2003 Nissan 350Z

July 8, 2002
We finally have driven the fifth-generation Nissan Z-car, the new 350Z, and, like a chocolate soufflé that takes an extra twenty minutes to emerge from the restaurant's kitchen, it was worth the wait. All of us who've been behind the wheel of the 350Z agree that to drive it is to love it. It's adifferent kind of love to the kind we showered on the 300ZX Twin Turbo, a car that inspired pages of paeans in this magazine from 1989 through its fifth consecutive All-Star award in 1994. That car provoked something like teenage lust in our hearts, and although that affair is long over, its heady days chronicled in journals gathering dust in our attics, it will always be remembered fondly. Our affection for the 350Z, on the other hand, might be likened to marriage: No sexy turbocharged maneuverings, but excellent performance that we can live with happily for the long haul.
The 350Z is more egalitarian in spirit than its predecessor, too. The 300ZX was available in normally aspirated V-6 form or with two turbochargers feeding that same engine. When you'd see a 300ZX on the road, your immediate thought was, "I wonder if it's a turbo." You'd try to get closer, looking for the subtle, sans-serif "Twin Turbo" badge on the rear, and feeling slightly sorry for the driver if it wasn't there. The 350Z creates no such class distinctions: All five trim levels—base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring, and Track—have the same normally aspirated, 287-horsepower, 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 and the same tuning of the multi-link suspension, and they all weigh within 100 pounds of each other. The 350Z is priced for the common man, also, starting at $26,809, including destination, and topping out at $34,619 for the Track model. In 1996, the last year the 300ZX was sold here, the Twin Turbo's base price was more than $44,000.
The Nissan Z-car is essentially the Japanese Corvette. Both sports cars have long and proud histories, but also their share of embarrassing moments. For the Corvette, it was most of the decade of the 1970s, while for the Z-car, it was the entire decade of the 1980s, when the car became a bloated caricature of its former self. Little wonder, then, that when Nissan's designers talk about their new car's "Z-ness," they skip the Ronald Reagan era. "We felt that the strongest places to look for Z-ness were the first 240Z and the last 300ZX," says worldwide design director Shiro Nakamura. "At the same time, we didn't want to go retro like a BMW Z8 or a Ford Thunderbird."
Continues Nissan Design America's Diane Allen: "We began by asking ourselves, do we pay homage to our past 240Z or 300ZX more literally, or do we metaphorically or philosophically represent it? We knew we must show a vision of the future. Nissan is the comeback kid. If you show something that you already did, that's not visionary to the modern eye.
"Not surprisingly, we agreed that the 240Z was fun to drive, light and agile, industrial chic, and high testosterone. It just had that nimble feel. We trimmed off some of the crudeness, the derivative cues from the 1970s, and the thin-walled quality. From the 300ZX we wanted the sleekness, the gait, the refinement and sophistication, but we thought it was a bit too sweet, too luxurious, and too big a scale."
Like the 240Z, the 350Z has a front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive, a two-seat cabin, and a hatchback body. The 350Z's most obvious Z genes are the sweeping lines extending from the roof to the hatch opening and the shape of the little rear windows behind the doors. The long hood and the short rear deck are also subtle but discernible heritage cues. The rest of the car is about as modern in appearance as anyone could want. The tires are pushed out to the corners and accentuated by short front and rear overhangs, and the front end is dominated not by a grille but by swept-back, projector-style, high-intensity-discharge headlights. Anyone who approaches the car inevitably is drawn to the unique vertical door handles, which feel great to the hand.
Inside, the three gauge pods clearly evoke the 240Z. The very high beltline and short window height bring to mind the Audi TT, as do the aluminum accents. Although the Nissan's cabin is not as finely crafted as the Audi's, the tolerances between dashboard panels are tight, and the materials are pleasant, if not lush, to the touch. The center of the instrument panel is dominated by a lidded storage bin that can be filled with the Z's only option, a $1999 navigation system. A rear strut tower brace, constructed of welded, boxed steel sheathed in plastic trim emblazoned with a large silver Z, serves not only structural rigidity but also aesthetics, as it's visible through the rear window. Yes, it divides the trunk compartment horizontally, but there's still plenty of room under and around it for two people's belongings, even if technical editor Don Sherman claims that his wife, Cheryl, would fill it with a weekend's worth of shoes alone. There are also two small cubbyholes behind the seats.
But we did more with the 350Z than look at it and ponder its heritage. We actually drove the thing. Not in Michigan, mind you: We headed to some of our favorite roads in south central Kentucky and north central Tennessee, and then we met up with members of the Middle Tennessee Z Club to show them the 350Z and compare it with some of its predecessors.
