A real sports car doesn't come along every day. That's one reason the Nissan 350Z is an event. And, like every real sports car, it has a kind of purity to it, a dynamic quality that's beyond the usual empty phrases about good power and good handling.
One of the most astonishing achievements is that Nissan actually built the 350Z. Remember that Japan has been in the throes of a recession for nearly a dozen years, and the economic spiral has sapped the nation's confidence as well as its financial reserves. No wonder each succeeding sedan from Japan reflects a psychological climate of diminished expectations. These days, it is value that Japanese car companies talk about, not performance. Of course, Nissan itself has been on the ropes, forced in 1998 to invite Renault to become its partner. No one, least of all us, expected that a marriage of such disparate institutional cultures would yield anything but dysfunctional children.
And yet Renault's management structure has been undeniably effective, as indicated last summer by Nissan's announcement that it increased its operating profit 84 percent over the first half of last year. Wall Street analysts are quick to use such evidence to disparage everything about the Japanese way of doing business, but the truth is that Carlos Ghosn and his associates simply added direction. There always have been plenty of good ideas at Nissan, but no one has ever been able to settle on just one for very long. Many of Nissan's recently introduced automobiles were already on the drawing board when Renault's management was moved into place. But when Ghosn arrived, the internal wrangling stopped and the company got moving again.
For evidence, you don't have to look much further than the Z-car project. It began as a good idea that bubbled up from the wellspring of sheer automotive enthusiasm that has always defined Nissan's unique character. Jerry Hirshberg and his designers at Nissan Design International (now Nissan Design America) were simply playing with a sports car shape as a design exercise in 1998 when enthusiasts in mid-level management at Nissan North America decided a concept car would be a great image builder for the company. And so the Z Concept first appeared at the 1999 Detroit auto show. A few months later, Nissan promised to put a new Z-car into production.
Meanwhile, Japanese engineers were toying with a value-oriented platform for the Z-car based on the old 240SX and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but then other enthusiasts persuaded management that the heritage of the Z-car demanded the company's new FM (front midship) platform and the well-known VQ-series V-6 engine. As a result, the second-generation Z Concept debuted at the 2001 Detroit auto show in much the same configuration we see today. What had begun as simply a ploy to forestall commercial extinction in the minds of American financial analysts had become a real live sports car.
We're stunned by the goodness of the 350Z's performance. The engineering features don't break any new ground, yet the quality of Nissan's execution pushes the outside of the performance envelope in every department. This 3.5-liter V-6 has a keen edge of urgency. The six-speed manual transmission has a slightly heavy shift effort because the throws are so short, but each gear comes into engagement with a positive, mechanical feel. The brakes are always with you. The chassis makes its move into a corner with a swift, confident gesture, as if the driver were making a brush stroke on canvas. All of this is art, not just vehicle dynamics.
It is a terrific car, yet the company also found a way to make it affordable. There are five different models: Z, Performance, Enthusiast, Touring, and Track. Prices range from $26,809 to $34,619, but the power output and suspension calibration are the same throughout the line. The Z is also a fashionable piece. Nissan is using it as the signature of its new outlook on the car business, an approach apparent not just in its "Shift" brand-awareness advertising campaign but also in a series of Z-themed underground concerts held across the country last fall.
We're still finding our way with the Z-car, of course. We've already put 8000 miles on our long-term Track model, and we're reminded of its failings every day. Its exterior style, so brutal in its abstract geometry, constantly challenges us. The interior features are clearly meant to be architectural icons, but they swim in a sea of black plastic. The swing-out door on the center console (due to be replaced by another design soon) is just waiting to be broken. When the passenger's-side seatbelt isn't secured in its little clip, it rattles annoyingly against the hard plastic interior panel. We accept these foibles, though, because we're pleased that Nissan produced a sports car of such fundamental goodness that is so affordable.
Nissan always has had a kind of brand equity with this magazine, just as it has had with all American automobile enthusiasts. Even as it drifted off in the pursuit of conventional success with a parade of uninspiring sedans, a hard core of Nissan employees around the world kept on dreaming about and planning cars we enjoy. Nissan is the kind of company that believes in performance, and enthusiasts have kept faith with it as a result, making underground successes out of cars such as the Datsun 510, the Maxima, the Sentra SE-R, the Skyline GT-R, and, lately, even the 240SX.
It all has come from the original 1970 240Z, the masterstroke of Yutaka Katayama, who even now, at age ninety-three, is the company's foremost spokesman for performance and driving pleasure. Mr. K's Z-car was a kind of promise to everyone who cares about driving, a statement of purpose that will forever define Nissan. The 350Z delivers on the promise, and that might be the best thing about it.