I drove a new Nissan 350Z home last night, and it was wonderful beyond my wildest hopes. You may possibly have become bored by now with my incessant whining about the demise of the too-fabulous, too-expensive 300ZX Twin Turbo. Still, those were some mighty big Michelins to fill, and I have anxiously awaited its replacement. The Nissan team, led by chief vehicle engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno, trooped in to 120 East Liberty, virtually bursting at the seams to share the new Z with us. Mr. Mizuno's unbridled enthusiasm for his baby more than compensated for his lack of English pronunciation skills. The new Z's debut was a long time coming for him, an outgrowth of his Daytona and Le Mans racing experience, which ended in 1992.
He told us of the skunkworks set up by young Nissan engineers who worked late into the night for four years at a local race tuner shop on their dream of a new Z. It would be a sports car for drivers, a racing car for driving. They were ecstatic when a new Z was approved. They had done the groundwork, and the project launched into production.
It is a surprisingly simple package, free of any excess frippery yet chic and pleasing to look at, to sit in, to touch. The stippled matting that covers most of the cabin is modest without looking cheesy. Every switch is a straightforward, solid piece of real metal. The shifter . . . well, this may be the most beautiful shifter in a car today, tiny, precise, rocklike to the hand. The gauges look like they used to back in 1969, when the Z was a Datsun and it cost $3500 to the Corvette's $5500. There is one suspension, one engine, and the base car costs $18,000 less than the last 300ZX Twin Turbo.
The new car is joyful, with a fine lusty roar and a steering wheel that's fat, well contoured, and directly connected to the Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires. The steering feels like a motorcycle's in that you press against either side of the wheel and the car flits into position. I don't know how they did it, but Nissan managed to make a joy rocket that costs nearly half as much as it used to.
It was merely coincidental that the 1970 Fiat 500L I bought for my husband Tim's birthday arrived the same day and was sitting pertly in the drive as I rolled in after an hour of Z-ness. (I must admit that 1970 doesn't sound vintage until I count it up on my fingers. It was the year I got my driver's license; I conceivably could have had this car brand new if I hadn't been in Detroit, where Plymouth Road Runners and Barracudas were the new teenage cars of choice, and if my father had been the sort who allowed a child of his actually to have a car. Which he wasn't. Not that I'm complaining about having to borrow the family car. It just happened to be a frog-green Rambler station wagon with the killer 280-horsepower V-8.) There is no simpler car than the Cinquecento. Not only is it as cute as a button, the size of half a loaf of bread, but it turns driving into a completely different experience for one who loves to see the speed needle climb into triple digits. The 500's rear-mounted engine has exactly two cylinders, making a measly 17.5 horsepower. It takes up about the same space as the big walking lawnmower in the garage, and, come to think of it, it has even less horsepower.
I parked the orange Z in the yard, which had the bulk of our family's odd fleet (minus the shop-bound BMW 3.0CSi, boats, canoes, golf carts, three-wheelers, motorcycles, and a TH!NK electric bicycle) scattered about. Viewing the collection present, I thought it all looked fairly complete:
I jumped into the creamy 500, neatly accordioned the vinyl roof into the open position, and called Lou the Chesapeake Girlie Retriever for a two-mile drive to the grocery store.
It took a minute to sort out the controls. I fitted the key into the ignition slot to the left of the steering wheel. I turned the ignition on, and nothing. There is a rubbery push-button thing to the right of the wheel, and I pushed a few times on that with no success. There are two short little levers on the floor between the vinyl seats, and, remembering that the closer one was the choke, I set it. The other pulled up, spring-loaded, and went back down. I pulled it, and the engine began firing. A-ha! The accelerator or starter or whatever it's called in Italian.
The speed limit on my country road is 45 mph, but I couldn't quite get there. I felt as if I were in a French movie as I putted along, double clutching for every shift of the synchro-less four-speed. Lou sat next to me, whispering in my ear about the injustice of me taking Stella the puppy to work all day instead of her.
Meanwhile, in our two miles to the store, I had collected a line of a dozen Tonka-sized pickups and monster SUVs behind us. Driving a car like this, you must carefully pick your routes and your time of travel. Luckily, being rural, the way had been paved before us by farmers on tractors and combines. Then again, those might be a wee bit faster than the Fiat.