The financial bear has taken a deep bite out of every sports car's hide. During October, entry-level roadster sales plummeted by more than fifty percent versus a year ago. Honda S2000 and Pontiac Solstice sales were down by two-thirds.
The one way to sustain interest in two seaters is to inject them with fresh vitality. Nissan's timing is perfect: After a successful six-year run, the 350Z is being replaced by a comprehensively new 370Z.
The larger middle digit is your clue that piston displacement jumps (thanks to a longer stroke). But the more salient message is that the new kid hasn't started over with an A in its name. The 370Z still honors the same design, performance, and value attributes that have defined Nissan's sports car for four decades.
Few photos do the new Z justice. But, from a standing perspective, the roof seems thinner, the upper sculpted contours more evident and interesting. Viewed in the metal, the new shorter, lower, wider proportions look just right. Nissan's La Jolla, California, designers exercised restraint in the basic surfaces, saving the drama for the boomerang-shaped head and taillamp assemblies, some of the most interesting styling touches I've seen in ages.
While the new interior is reminiscent of the previous edition, there are sweeping upgrades in contour, quality, and overall execution. Instruments are larger, more legible, and higher in entertainment value. The seats are more comfortable and provide better support. A 1.1-inch increase in overall width maintains a spacious feeling even though exterior length has been trimmed by 2.7-inches and the new Z's wheelbase is shorter by 3.9-inches. An astute repackaging job has made the slightly smaller cargo hold more useful and easier to access. The space behind the seats is fitted with handy places to stash small-to-medium sized objects. One feature that really helps this cockpit fit you like custom-tailored gloves is a gauge cluster that adjusts vertically with the steering column for optimum visibility, a feature Ferrari neglected to install in its new $200,000+ GT.
Punch the start button and Nissan's VQ37VHR V-6 barely murmurs until you send the tack needle to the upper half of its 7500-rpm rev range where the engine's growl gets edgy with anticipation. Load and rpm are controlled by electricity and variable intake valve lift instead of by a mechanical cable and throttle plate. The response of the gas pedal, now hinged from the floor, is lackadaisical and sometimes out of phase with large throttle adjustments. But used in the recommended all-or-nothing mode, there is plenty of action and enthusiasm at the working end of the pedal. We clocked acceleration to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and a quarter mile run in a brisk 14.0 seconds at 105 mph. That's a few tenths quicker and 2 mph faster than the 350Z that survived our Four Seasons abuse five years ago.