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.
Although Nissan put this Z on a diet with tighter dimensions and aluminum replacing steel or composite in the hood, doors, and decklid, keeping up with more stringent collision-protection and occupant-entertainment standards is no small task. The 370Z's unibody is noticeably stiffer and more substantial feeling in the driver's hands and the optional Sport package includes wider rear tires and significantly larger brakes. So the geared-to-go base model (with the Sport upgrade) we tested weighed 3380 pounds, 120 more than the 350Z mentioned above. While Nissan quotes a credible 88-pound weight savings with comparable equipment and 26 more horsepower than the final 350Z brought to the party, the real-world speed gains are nominal. The most noticeable acceleration improvement is the 0.4-seconds trimmed from third-gear passing ability: previously 6.5 seconds, now 6.1 seconds.
Handling and braking enhancements are more substantial. Thanks to a new cast-aluminum front cradle bolted rigidly to the unibody, a carbon-fiber reinforced radiator support, and a triangular underhood reinforcement, there is no wasted motion when you wheel the steering to enter a bend. The variable-assist rack and pinion is quick to act, free of friction, and perfectly weighted. The shorter wheelbase helps the new Z feel light on its feet. There's minimal understeer at the adhesion limit - especially during left turning - and the tail steps obediently wide with indulgences of the throttle. You can back this car into a bend like a drift pro thanks to its well located drive wheels, a substantial rubber-isolated rear crossmember, and stiffening tubes running every which way under the car. While conducting an underbody inspection tour, we also spotted a differential cooler plumbed with the aluminum fittings and braided-stainless-shrouded hoses like you'd expect to see on a racing car.
The Sport package's massive brakes boast four pistons per wheel in front, two in back. The brakes are no longer supplied by Brembo, but Nissan engineers have obviously paid rapt attention to that Italian brake master. The pedal is not only firm feeling and linear in response, a heavy brake application triggers deceleration forceful enough to pump bodily fluids. We measured a 70-0 mph stopping distance of 154 feet, a seven foot improvement over the 350Z. No hint of fade was detected.
There are two unexpected pleasures. One is a remarkably pleasant ride. This is one of the most livable sport suspensions in captivity and downright BMW-like in the way it manages speed-related rock and roll while coddling the occupants. The other is a nifty gimmick that blips the throttle during downshifts like a pro heel-and-toe artist. Real pros will surely turn it off but hot-shoes in training can put it to good use while they ascend the learning curve.
What's not to like? The near-horizontal rear window, the stylish quarter windows, and the tall seat backs annihilate the view to the sides and rear. First gear in the manual transmission sounds like it came from a garbage truck and there's a subtle but annoying whine from under the hood proportional to rpm that sounds like an unruly fan or drive belt. The engine and transmission team are discordant when thrashed. And the button that unlatches the center-dash storage box (where the optional navigation screen lives) is awkward to operate.
The most loveable detail is the new 370Z's price. With a base tab of $30,625, this is the screaming sports car deal for tough times. You'll certainly want the Sport Package, which will probably add another three grand but the base equipment is so generous you'll be able to bypass the Touring edition's creature comforts (mainly Bose audio, power seats, and leather trim). Adding navigation, which includes Ipod connectivity and a 9.3gigabyte Music Box hard drive, is possible only after you step up to life in the Touring lane.
So keep the faith. With the world economy in a funk, at least we can find solace in nifty sports cars like the 370Z when our spirits need a lift.