The Nissan 350Z hit the street in August 2002 with everything it needed to be an heir to the thirty-year Z-Car legacy:?a stout, rear-wheel-drive chassis with well-weighted steering and beefy brakes; a powerful, torquey V-6 engine; sleek good looks mixing restrained retro styling themes into a modern sports-car profile; and an affordable price. From our first drive, we were smitten with the new 350Z, and further time behind the wheel confirmed that it combined performance, style, desirability, and accessibility in a manner that paid homage to the original Z-car, the 240Z. The 350Z has helped reinvigorate not only Nissan's image but the whole world of affordable sports cars, an achievement we recognized with our 2003 Automobile of the Year award. A Four Seasons test was clearly in order, especially given Nissan's recent penchant for cutting corners in material and build quality. Would the 350Z still be the sports car of our dreams after 30,000 miles, or would mechanical gremlins and rattling bits overshadow our year??From September 2002 through September 2003, we'd surely find out.
Even though all five 350Z trim levels got the same suspension tuning and 287-horsepower, 3.5-liter DOHC?V-6 engine, we opted for a top-of-the-line Track model for its Brembo brakes and lighter aluminum wheels. Our only option was a $69 set of floor mats, for a total sticker price of $34,688. Not cheap, but a cool ten grand less than a 300ZX Twin Turbo cost back in 1996-its last year on the market. There's a similar price spread between the $26,300 base 350Z and the $37,500 base 1996 300ZX, and this time around, nobody gets saddled with a less powerful engine.
Our Daytona blue 350Z arrived just in time for road test coordinator Tony Quiroga and office manager Kim Ewing to prerun our All-Stars test-drive routes in Kentucky and Tennessee. Ewing attempted to scribble navigation notes as Quiroga piloted the 350Z at warp speed down hollers, along mountainsides, and through hundreds of hairpins, off-camber corners, and dip-dee-dos of every conceivable configuration, all the while exploring the car's "controllable power oversteer, quick steering, ass-grabbing brakes, and near-perfect power-to-weight ratio." Surprisingly, Ewing still had a smile on her face after three days of such treatment. Not surprisingly, we all enjoyed the car just as much when we drove on those same roads during our All-Stars trip just a few weeks later.
Once the 350Z was back in Michigan, where the roads aren't nearly as entertaining as the smooth two-lanes of Appalachia, the accolades continued to pour in.
"I cannot imagine a more entertaining car available in the United States for the price," exclaimed Quiroga.
"An outstanding performance value," said senior editor Eddie Alterman. "They got all the important stuff right:?Control feel is incredibly consistent, pedal placement is perfect, and the ride-and-handling balance doesn't give up much to the classics (i.e., the Porsche 911 and 944)."
"Lots of reasons to love this car," agreed executive editor Mark Gillies, "including the styling, the performance, the nicely balanced handling, and the fact that it's the modern-day 944 for less money." Is there an echo in here?
The 350Z received its longest love letter from contributing writer Ronald Ahrens, who drove it some 5300 miles on a meandering round-trip from Ann Arbor to Los Angeles. Pausing in Rolla, Missouri, at the end of his first day of driving, Ahrens directed his Uni-ball medium-point to the first of thirteen pages of the 350Z's logbook he would fill-mostly with praise-over the course of ten days:?"The first on-ramp makes it obvious:?This Z is a runner."
The next night, Oklahoma City: "The Z and I have had some kind of day. We crossed the Ozark Plateau from Rolla to Mountain Home, Arkansas; then over to Fayetteville and on to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. After the hours spent with my tongue sucked up over my front teeth on these make-the-navigator-upchuck roads, I just can't say enough about the car. The handling is so neutral, the steering is everything you want it to be, and this growling engine should be called to the pope's attention for canonization. I can guarantee that more than one farmer today looked up from his pea patch and cussed the blue streak that went past in hyperdrive."
Without a doubt, our 350Z was good to direct down a twisty road, but it wasn't quite as agreeable to live with every day. Complaints about the harsh ride-exacerbated as usual by Michigan's crappy roads-and tire noise reminded us that there is still no such thing as a no-compromises sports car. (U.S. models now get the same damper valving as those in the European market, for better ride quality.) But we don't expect, and fewer and fewer buyers will accept, compromises in the interior quality of anything this side of an econobox, and in this regard, the 350Z was roundly criticized.
Although the chunky steering-column stalks, the orange-lit instruments, and the cloth-upholstered seats were praised, the plastics and other interior trim were only so-so in quality, and two seemingly minor faults really grated on everyone's nerves. First was the passenger's side seatbelt, which, when unused, banged and rattled incessantly against the B-pillar. Second was a retractable lid in the upper half of the center console, which hides a storage bin in those 350Zs, such as our vehicle, not equipped with the optional navigation system. Clearly a design and production afterthought, this flimsy piece of plastic, about five inches square, had absolutely no damping and less structural rigidity than the door of a Fisher-Price barn, and it didn't even let out a "moo" when you opened it. Fixes for both problems, as well as about a dozen other minor cabin tweaks, were implemented for the 2004 model year.
Aside from those relatively small gripes, our most tangible problem with the 350Z concerned uneven tire wear, especially at the front, which caused the aforementioned tire noise. This has proven to be a common problem with the 350Z, one caused by the soft rubber in the stock Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires and by a chassis that is hypersensitive to wheel misalignment. At about 24,000 miles, we finally replaced the Bridgestones with Pirelli P Zero Rossos, which immediately muffled the endless droning. On the subject of tires, once the snow began to fly, we called the Tire Rack and installed a set of Bridgestone Blizzak LM-22s, which imbued the 350Z with newfound authority in the white stuff.
Our 350Z was in for service more than we liked, but many of the visits were not the fault of the car. In the process of mounting the Blizzaks, the tire technicians damaged one of the tire-pressure sensors, but that, at least, was replaced during the routine 7500-mile service. During a January snowfall, an Oldsmobile Bravada kissed the rear bumper of the Z on the University of Michigan campus, and that little puncture in the plastic cost us several days in the shop and $884. The metal shift-pattern badge atop the shift knob fell off and was lost; in the process of replacing the shift knob, the dealer's service technician damaged the shifter bushing, which set forth an annoying rattle in the gearshifter that plagued us until we managed to get the car back to have the bushing replaced. One thing leads to another, as the Fixx used to say.
Looking back on our twelve months with the 350Z, it was-as Frank Sinatra used to say-a very good year. The car had some rough edges, and online editor Matt Phenix, who is challenging senior editor Joe Lorio for the title of the crabbiest member of our staff, is uncapping his poison pen at this very moment to tell you all about them in his accompanying reaction. The new Z-Car is not as light and lithe as the Mazda RX-8, nor is it as refined as the BMW 3-series coupes or as raw as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, but it undeniably fulfills its mission, and, as the 240Z did in its time, the 350Z can hold its own with Corvettes and Porsches. Many of us at AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE, especially those with offspring, might prefer the Infiniti G35 coupe-which is built on the same Nissan corporate FM?platform and has the same engine-for its more forgiving ride, plusher interior, and plus-two rear seating. But if you're looking for a no-excuses sports car, you'll never have to make any apologies for a 350Z.