2003 Nissan 350Z Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Pure rebellious sports car.
The Nissan 350Z is the modern interpretation of the original Datsun 240Z. It's fast. It's fun to drive. It's pure sports car. And it's affordable, or at least attainable. The new Z is as responsive as a hungry cheetah, with racecar handling, rear-wheel drive, and thrilling acceleration performance.
The chassis is fantastic, as rigid as a prototype racer's. The suspension keeps the tires glued through fast chicanes. Bounce over the curbs like Michael Schumacher and the Z will hold its line. Its fastback styling and arching roofline hint at the Porsche 911. It looks like a mid-engine sports car and, in a sense, it is. Styling details like the controversial industrial-design door handles ensure this car will never be called bland.
The new Z is a great value for the driving enthusiast. While the previous-generation twin-turbocharged 300ZX (discontinued in 1996) delivered stellar performance, it was too expensive for most of us. The new 350Z is far more affordable, starting at just $26,269. And that's no wimpy base model with a commuter engine. All 350Zs get the same sports suspension and Nissan's superb V6 engine, which punches out 287 horsepower and strong torque. That much power, along with a six-speed gearbox, carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, anti-lock disc brakes vented front and rear with EBD, plus convenience features like automatic temperature control and a premium stereo, do not normally come on cars below 30K.
Nissan says the 350Z was designed to be a sports car an enthusiast can live with every day. While its firm ride, abrupt throttle response, and awkward cup holders don't necessarily make it a great place to drink coffee, eat doughnuts, and make phone calls on the way to work, it is a comfortable car with usable cargo space, and getting in and out isn't impossibly awkward. Order it with the excellent five-speed automatic, and you'll have a better commuter for the daily stop-and-go.
Bottom line: This car more than delivers on the promise of its stellar looks. It's no poser. It's a real sports car.
Five models are available, but all use the same 3.5-liter V6 engine and suspension. The differences lie primarily in trim. Different size wheels and tires, however, give the models distinct personalities, and the Track model sports big brakes. All models get the carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, and dual outlet exhaust with dumps big enough to hold a Budweiser can.
The base Nissan 350Z ($26,269) comes standard with 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, vented front and rear disc brakes with ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, dual stage air bags, seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters, automatic temperature control, 160-watt AM/FM/CD with six speakers, power windows (with auto-up/auto-down on both sides), power door locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, vehicle security system, a leather steering wheel and shifter boot, and comfortable cloth seats. It comes with a six-speed manual transmission.
Enthusiast ($28,249) is the most popular model. It adds xenon headlamps, HomeLink universal transceiver, cruise control, traction control, viscous limited-slip rear differential, aluminum pedals, day/night rearview mirror, dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors. The Enthusiast model is also available with a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode ($29,219).
The Performance model ($30,429), available only with the manual gearbox, adds 18-inch wheels and tires, Vehicle Dynamic Control (an anti-skid system), and a tire-pressure monitor.
The Touring model is available with manual or automatic transmissions. When ordered with the automatic, Touring ($31,589) adds leather-appointed seats, with a four-way power driver's seat, a two-way power passenger's seat, and seat heaters, heated mirrors, and a 240-watt Bose CD6 with cassette and seven speakers. But it does not come with Vehicle Dynamic Control or the aluminum pedals, and it's fitted with the 17-inch wheels. Order the Touring model with the six-speed manual ($33,179) and you get all the luxury stuff plus VDC, 18-inch wheels, and the aluminum pedals; it's a Performance model with leather and other luxury goodies, in other words.
The Track model ($34,079) gets vented Brembo brakes, 18-inch rubber mounted on lightweight aluminum wheels, and front and rear spoilers. It comes with the cloth, but is equipped with VDC, the viscous differential, xenon headlights, tire-pressure monitor, HomeLink, aluminum pedals (of course), the electrochromic mirror, and illuminated visor vanity mirrors (to ensure your hair is safely tucked under your helmet).
A side air bag and curtain air bag package ($569) is optional and a very good idea, and a DVD-based navigation system ($1999) is available.
No sunroof, no T-top is available, but if you like high-performance, top-down motoring, then order the roadster, but you'll have to wait until summer to get it.
Nissan says high-performance parts will be available from Nismo, the company's racing division that competes at Le Mans and other sports car venues. Look for engine, suspension, and body bits.
With its bulging front fenders and fast back, the Z reminds me of a Porsche 911. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, of course. Regardless, driving the new Z draws a lot of 'nice car' comments, including one from a Porsche Carrera 4 driver.
The shape of the Z suggests a mid-engine design. The engine is in fact in front of the driver, but it's behind the front axle. That's why Nissan calls it a front mid-ship placement. (In that respect, it's somewhat similar to the Mazda RX-7 design.) The Z shares its architecture with the Infiniti G35 coupe and sedan. Moving the engine rearward improves weight distribution, which improves handling balance. The new Z weighs about 3,200 pounds, split front/rear 53/47 percent. It's balanced well for accelerating out of corners.
An extremely short front overhang and a short rear overhang makes for agile handling. It also means you don't scrape driveways like you do in a Corvette. Bulging fender flares make the Z look like it's ready for the racetrack, which it is.
Its shape, besides looking really cool, allows the Z to slice through the air with a minimum of drag (0.29 on the Track model). Airflow is managed well underneath, with zero lift on the front (and zero lift on the rear of the Track model). All this math adds up to relatively low levels of wind noise and a stable sports car at high speeds.