The Track model we drove is differentiated from other 350Z models by its gorgeous light-weight Rays Engineering forged aluminum eighteen-inch wheels and the equally beautiful Brembo brakes ensconced therein. (We recorded a 70-to-0-mph braking distance of 162 feet.) The Track model's subtle front and rear spoilers help decrease front and rear lift to zero and bring the coefficient of drag to 0.29 from 0.30. Other 350Zs have standard four-wheel vented discs, electronic brake force distribution, and brake assist.
The first thing we discovered is that the 350Z is perfectly suited for Interstate travel, with a comfortable, roomy cabin and a firm yet resilient ride. "Don't worry," we later told the Z Club's Ann Sielert, whose husband, Don, has a Daytona blue 350Z Touring on order, "you'll love the new Z on long trips." The cruise control, a necessity in cop-dense Ohio, works well, establishing and maintaining minute gradations in speed via thumb-operated switches on the steering wheel spoke. The dead pedal, however, isn't tall enough; a size-ten-and-a-half shoe gets wedged beneath the clutch pedal arm, which snakes leftward before disappearing under the dash.
Over more than 300 miles of two-lane, the 350Z was an inspiration. All day long, we drove this car as hard as we could, and we rarely put a wheel wrong. Even if we entered a corner a little too quickly, the chassis was very forgiving of jabs at the brake pedal and sawings at the steering wheel. We were rewarded with fluid and natural responses from the chassis, the steering, the brakes, and the six-speed manual transmission, no matter the conditions. Mile after invigorating mile, the attention Nissan's engineers paid to the four-wheel multi-link suspension bore fruit. Its unique, tightly packaged front design has earned Nissan fourteen patents: The upper control arms arc up over the top of the wheel, and the lower control arm is split into two ball-jointed links.
Nissan's VQ-series V-6, which performs well under the hoods of Maximas, Pathfinders, and Altimas, is even livelier here due to continuously variable valve timing. Other tweaks include redesigned intake ports, a 10.3:1 compression ratio, lighter pistons and connecting rods, and lightweight, hollow camshafts. A one-piece, carbon fiberreinforced plastic driveshaft is a first for Nissan. The engine sounds refined but has more character than many V-6s. It's tuned for maximal intake sound between 3500 and 6000 rpm, especially with wide throttle openings, but is subdued at cruising speeds.
The steering has heft and precision, although it's not quite as razor-sharp as that of the Porsche Boxster S, one of the Z's performance targets. The gearshifter is a joy, with short throws and closely spaced gearing, and a small center hump in the driver's seat bottom provides femoral support during cornering. (For moral support, talk to your passenger.) We had a BMW M3 as our photo car, and the 350Z didn't give up much to it in handling or grip, although the 333-horsepower M3 provides better straightline acceleration.
Dynamic weaknesses are few, but the car understeers at the adhesion limit, especially on the track, where we drove the car briefly after returning to Michigan. On an open freeway, the 350Z willingly lopes along at triple digits, but eager drivers will inevitably pine for more midrange torque and more grunt in the 80-to-100-mph range. Passing from 30 to 70 mph in top gear takes 17.2 seconds, but the 0-to-60-mph time is a quite respectable 5.5 seconds.
The Middle Tennessee Z Club gave us a warm Southern welcome, not surprising considering we were in a car several of its members had ordered without benefit of a test drive. Club member Adam Broslat, 23, a systems analyst, is expecting a six-speed silverstone Enthusiast model in September. "I went to the Atlanta auto show last month," he says, "and I stayed there from noon until 10 p.m. to get a chance to sit in the display 350Z after the show closed." That's what we call enthusiasm.
For $26,809 (assuming Nissan dealers don't get greedy), the 350Z offers near-Corvette performance for about $15,000 less, neatly mirroring the Z-car's 1970 debut, when the 240Z was $3526 and the Vette was $5469. The slightly less expensive Subaru Impreza WRX almost plays in the same league as the 350Z, but it's less powerful, less refined, and is but a toad to the 350Z's princely looks. The Audi TT is not only more expensive and less powerful, it's more of a design statement than a sports car. The Honda S2000 and the Porsche Boxster S are more fitting competitors. The 350Z is not quite as fluid or tactile as the Boxster but is far cheaper, and it's more drivable than the S2000.
The Nissan Z might be built in Japan by a Japanese car company, but it is very much an American car in that it has been embraced and defined by the American public for more than three decades. Let's celebrate the fact that Nissan once again is able to offer a brand-new, affordable Z-car and is no longer forced to sell reconditioned 240Zs to keep the dream alive.