Nissan knows as well as anyone the dangers in redesigning a popular car. Through the 1990s, it "improved" its Z-car until the bloated 300ZX carried virtually none of the charm (not to mention the sales volume) of the original 240Z. Nissan returned the line to its former glory with the 350Z, and has been rewarded with a brilliantly successful six-year run. And with the 2009 370Z, which is making its debut this week at the Los Angeles auto show, it has proved it has finally learned how to build on success.
The 370Z addresses every major complaint about the outgoing car - namely its weight and sub par interior quality - but maintains and, if anything, further distills the basic Z-car formula.
Not surprisingly, the improvements begin with a boost in power. The 370Z's heart remains the venerable VQ series V-6, but is the updated 3.7-liter unit from the Infiniti G37, making 332 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. The most interesting update in the drivetrain lies, surprisingly, in the manual transmission. Whereas most sports car manufacturers of late have tried to make their slushboxes behave more like manuals, Nissan has updated its old-fashioned 6-speed with an automatic-like feature: downshift rev-matching. When a driver selects a lower gear and lifts up on the clutch, the 370Z will automatically respond with a blip of the throttle. The result is a perfect heel-to-toe shift - every time and for every driver. Of course, there will be a way to shut off this feature for those who can't stand even this bit of modern intrusion. And those who want to skip the clutch pedal altogether can opt for a new 7-speed automatic with manual mode and, for the first time in a Z-car, paddle shifters. With either transmission, Nissan says drivers can expect about a 2 mpg improvement in fuel economy compared to the 350Z, which netted 18/25 mpg with a manual (official EPA estimates for the new car have not yet been released).
Perhaps more exciting than the gain in power and even the trick transmission is the reduction in weight. Nissan says the 370Z is about 90 lbs lighter than a comparably equipped 350Z, despite being more rigid throughout and meeting tighter (read: weight adding) safety standards. The secret to this accomplishment is aluminum. Nissan engineers used it extensively, including on the hood, rear hatch, and door skins. The 307Z is based on the same updated premium mid-ship platform that underpins the G37, and has new front sub frame made of, what else, aluminum. The control arm front suspension has been redesigned, and the multi-link rear is now stiffer and lighter than before. Despite all the changes and pound shedding, weight distribution remains unchanged at 54/46 front/rear. The 370Z also measures nearly four inches shorter than its predecessor, while gaining an inch in width.
The car retains Rays forged aluminum wheels, now standard, but ditches the 350Z's optional Brembo brakes for units of Nissan's own design.
The 350Z's interior was cheap and outdated looking when it came out in 2002. Thankfully, the new car addresses this with upgraded materials and components throughout. Again, the family resemblance with the G37 is clear, especially in the optional navigation unit. Anti-slip cloth seats (not Alcantara, Nissan is careful to point out) come standard, as does a revised, eight-speaker Bose audio system. Out back Nissan found some more trunk space by repositioning the rear stabilizer brace. The only oversight we can see is Nissan's decision to make iPod compatibility only available in cars equipped with navigation, although all cars have an auxiliary input.
As with the last car, Nissan made its designers compete for the right to style the 370Z. Once again its La Jolla, California, studio came out the winner. By now everyone has seen pictures of the new 370Z, but it looks more dramatic - and frankly, much more appealing - in person. The head lamps and tail lamps still smack a bit too much of the Maxima, but the taut lines and muscular stance accentuate the car's more athletic dimensions while capturing the unmistakable essence the 240Z. A subtle dash of GT-R comes through as well in the car's kinked A-pillar and downward sloping roof.
Nissan says one of its main goals in the redesign was to maintain the car's bargain-priced virtue, and it appears to have succeeded. The base price at launch will be $30,625, including destination. The trim levels have been simplified, with only two options: 370Z or 370Z Touring. Either of those models can be equipped with a Sport Package, which adds a limited-slip differential, in addition to larger brakes and wheels, and last but not least, the rev-matching feature for the manual.
On paper and in person, the new 370Z appears to be a very worthy successor to the Z-car line and, once again, a smashing sports car bargain. Does it drive as well as it reads? We'll have our thoughts on that on December 1st.