First Drive: 2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster shrugs off the convertible stigma

2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster – Click above for high-res image gallery

The first and possibly most important thing you need to know about the new 2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster is that Nissan knew it'd be building a convertible from day one. Over beers and some yummy Asian food with Bruce Campbell, Nissan's VP of design, we learned that the 350Z Roadster was an afterthought – at least from a design standpoint. In other words, when Campbell's team penned the 350Z, they weren't thinking the top would be coming off. Which is why the convertible 350Z was – to be kind – awkward looking.

The trophy for best looking Z convertible sits squarely on the 370Z Roadster's mantle.
With the 370Z, however, Campbell's team actually started by sketching the roadster first and the coupe was somewhat of an afterthought. Not totally, of course – they knew there would be a hardtop – but the regular 370Z's creased and angled roof is essentially lifted from the GT-R. It's not bad, per say, and after the Nineties 300ZX and the original 240Z, the new 370Z is probably the best looking Z of them all. Probably, because you could make a strong case for the 280Z, funny bumpers and all. And some folks will argue that the 350Z is actually the best looking of the bunch, even though it's a bit too Audi TT for our tastes.

There is no debate, however, about the best looking convertible Z – that trophy sits squarely on the 370Z Roadster's mantle. The 1993-1996 300ZX convertible was just weird, 99% due to the fact that Nissan left the basket handle B-pillar in place. It also came with an MSRP of $44,678 – over a decade ago. Comparing the 370Z to its forebearer, the last model looked painfully hemorrhoidal. Junk in the trunk and then some. Top up it looked like the car was wearing an ill-fitting wig. The "design" didn't work because, as Campbell it explained, it was more marketed than designed.
This time out, all one has to do is take in the deeply curved mainline to grok the essence of Z.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

The shorter, wider 370Z Roadster, however, works fabulously. First and foremost, the top not only fits but looks like it fits. One design point that Nissan stressed was the way in which the leading edge of the canvas roof snugs up against the top of the A-pillar, creating a cantilever effect. Going back to the 350Z Roadster, its cloth top meets the back of the A-pillar, which looks famously strange. Also good (and much improved) are the 370Z's rear fenders. They're curved, sexy haunches this time out instead of flat, dull metal panels. Nissan's decision to stick with a cloth top rather than go for a folding hardtop also keeps the proportions (and weight) in check. Think Jessica Biel as opposed to Kim Kardashian.

Inside, the Roadster is much like the Coupe only with a bit more refinement. For instance, if you opt for the ventilated leather seats, they're heated
and cooled. The air-conditioning system for the seats is separate from the normal A/C, which makes sense in a convertible, right? Because you're going to run into situations where you only want one of your sides cool. The only issue we found is that the seat ventilation system is quite noisy, even with the top down and the wind rushing by. It took us a while to figure out what that extra gushing sound was, but it was the seats. Unfortunately, the orange accented dials are even harder to read in direct sunlight than in the Coupe. And after a third look, we hate the fuel/temp/info gauge even more. If you're wondering, the top takes about 15 seconds to do its folding thing.

When you remove a car's roof, you create compromises. It's rare that compromised cars win over our hearts, let alone minds, because the things enthusiasts love typically get left on the cutting room floor. With a convertible you gain weight and lose stiffness. The less rigid part makes sense, as the C-pillar acts as a brace right smack in the middle of the vehicle. But why do you gain weight? First, remember that car roofs are very light. In fact, adding a sunroof (glass and a motor) tacks on fifty pounds to most cars. Second, unless you want enough cowl shake to jog a can of paint, that missing stiffness has to be added back into the vehicle, usually in the form of large metal plates welded to the uni-body. Finally, you have the weight of the folding top's mechanism – in this case Nissan went with a smoother hydraulic system as opposed to a lighter but jerkier electric one. Add it all up and going topless is usually a dynamic let down.

Besides aesthetics, another positive attribute of designing the car as a Roadster from the start is that the 370Z is already plenty stiff. So much so that the new Roadster weighs 150 pounds less than the 350Z Roadster, even though the 370Z Coupe is fifty pounds heavier than the 350Z. And the Roadster only weighs a respectable 200 pounds more than the Coupe. For comparison's sake, that's about the same difference between an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and V8 Vantage Roadster. At the end of the day, there's no shame in selling a 3,430 pound convertible, especially one packing 332 horsepower and equipped with a slick-as-snick six-speed manual.

