Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
High-performance top-down motoring.
The Nissan 350Z recaptures elements of the original Datsun 240Z. It's fast, it's fun, it's pure sports car. And, like the original Z, it's affordable, or at least attainable.
A convertible called the Z Roadster has joined the lineup for 2004, adding the joy of open-air motoring to the mix. The Roadster's chassis gives up almost none of the solidness that characterizes the coupe. The Roadster feels as rigid as a prototype racer's and tighter, in fact, than some higher priced soft tops. With the top up, the look is traditional coupe, in profile giving no hint of its transitory nature. Top down, there's a hint of the Porsche Speedster's high-waisted, bustle back end. The Z Roadster looks even more like a mid-engine sports car than the hatchback.
The coupe, introduced as an all-new model for 2003, continues without changes. Coupe or roadster, the 350Z is as responsive as a hungry cheetah, with racecar handling, rear-wheel drive, and thrilling acceleration performance. The suspension keeps the tires glued to the road through fast chicanes. Bounce over the curbs like Michael Schumacher and the Z will hold its line. Styling details like the controversial industrial-design door handles ensure this car will never be called bland.
All 350Zs get the same sports suspension and Nissan's superb V6 engine, which punches out 287 horsepower and strong torque. It comes standard with racy hardware: a six-speed manual gearbox, carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, anti-lock discs vented front and rear with electronic brake-force distribution. Add the convenience features that come standard, such as automatic temperature control and a premium stereo, and the price of the Nissan 350Z is quite compelling.
Nissan says the 350Z was designed to be a sports car an enthusiast can live with every day. While its firm ride, abrupt throttle response, and awkward cup holders don't make it a great place to drink coffee, eat doughnuts, and make phone calls on the way to work, it is a comfortable car with usable cargo space, and getting in and out isn't impossibly awkward. Order a version with the excellent five-speed automatic, and you'll have a better commuter for the daily stop-and-go.
Bottom line: The Nissan 350Z is no poser. It more than delivers on the promise of its stellar looks. It's a real sports car with serious GT performance. The Roadster simply adds wind-in-your hair freedom.
Nine models of the Nissan 350Z are available, but all come with the same 3.5-liter V6 engine and suspension layout. They come in coupe and roadster body styles.
Differences among them lie primarily in trim. Different size wheels and tires, however, give the models distinct personalities. The exception is the Track model, which features higher spring rates and shock damping along with bigger brakes. All models get the carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, and dual outlet exhaust with dumps big enough to hold a Budweiser can.
The base Nissan 350Z ($26,269) comes standard with 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, vented front and rear disc brakes with ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, dual stage air bags, seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters, automatic temperature control, 160-watt AM/FM/CD with six speakers, power windows (with auto-up/auto-down on both sides), power door locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, vehicle security system, a leather steering wheel and shifter boot, and comfortable cloth seats. It comes with a six-speed manual transmission.
Enthusiast ($28,249) is the most popular model. It adds xenon headlamps, HomeLink universal transceiver, cruise control, traction control, viscous limited-slip rear differential, aluminum pedals, day/night rearview mirror, dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors. The Enthusiast model is also available with a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode ($29,219). The Roadster Enthusiast ($33,850) reverts to the 160-watt stereo and fabric seats but keeps the 4-way power driver's seat and two-way power passenger's seat. Neither the seats nor the mirrors get heaters.
The Performance model ($30,429), available only with the manual gearbox, adds 18-inch wheels and tires, Vehicle Dynamic Control (an anti-skid system), and a tire-pressure monitor.
The Touring model is available with manual or automatic transmissions. When ordered with the automatic, Touring ($31,589) adds leather-appointed seats, with a four-way power driver's seat, a two-way power passenger's seat, and seat heaters, heated mirrors, and a 240-watt Bose CD6 with cassette and seven speakers. But it does not come with Vehicle Dynamic Control or the aluminum pedals, and it's fitted with the 17-inch wheels. Order the Touring model with the six-speed manual ($33,179) and you get all the luxury stuff plus VDC, 18-inch wheels, and the aluminum pedals; it's a Performance model with leather and other luxury goodies, in other words. The Roadster Touring ($36,220) adds supplemental side airbags.
The Track model ($34,079) gets vented Brembo brakes, 18-inch rubber mounted on lightweight aluminum wheels, and front and rear spoilers. It comes with the cloth, but is equipped with VDC, the viscous differential, xenon headlights, tire-pressure monitor, HomeLink, aluminum pedals (of course), the electrochromic mirror, and illuminated visor vanity mirrors (to ensure your hair is safely tucked under your helmet).
A side air bag and curtain air bag package ($569) is optional on the hatchback and a very good idea, as is the supplemental side air bag option ($250) on the Roadster Enthusiast. A DVD-based navigation system ($2,000) is available.
