By Design

2009 Nissan 370Z

By Design

Many of us grew up believing the American cultural imperative that “bigger is better.” Even in the age of nanotechnology, as physical dimensions of electronic devices shrink, we are exhorted to be impressed because quantitative descriptives are bigger, thus better. Megapixels? Bigger is better. My digital cameras range from 1.1 to 6.6 Mp, far behind the state of the art; point-and-shoot cameras now seem to require at least 10 million pixels. And so it is in cars, where we demand more, whether we can use it or not. Horsepower? Of course bigger is better, so how about 500 hp or 600 or, the production pinnacle at the moment, 1001?

I firmly believe that this is wrong, and I applaud every effort to bring cars back to rational size, weight, and power. So I hope this latest Nissan Z-Car, the restyled 370Z, is a harbinger of more sensible design and engineering to come. Not only is it a great deal better looking – tauter, tighter, and more purposeful – than the 350Z, it is also smaller, quicker, and more economical. I am no fan of statistics, but let’s look at a few. The brilliant 1970 Datsun 240Z weighed 2300 pounds and was about 13.5 feet long on a 90.7-inch wheelbase. You could buy the base model in 1972 for the number of dollars you would have paid for 50 Troy ounces of gold.

Subsequent Z-Cars got bigger, more powerful, and heavier, and the last 300ZX Turbo cost a great deal – too much, in fact. So Nissan sports car production stopped until 2003, when the more reasonable 350Z, still bigger and heavier than the original, debuted. It was 4 percent longer, 42 percent heavier, and cost 28 percent more – 64 ounces of gold. For that, you got air bags, ABS, power steering, and more, along with 91 percent more power. Now with the prettier 370Z, power is up again, by 8.5 percent from last year, but length is down 1.6 percent, and the U.S. base price is just 33 Troy ounces, a 34 percent reduction from the original. This is what we need in all our cars.

Compared with the 240Z, this terrific coupe is still a bit excessive, and for all its fantastic performance, most of which is unusable in daily driving on public roads, it is not really any more fun than its four-decades-old ancestor, even if it is easier to drive. Nissan announced that it intends to make another sports car both smaller and less expensive than the 370Z, but that project could turn out to be a casualty of the financial crisis. In which case perhaps a stripped, lighter version of this model with a simpler interior would be a possibility. Nissan has an excellent 2.5-liter engine that could slot right into the engine compartment, and it makes 18 percent more power than the original Z-Car. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an affordable and economical-to-run 240Z again, even if it had only four cylinders?

1 Notice that the taillights can easily be seen from a 45-degree angle forward of the lamp, a positive safety factor.

2 The vertical door handle has become a Nissan signature. And why not? It works fine and gives some distinction to the car.

3 This sill indent allows the rear surface to flare out to cover the wheel while keeping the waist trim.

4 This painted spear point is not particularly attractive, but again it provides a distinctive feature not seen on other cars.

5 A rising line here lifts the front end visually, even if the forward body panels are in fact very close to the ground.

6 This hard line at the intersection of the hood and the front fascia recapitulates the hard surface break on the original 240Z.

7 The two vertical blades in the front air inlet might well direct cooling air toward the front brakes, but more important, they provide a visual signature from the front end.

8 The fender shape rolls inward from the wheelhouse, giving the impression of a bulge without actually being one, for lower aerodynamic resistance.

9 The painted panel “spear” motif is carried through for the rear lamps, where it looks less strange than it does on the front end.

10 This crisp line across the rear and into the body side cuts visual mass on the rear and gives the impression of less vertical height on the back of the car.

11 Dual exhaust outlets provide a visual signal of power.

12 The indented cover on the back is big enough to accommodate license plates from every jurisdiction in the world – a clever way to save on tooling costs. This is good design.

13 Putting the tachometer front and center is a tried and true racing approach, and it works very well here.

14 Minor instruments are given importance by being placed high on the panel, even though few drivers may actually read these gauges.

15 The various seat controls are placed on the seat sides rather than being hidden in front, a logical, direct, and rational choice.

16 Putting ventilation outlets in the door panels is unusual but also sensible and distinctive. The whole interior is well designed psychologically and functionally.

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