be. Further, replacement panels and parts are still out there, cheap and plentiful, and probably will be until the end of time.

Definitely the Pontiac. Great color, too.

Toecutter
Toecutter
9 months ago

The Z deserves a manual swap.

Dave Stedt
Dave Stedt
9 months ago

Gotta go with the Z. My first was an 82′. Silver, 5 speed, pure 80’s. I’d leave the headlights on just to impress my friends with that sexy voice, “Ding, lights are on.” The auto is a disappointment though.. I’ve had several iterations since then, up to a 350Z, and I gotta say for pure driving smiles it was hard to beat that car with the tops off. Sure miss it, especially now that pristine models are selling for north of $20k.

05LGT
05LGT
9 months ago

Both were dogs new. Anywhere outside the rust belt at least, the answer was to fix up a pre malaise car. I wouldn’t like either of these as they are, and the Z seems like a more promising starting point.

Noodles Gargamel
Noodles Gargamel
9 months ago

the idea of a black Trans Am with a yoke for a steering wheel and a bunch of blinky lights on the dashboard is as tired and overdone 

You shut your dirty mouth!

Timothy Swanson
Timothy Swanson
9 months ago

Oh man, I’d take either of these. My first car was an 84 Camaro with the 305 – I learned to wrench on that car, as it needed a valve job and other wear stuff at 140k. Ran it another 100k, and it was a great car, reliable and fun to drive. And gas mileage was not bad at all for the era. On the other hand, a Z car? If either were a stick, that would decide it, but give me either one…

Here4thecars
Here4thecars
9 months ago

It’s the automotive equivalent of a chunky riff being hammered out on a Jackson guitar through a Marshall stack, and it makes no apologies for it, and I love it for that.”

That was sublime, Mark. And after all, has anyone ever written a song about a Datsun 280ZX? I doubt it.

Sammy Hagar – Trans Am (Highway Wonderland) (1979) (Remastered) HQ – YouTube

That said, the 280ZX is the car I remember from that era, more than the Trans Am. I gotta go with the Z.

Cargeek!
Cargeek!
9 months ago

Had to go with Z! It has T-Tops, and has louvers as well as some sweet gold wheels! Also its faster and handles better then the TA. This contest is over!

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago
Reply to  Cargeek!

It just needs less brown and more blue and silver.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
9 months ago

Trans Am! Never liked these Z’s

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
9 months ago

The Z is the winner by default. It also has T-tops and slats on the rear window, and it’s just a better car, period.

The Z actually has some engineering behind it, while the Trans Am was haphazardly thrown together with the finest American kwalitee LOL.

And 40 years later, GM still hasn’t learned their lesson!

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
9 months ago

Missed opportunity to have the 81 turbo Z compete with an 81 turbo trans am!

Not like there are a lot of them around though…

Iwannadrive637
Iwannadrive637
9 months ago

Hard choice. The Z is the sensible thing to go for but I’ve always been a huge fan of 3G F bodies. I couldn’t pass up an unmolested one like this.

Mark
Mark
9 months ago

I’ve owned two S130s. Never a turbo though. A silver 83 2+2 automatic after my kid was born – she LOVED the T-Tops and with a front facing booster could get in and out of the car through the T-Tops.
And a brown 81 m/t otherwise just like this one.

They also are very reliable – the L series engines are based on a 50s MB design (M180) and by the 80s they ran forever.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
9 months ago

Any other generation of Z and I would go Z, it that first generation of ZXs, they took an iconic sports car design, basic profile intact, but pretty much made it worse in every way. I just can’t look at them without thinking the effed up the design of the first generation Z. It looks frumpy and heavy and just not good. The Camaro looks to be in great shape and is a much cleaner design.

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
9 months ago
Reply to  ProudLuddite

Trans Am, still no edit button? Still no notification of replies to comments.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
9 months ago

A cross-fire Chevy 305? Bleh. 1980s GM “quality”? Double-bleh

Give me the slushbox Nissan…

94
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x