No sunroof, no T-top is available on the hatchback, so if you like high-performance, top-down motoring, your only choice is the roadster. Nissan says high-performance parts will be available from Nismo, the company's racing division that competes at Le Mans and other sports car venues. Look for engine, suspension, and body bits.
With its bulging front fenders and fast back, the Z suggests a Porsche 911, while the Roadster's aero-look in the rear reminds us of a Porsche Speedster. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, of course. Regardless, the new Z drew a lot of 'nice car' comments in our initial testing, while the Roadster drew longing glances at stop lights.
The shape of the Z suggests a mid-engine design. The engine is in fact in front of the driver, but it's behind the front axle. That's why Nissan calls it a front mid-ship placement (somewhat similar to the Mazda RX-8 design). The Z shares its underbody architecture with the Infiniti G35 coupe and sedan. Moving the engine rearward evens out weight distribution, which improves handling balance. The new Z Roadster adds more than 200 pounds to the hatchback's 3,200 pounds, but the weight front/rear weight split remains at 53/47 percent. It's balanced well for accelerating out of corners.
An extremely short front overhang and a short rear overhang make for agile handling. It also means you don't scrape driveway transitions like you do in a Corvette. Bulging fender flares make the Z look like it's ready for the racetrack, which it is.
The hatchback's shape, besides looking really cool, allows it to slice through the air with a minimum of drag (0.29 on the Track model). The Roadster's more traditional coupe outline isn't quite as slippery, attaining a drag coefficient of 0.34. (But what do you care when you've got the wind in your hair?) Underbody airflow is managed well, with zero lift on the front (and zero lift on the rear of the Track model). All this math adds up to relatively low levels of wind noise, even in the Roadster with the top up, and a stable sports car at high speeds.
With the top down, conversation in the Roadster required only slightly raised voice levels; the stereo did, however, have to be cranked up a bit.
The interior of the Nissan 350Z is a cockpit designed for driving, helping the driver quickly become one with the car. The carbon-fiber colored cloth seats are form-fitting, supportive and comfortable, made of a soft material that grips the body in the corners. The driver's seat bottom features a mound in the center at the front to restrain the driver from sliding forward under deceleration. Aggressive side bolsters grip the waist to hold the driver in place. The leather seats in the Touring model feel a little firmer than the cloth, and are available in charcoal, burnt orange or frost. Either cloth or leather is a good choice in this case. The supportive seats and a driver's dead pedal mean you never feel like you have to hang on to the car.
The seating position should be good for drivers with long legs, though the steering wheel felt a little close when the seat was adjusted for the legs of a six-footer. It's worth noting, however, that this feeling went away the moment the key was turned in the ignition. The Roadster boasts an inch more headroom than the hatchback, thanks to the articulation of the top's various mechanicals.
Tilt the steering column and the main pod of gauges moves with it, ensuring a clear view of the instruments for drivers of all sizes. The instruments consist of a big tachometer and flanking speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges. Reminiscent of the original Z, nestled in three pods on top of the dash are a voltmeter, an oil pressure gauge and a digital trip computer. They look retro-cool, but reading them requires more than a glance.
Two toggles to the right of the steering wheel operate the trip computer, used to check outside air temperature, distance to empty, speed, average mileage, and average speed. It has a stopwatch function (to check out those 0-60 times), and a tire-pressure monitor for 18-inch wheels. With the Trip Computer, the driver can program a shift light to come on at a certain rpm. The small red indicator on the tachometer begins flashing abut 500 rpm before the preset engine speed is reached, whereupon it comes on solid. You can program it for the ideal shift points for acceleration or fuel economy, then let your peripheral vision pick up the indicator. If you don't like this feature you can turn it off.
The interior of the Z seems to suggest a carbon-fiber racecar tub. The material surrounding the shifter and forming the center dash looks like carbon fiber. Likewise, the large expanse of gray material lining the door panels suggests carbon fiber in appearance. The quality of the materials is okay, though some of the pieces would never be allowed in an Audi. It looked austere at first, but quickly grew on us. Stylish interior touches, such as the inside door handles integrated into aerodynamic pods for the side vents, give the Z a racy, modern look; with the AC at work on hot days, the handles chill to fit their frosty look. Passengers often grope for the door release the first time they try to get out, distracted by the big grab handles adorned with genuine aluminum and relieved by the Z's dot motif.
Stylish audio controls include a big volume knob, clearly marked buttons for channel seeking, and six station buttons that can be preset simply by holding them down. We confess we were too focused on entertaining ourselves with the car to turn it on, and we've driven various models of the Z on both coasts. Below the radio are three large knobs for the automatic climate control system, which comes standard.
Nicely designed wiper and headlamp controls are mounted on short stalks. The leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels great, and comes with cruise controls. Overhead are well-designed map lights and a bin for sunglasses. Power window switches are auto-up/auto-down. Two power points are available, one in the center console, the other in the bulkhead between and behind the seats, but neither is conveniently located for radar detectors.
The Z is not the.
