We automotive critics have one major thing in common with journalists who review movies: we love to fall back on the cliché that second acts are difficult to pull off. And here we are, doing it again as we step onto the curb outside Automobile Magazine' s editorial offices in Ann Arbor, taking a good, long look at the 2009 Nissan 370z that just pulled up.
Second act, you ask? Well, yes. For the purposes of considering the modern-day Z-Car, let's look back only to 2002, when the Z was resurrected after a six-year absence. The 350Z that went on sale in August of that year effectively reset the Z-Car clock, proving once again that the Z could be desirable - unlike the 1980s models - yet affordable, unlike the famed 300ZX of the 1990s. The question in 2009, then, was whether Nissan would build on the success of the 350Z - some 160,000 examples of which found homes in America - or once again stray from the proper course for what is essentially Japan's version of the Chevrolet Corvette. After all, there are so many bad things that can happen to a sports car in the transition from one generation to another, especially when its maker's resources are diverted by a program to build a world-class hard-core machine like the GT-R. Would the new Z get bigger, heavier, and more expensive? Or would Nissan keep it simple, keep it cheap, and keep it hot? Happily, Nissan has managed to do the latter.
In fact, the new 370Z, which is just now going on sale as a 2009 model, has a starting price of only $30,625, compared with $29,205 for the outgoing 350Z. This is for a car that, as its new name suggests, has a bigger and more powerful engine under its hood. You've probably already figured out that the newest Z-Car gets Nissan's new 3.7-liter V-6 with VVEL (variable valve event and lift), a system similar to BMW's Valvetronic. Known as the VQ37VHR, the new V-6 has an extra 0.2 liter of displacement, which comes from a longer stroke. It debuted recently in the Infiniti G37 coupe and sedan, and in the 370Z it makes 26 hp more than the 350Z's 3.5-liter V-6, for a total of 332 hp. There's also a slight bump in torque.
What's more, the increase in power is accompanied by an effective decrease in curb weight of about 88 pounds, according to Nissan. Our test car, though, a base model with the six-speed manual transmission, weighed in at 3380 pounds, some 120 pounds more than our Four Seasons 2003 350Z. Weight reduction in new cars has largely become a zero-sum game. Although Nissan shaved more than 50 pounds from the upper body section through the use of aluminum for the hood, door skins, and deck lid, the company's engineers had to add more structural stiffness to meet new crash standards, which put that fifty pounds, and more, right back on. Our test car's optional sport package also includes nineteen-inch rather than eighteen-inch wheels and adds bigger brakes. So the fact that the new Z weighs roughly the same as the old one is still a considerable achievement.
Any concerns that we might have had that the 370Z would become bloated compared with the 350Z were also put to rest when our bright blue test car pulled up to the curb. Something was different about the Z, something we hadn't noticed in the initial photographs of the car. It looked tighter, leaner, and more purposeful than its predecessor, with a sportier stance. It turns out that Nissan cut a whopping 3.9 inches from the car's wheelbase, most of it between the doors and the rear wheels. The car is also fractionally lower but about an inch wider. Overall length has decreased by nearly three inches. The sheetmetal itself, of course, has also changed. The way that the A-pillars no longer flow into the natural arc of the roof and the side glass that kicks up at the rear evoke the original 240Z. The vertical door handles have been slightly restyled and remain a striking exterior design element, and they now feature a tiny button to lock and unlock the doors via the keyless-entry system. But what really sets the new Z apart from the old one, visually, are its dramatic, boomerang-shaped headlights and taillights. Technical editor Don Sherman calls them "some of the most interesting styling touches I've seen in ages." And we hereby nominate the sport package's nineteen-inch, forged-aluminum Rays Engineering wheels as one of 2009's most stunning examples of automotive footwear.
Like its exterior, the 370Z's interior is at once familiar yet remarkably different. The low-rent atmosphere that plagued the 350Z is gone, and even our relatively Spartan test car's cabin felt like a quality effort. Most noticeable, the lid for the storage bin atop the center stack, which in the 350Z was a flimsy piece of plastic hardly fit for a Fisher-Price toy, now has a dampening mechanism and is covered with a soft-touch faux-leather material with French stitching. (Unfortunately, the latch to open the door is difficult to operate.) As before, the bin can be filled with an optional navigation system, now controlled by the signature Nissan piano-inspired keypad and dial.
