2003 Automobile of the Year

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.

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