Turning the key and hearing the engine roar to life is the first indication the Nissan 350Z is no poser. Turning onto a winding road proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Sharp steering, terrific handling, and excellent grip make this a real driver's car. This car is very fast with brilliant acceleration. The Roadster's additional weight, a result of the platform strengthening added to restore the rigidity lost along with the solid hatchback top, no doubt adds a tick or two to the 0-60 measurement but isn't noticed in everyday driving.
Mounted longitudinally and driving the rear wheels is Nissan's excellent VQ V6 engine. It's smooth and sounds like a big sports car engine. It generates lots of torque at low rpm, pulling smoothly from about 2000 rpm. Maximum torque of 274 pounds-feet comes at 4800 rpm, tapering off as maximum horsepower of 287 hp is reached at 6200 rpm. The engine is still pulling smoothly as the rev limiter steps in somewhere just north of 6500 rpm, but this engine is more about low-rpm torque than high-revving horsepower. Nissan's Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System helps the V6 produce a nice, linear band of torque. Drive-by-wire technology reduces mechanical weight and complexity.
The short-throw shifter feels good and it's effective. The six-speed gearbox shifts quickly and deliberately. It's so well synchronized you almost don't need the clutch (though Nissan recommends using it). Clutch pedal effort has enough heft to remind the driver this is no Honda Accord. With the Roadster's top down, the exhaust tone is music to the driver's ears, rising and falling melodiously and crisply as the gears are worked through the turns on a twisty road.
The automatic transmission works great, really smooth and responsive, and it didn't leave us feeling like we were missing out by not having the manual. The Touring model with the automatic and 17-inch wheels felt like the perfect combination for hurtling down New York's Taconic Parkway. With manual mode selected, the automatic holds lower gears right up to the rev limiter, upshifting only when the driver desires. Downshifts are electronically managed to ensure an overly rambunctious pilot doesn't over-rev the sweet V6. The delicious exhaust tone is wasted on Roadsters fitted with the automatic, though, when it wanders almost aimlessly up and down the scale as the engine slips seamlessly amongst the gears.
Handling feels taut and well controlled in both hatchback and Roadster. These cars really stick through fast sweepers, allowing the driver to keep the throttle down. The steering is sharp and accurate and the Z changes directions brilliantly in transient maneuvers, without excessive understeer turning in or sloppy oversteer coming out. Cornering is flat, without much body lean. The 17-inch tires generate lots of grip, even when driving in a rebellious manner. It's hard to imagine using it up outside a competitive event or emergency maneuver. The 17-inch wheels also offer a better ride than the 18-inch wheels. In either case, the ride does get jouncy on bumpy roads, most noticeably when cruising slowly, but it doesn't beat you up and we expect that with a sports car like this.
Buffeting at Interstate cruising speeds with the top down was much less than we expected, thanks to the tempered glass deflector mounted between the rollbars behind the seats and to the race car-like, aero body panels tapering back from each of the seat positions. Anti-flap seatbelt retainers further reduce the perceived buffeting effect. Rear side vision loses little to the convertible top, as the hatchback's quarter panel already blocks a sizable area of the cops' favorite pacing space.
The brakes are easy to modulate, fun to use, and do a good job of stopping the car. Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist come standard on all 350Zs. Just like it sounds, Electronic Brake-force Distribution improves stopping performance by dynamically balanci.
The 2004 Nissan 350Z stands alone in its price class. The coupe is an affordable, high-performance hardtop sports car, while the Roadster is an affordable, high-performance convertible sports car.
Its rear-wheel-drive chassis is rigid, uncommonly so in its topless form; its suspension is taut for excellent handling; and the V6 engine delivers lots of torque for strong acceleration performance. All models deliver stellar performance. Whether you opt for the six-speed manual gearbox or the five-speed automatic, there are no dogs in the lineup. The interior is the weakest link here, but it grows on you with a little time spent living with it.
Starting below $27,000, the Z delivers with no-frills hardware, including a carbon fiber driveshaft. The new Z Roadster brings top-down value to the driving enthusiast. While the previous-generation twin-turbocharged 300ZX (discontinued in 1996) delivered stellar performance, it was too expensive for most of us, and its convertible version drove almost as ungainly as it looked. The new 350Z lineup is far more affordable, with the most expensively equipped Roadster topping out at $40,000.
This is the car for drivers who want serious sports car performance in a GT body without shelling out the big bucks.
Nissan 350Z 6MT ($26,370); Enthusiast 6MT ($28,350); Enthusiast AT ($29,320); Performance 6MT ($30,530); Touring 6MT ($33,280); Touring AT ($31,690); Track 6MT ($34,180); Roadster Enthusiast 6MT ($33,850); Roadster Enthusiast AT ($34,820); Roadster Touring 6MT ($36,220); Roadster Touring AT ($37,190).
Options As Tested
18-inch wheels ($1,200).
Nissan 350Z Roadster Enthusiast ($34,820).
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