But, let's go on to the show. How does this baby drive? Well, since the Z-Car rides on the latest version of the FM (front-midship) platform that underpins every rear-wheel-drive car in the Nissan/Infiniti stables, you know it's got very athletic, if not particularly lithe, bones. At low, around-town speeds, the somewhat ponderous, heavy feeling that plagued the 350Z is still evident, the engine lugs and whines like a tractor's, and the manual gearshifter is the antithesis of a snick-snick device. The good news is that, thanks in no small part to a new cast-aluminum front cradle, a carbon-fiber-reinforced radiator support, and a triangular engine-compartment brace, the 370Z feels far stiffer, more substantial, and more refined than the 350Z, and its dynamic responses grow exponentially more satisfying the faster you go and the more you ask of it. Once you shoot the tach needle into the upper half of the 7500-rpm rev range, the VQ V-6 emits more pleasing noises, but the Z could still use a bit more exhaust bark. The accelerator pedal is now hinged from the floor rather than the firewall, which ought to give old-time Porsche 911 fans a few goosebumps. Sherman found its response to be "lackadaisical." But he added, "When it's used in the all-or-nothing mode, there is plenty of action. I clocked acceleration to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, a few tenths quicker than the 350Z."
The 370Z's steering is quick and perfectly weighted, although road test editor and fussbudget Marc Noordeloos thought it was perhaps "a touch too quick just off-center." Body roll is well-checked, and the car reacts with utter ease when you pitch it into a corner, with minimal understeer. Determined pilots can induce oversteer, and the stability control system can be turned off completely. While the sport package's upgraded brakes - with four-piston calipers in front - are no longer supplied by Brembo, they perform superbly, with firm pedal feel, linear response, and no evidence of fading. In our tests, they cut seven feet off the 350Z's 70-to-0-mph stopping distance, at 154 feet.
So, you're in your rear-wheel-drive sports car with a six-speed manual, ready to finally master your heel-and-toeing technique. But wait! There's no need to blip the 370Z's throttle; Nissan's new SynchroRev Match device will do it for you. At first glance, it seems like a gimmick, but after a while you start enjoying the feature, which comes into play once the gearbox detects a certain degree of shift-lever movement. From sixth, fifth, and fourth gears, revs rise by about 1000 rpm as you downshift, making you feel like a pro even if you don't have on your Pilotis. At 50 mph in third gear, drop to second and revs leap from 3000 to 5000 rpm. Even if you're stuck in traffic, you can shove the gearshifter toward the left side of the gate, just to hear the engine scream. A new, seven-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters is also offered.
Even with its shorter wheelbase and with our test car's nineteen-inch wheels, the 370Z provides noticeably better ride comfort than the 350Z. Sherman, again: "This is one of the most livable sport suspensions in captivity, downright BMW-like in the way it manages speed-related rock and roll while coddling its occupants." It's not hard to imagine two people taking the 370Z on a road trip without complaint. They can even pack a medium-size suitcase, since the cargo area (although slightly smaller than the 350Z's) is no longer dissected by the structural brace, which has been moved forward to a position just behind the seats.
Nissan's mainstream vehicle efforts in recent years have been hit-or-miss affairs - witness the uninspiring Altima coupe, the bloated new Murano, and the handsome but ho-hum new Maxima that falls short of its four-door-sports-car billing. So it's especially nice to see that Nissan, which historically has provided a lot of bang for the enthusiast's buck, has enhanced what was already a very affordable and desirable sports car. Hollywood might have problems with second acts, but Nissan proves that a sequel really can top the original.
2009 Nissan 370Z
Price (base/as tested): $30,625/$33,625 (est.)
Engine: DOHC 24-valve V-6
Displacement: 3.7 liters (226 cu in)
Horsepower: 332 hp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 270 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
Transmission Type: 6-speed manual
Mileage 18/26 mpg (est.)
Steering: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, front: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
Tire size f, r: 245/40WR-19, 275/35WR-19
L x W x H: 167.1 x 72.6 x 52.1 in
Wheelbase: 100.4 in
Track f/r: 61.0/62.8 in
Weight: 3380 lb
Our Test Results
0-60 mph: 5.3 sec
0-100 mph: 12.8 sec
0-120 mph: 18.0 sec
0-140 mph: 27.5 sec
1/4-mile: 14.0 sec @ 105 mph 30-70 mph 6.1 sec
Peak acceleration: 0.65 g
Speed in gears:
1) 41; 2) 67; 3) 96; 4) 122; 5) 155; 6) 145 mph
Cornering L/R: 0.98/0.93 g
70-0 mph braking: 154 ft
Peak braking: 1.15 g