2003 Automobile of the Year

0301 350z

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.

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