Which leads us to how the 370Z Roadster goes down the road. Typically, we aren't thrilled with convertibles as driving devices. Don't get us wrong, we love the idea of open top motoring, but often times removing a vehicle's roof is akin to cropping out part of its soul. For instance, whatever is special and wonderful about the new Shelby GT500 is thrown out the window (no pun, no pun) once the top gets neutered off. The scalped cars get slower, sloppier and softer. Not what we want in a sports car. Obviously, certain vehicles defy this gripe of ours, like the Mazda Miata, Porsche Boxster and, now, the Nissan 370Z Roadster.

That's right – Nissan's newest is a runner. You can forget about those rogue 200 pounds – top up or down, they don't make a bit of difference. Nissan brought along some regular 370Z Coupes for us to drive side-by-side and you honestly don't notice an acceleration hit when going from coupe to convertible. In fact, the Roadsters ran with the Coupes just fine. However, you
do notice how much more thrilling everything is when the top is dropped. The car suddenly feels more charged, more electric, more alive. One knock on the fixed-head 370Z is that the cabin is a little stuffy. Not bad, per se, but you never really get the sense that you're driving a sports car, even if you're outrunning a Cayman (Nissan relentlessly benchmarked the Cayman when developing the 370Z). The Roadster changes all that, and then some.

A problem plaguing Nissan's current crop of sport offerings is the lack of exhaust sound. We feel that the actual mechanical sounds of a motor are fine, but that exhaust should be the top audio priority. Lamborghini understands this particular vice all too well. But unlike the 2010 Ford Mustang, Nissan doesn't use a resonator pipe. And unlike the Lexus IS-F, they don't employ a two-stage exhaust. As a result, the regular 370Z is simply quiet even when you're pounding on it, and when you cane the GT-R, you hear nothing but the
whoosh of turbos. There's already been 5,674% too many online arguments about the sound and quality of the VQ's exhaust note. All we're going to add is that at least with the Roadster it's nice that you have the option of listening.

On Highway 1, just north of Santa Cruz, with the top tucked away and the Pacific Ocean on our left, the 370Z Roadster proved idyllic. Powerful, comfortable, refined and missing even the slightest hint of cowl shake, it was hard to envision a better car for the situation. The chassis feels like it's cut from diamond, the motor pulls and pulls and the view over the hood is splendid. As a result, the rear-drive 370Z has a bit of dual-modeness to it. Meaning that the car (and its occupants) are perfectly happy to just limp along at posted limits, taking in the birds and the clouds. But should you decide to hammer on the throttle, the 370Z Roadster instantly hammers back. Remember, 332 hp is about what the last generation M3's inline-six put out. The Roadster can sprint. Plus, unlike a Miata, it's not out of tricks by the time you reach 80 mph. The 370Z Roadster is one of the easiest, most drama-free topless cars we've ever driven over 100 mph.

Despite the good straight line speed, the real shocker is the 370Z Roadster's handling. Why? Because again, convertibles are heavier and less rigid than their coupe counterparts. Extra weight and unwelcome body-twist are always the enemy when it comes to canyon carving, or at least they're supposed to be. But on some severely twisted tarmac between Pescadero and La Honda, the new Z Roadster proved exceptional. An honest-to-goodness athlete, with great visibility to boot. The car rarely misstepped – and when it did, it was more likely driver error (ahem)
. Admittedly, the beautiful and lightweight (and optional) 19-inch RAYS wheels did invoke a little bump steer, but only on the crumblier sections of pavement. Despite that, we walked away impressed by the Roadster's back road prowess.

While not quite up to the Miata ideal of open top Japanese motoring (i.e. reborn British motoring), the 370Z really isn't that far off. Yes, it weighs more, but the Nissan is more than twice as powerful. Because of the early (and smart) design decisions, it's missing most, if not all, of the bugaboos that haunt convertibles – especially those based on preexisting coupes.

How good is the 370Z Roadster? You wouldn't be wrong thinking of it as a baby/bargain basement Ferrari California. Both are comfy open tourers with more power in reserve than the average owner needs and enough handling prowess to take on a track day or two, even though they never will. Also, we think the 370Z's better looking than the latest topless prancing horse. Put it like this: aside from the Roadster's $37,000 price tag, we can't think of any reason to choose the stuffier, less dynamic 370Z Coupe. Unless that Coupe happens to have a Nismo badge bolted to its rear. But that, dear friends, is another story. Until then, enjoy the Roadster.

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Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

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