2003 Nissan 350Z

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.

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