Car reviews - Nissan - 350Z - Track coupe
Styling, responsiveness, handling, brakes, safety, value
Room for improvement
Two-seater configuration, storage compartments
23 Apr 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
NISSAN's Z car has experienced lows and highs over the three decades of its existence. But by the time it reached its moment of truth and was retired from the Nissan line-up in 1996, its passing was lamented by many.
The last Z car, the Z32-model 300ZX, followed the Z31 300ZX originally launched in 1984 and, looking unbelievably desirable, arrived here in 1989.
The Z32 300ZX was arguably the best-looking sports coupe on the market and offered a decent serve of power from its 169kW, 3.0-litre V6 engine - as well as a two-plus-two cabin.
If the back seat was pitiful in terms of adult usefulness, at least it was a handy space to carry extra luggage that would not fit into the tiny "boot" area.
The Z32's 168kW were not really enough to rate it with seriously fast machinery, but the ZX had a brilliantly balanced chassis that helped rescue it from any pseudo sports car accusations. It had the desirable duality of being a cool boulevard cruiser that was also able to deliver driver satisfaction.
The Z slipped out of Nissan's line-up as the company moved into a period of economic rationalisation following poor market performances around the globe (not in Australia).
But with France's Renault deciding to take more than a close interest in the company in 1999, the idea of a reborn Z quickly flowered into a concept car that was first aired at the 2001 Detroit motor show.
Now, two years later, we have the 350Z - a road-going, production version of the show car that is a stunning-to-look-at, two-seat, rear-drive sports coupe with unquestionably derivative styling (Audi's TT comes particularly to mind) and a specification that denies its cut-to-the-bone pricing.
Cut to the bone that is compared with European sports coupes. The base Touring version nudges $60,000 while the higher-specced, more focussed Track model (tested here) adds a well-spent $6000 on top of that.
But in the 350Z we have a sports coupe with credentials that would do a $100,000 European proud.
There's a 3.5-litre version of Nissan's much acclaimed alloy V6 producing 206kW and 363Nm of torque (quite astonishing for the capacity), a refined multi-link suspension system, six-speed transmission, monumentally powerful brakes and an array of safety gear and electronic aids that ensure it a place at the cutting edge of reasonably affordable sports coupes.
Traction control, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist are all part of the Z car package. The higher-specced Track version throws in a mean set of Brembo brakes, larger 18-inch wheels, additional aerodynamic aids and an electronic stability control system.
Both Z cars get a comprehensive passive safety pack with dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbags and an array of luxury gear that includes a seven-speaker Bose sound system, power-adjusted and heated leather seats, climate control air-conditioning, cruise control and trip computer. There's little, apart from a sunroof, that you could possibly want.
The 350Z's road presence is undeniable. It looks as impressive as a Porsche with styling that is a combined effort by various Nissan design centres, particularly its facility in Northern California. This is appropriate because the original 240Z was basically the work of an American designer.
But the connections with that first Z car are a little hard to find. Parked next to an Audi TT, the Z car looks almost alarmingly similar. Then again, once out on the road there are undeniable Porsche elements in its general stance and profile.
The bottom line, however, is that the Z is an arresting car to look at. It has a purposeful, compact, wheel-at-each-corner stance as well as plenty of unique styling elements to keep the eye interested.
Inside there are touches of Z car retro, especially in the three-pod mould atop the instrument panel and the deeply hooded displays for speedometer and tachometer.
The seats are asymmetrical that is, the driver gets a different cushion with a raised centre section at the front that adds to lateral support while the passenger seat is shaped with a little more consideration for comfort.
Storage areas are arrayed in an unusual way. There's no glovebox in the usual space on the left of the dash, rather a large but awkwardly accessed lidded box behind the passenger's seat and a couple of small compartments in the trim surrounding the additional body brace that stretches across the cabin behind the seats.
The usual centre console bin, plus door pockets and a handy lidded compartment in the centre of the dash, complete the arrangements. Disappointingly, there's no cover, or protective netting, to prevent luggage sliding around in the rear-most area under the hatchback lid.
But the cabin is a nice place to be, as the seats are comfortable and supportive and there is an unmistakable air of quality and solidity that surrenders no ground to more expensive, European sports cars.
About the only aberration is the silly and flimsy actuation of the lid for the centre-dash storage space. Clearly Nissan has already had problems with this, for there's a small warning pasted onto the lid advising how to use it without breaking it.
Firing up the 3.5-litre V6 for the first time gives notice about what is in store.
The engine note, carefully crafted by Nissan, has a sort of metallic harshness to it that suggests this is going to be a raw, barely-compromised driving experience.
Certainly the V6 is omnipresent, more in terms of the sound coming from the engine itself rather than the exhaust. It's a far cry from the quiet and smooth 3.0-litre Maxima version.
Moving off in first gear, the deep reserves of torque are readily apparent, mainly because of the engine's even-handed characteristics, but also because the ratio feels a little lower than expected.
Into second, third, then fourth, the gaps between gears seem to close up so there's the virtually seamless gear spread you would expect from so many ratios. Nissan describes sixth as a "highway" gear but it still transmits plenty of the engine's punch.
With 206kW, and especially with 363Nm of torque, the Z always feels eager despite its weight. The driver has to work for it though, with plenty of not unpleasant racket coming from the engine and a gearshift action that requires a firm hand rather than a simple flick of the wrist. But the clutch is light and smooth.
Like the driveline, the independent multi-link suspension very much errs on the serious, sporting side. The ride is firm yet compliant enough to deal with small mid-corner bumps and dips without knocking the whole thing off line.
It's also pretty quiet - not like a 911 which conveys to driver and passengers more than a little audible knowledge of what is going on at the back-end.
The speed-sensitive steering is pretty spot-on in terms of feel and response and brake pedal pressure on the Brembo-equipped Track version we drove balances nicely between over-responsiveness and excessive heaviness.
The brakes themselves feel massively competent, hauling the car down with authority from any reasonable speed.
Yes, the latest Nissan Z car is impressive in every way. It delivers excellent performance that is backed up by sure-footed road grip and handling feel, and has more road presence than normally expected at this price point.
Perhaps its only downside is that, unlike the forthcoming Mazda RX-8, it is a totally selfish indulgence that makes no bones about its two-passenger only configuration.
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