The interior of the Nissan 350Z is a cockpit designed for driving, helping the driver quickly become one with the car. The carbon-fiber colored cloth seats are form-fitting, supportive and comfortable, made of a soft material that grips the body in the corners. The driver's seat features a mound in the center to prevent the driver from sliding forward. Aggressive side bolsters grip the waist to hold the driver in place. The leather seats in the Touring model seem a little firmer than the cloth, and are available in charcoal, burnt orange or frost. Either cloth or leather is a good choice in this case. The supportive seats and a driver's dead pedal mean you never feel like you have to hang on to the car. The seating position should be good for drivers with long legs; I felt a little close to the wheel when the seat was adjusted for my legs. It's worth noting, however, that this feeling went away the moment the key was turned in the ignition.
Tilt the steering column and the main pod of gauges moves with it, ensuring a good view of the big tachometer and flanking speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges. Nestled in three pods on top of the dash are a voltmeter, an oil pressure gauge and a digital trip computer. They look cool, but reading them requires more than a glance. Two toggles to the right of the steering wheel operate the trip computer, used to check outside air temperature, distance to empty, speed, average mileage, and average speed. It has a stopwatch function (to check out those 0-60 times), and a tire-pressure monitor for 18-inch wheels. With the Trip Computer, the driver can program a shift light to come on at a certain rpm. The small red indicator on the tachometer begins flashing abut 500 rpm before the preset engine speed is reached, when it comes on solid. You can program it for the ideal shift points for acceleration or fuel economy, then let your peripheral vision pick up the indicator. If you don't like this feature you can turn it off.
The interior of the Z seems to suggest a carbon-fiber racecar tub. The material surrounding the shifter and forming the center dash looks like carbon fiber. Likewise, the large expanse of gray material lining the door panels suggests carbon fiber in appearance. The quality of the materials is okay, though some of the pieces would never be allowed in an Audi. It looked austere at first, but quickly grew on us. Stylish interior touches, such as the inside door handles integrated into aerodynamic pods for the side vents, give the Z a racy, modern look. Passengers often grope for the door release the first time they try to get out, distracted by the big grab handles adorned with genuine aluminum and relieved by the Z's dot motif.
Stylish audio controls include a big volume knob, clearly marked buttons for channel seeking, and six station buttons that can be preset simply by holding them down. We confess we were too focused on entertaining ourselves with the car to turn it on, and we drove various models of the Z on both coasts. Below are three large knobs for the automatic climate control system, which comes standard. Nicely designed wiper and headlamp controls are mounted on short stalks. The leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels great, and comes with cruise controls on the right spoke. Overhead are well-designed map lights and a bin for sunglasses. Power window switches are auto-up/auto-down.
The Z is not the best place to drink things. There's a pair of cup holders in the center console, but they're mounted too far rearward for use by the driver and passengers will find them awkward. It might be best to ditch the cup holders and use the center console for storage. Another cup holder is mounted on the passenger-side dash. It pops out with the press of a button, feels flimsy, but works well and is an easy reach for the driver, just past the audio controls. The firm suspension makes drinking hot coffee from an open cup while underway a risky proposition on al.
Turning the key and hearing the engine roar to life is the first indication the Nissan 350Z is no poser. Turning onto a winding road proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Sharp steering, terrific handling, and excellent grip make this a real driver's car. This car is very fast with brilliant acceleration.
Mounted longitudinally and driving the rear wheels is Nissan's excellent VQ V6 engine. It's smooth and sounds like a big sports car engine. It generates lots of torque at low rpm, pulling smoothly from about 2000 rpm. Maximum torque of 274 pounds-feet comes at 4800 rpm, tapering off as maximum horsepower of 287 hp is reached at 6200 rpm. The engine is still pulling smoothly as the rev limiter steps in somewhere just north of 6500 rpm, but this engine is more about low-rpm torque than high-revving horsepower. Nissan's Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System helps the V6 produce a nice, linear band of torque. Drive-by-wire technology reduces mechanical weight and complexity.
The short-throw shifter feels good and it's effective. The six-speed gearbox shifts quickly and deliberately. It's so well synchronized you almost don't need the clutch (though Nissan recommends using it). Clutch pedal effort has enough heft to remind the driver this is no Honda Accord.
The automatic transmission works great, really smooth and responsive. Driving the automatic, didn't leave me feeling like I was missing out by not having the manual. The Touring model with the automatic and 17-inch wheels felt like the perfect combination for hurtling down New York's Taconic Parkway.
The Z feels taut and well controlled. It really stuck when accelerating through fast sweepers on California's Palos Verdes Peninsula. The steering is sharp and accurate and the Z changes directions brilliantly in transient maneuvers, without excessive understeer turning in or sloppy oversteer coming out. Cornering is flat, without much body lean. The 17-inch tires generate lots of grip, even when driving in a rebellious manner. It's hard to imagine using it up outside a competitive event or emergency maneuver. The 17-inch wheels offer a better ride than the 18-inch wheels on the Performance model. In either case, the ride does get jouncy on bumpy roads, most noticeably when cruising slowly, but it doesn't beat you up and we expect that with a sports car like this.
The brakes are easy to modulate, fun to use, and do a good job of stopping the car. Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist come standard on all 350Zs. Just like it sounds, Electronic Brake-force Distribution improves stopping performance by dynamically balancing front and rear braking forces. Brake Assist is a mechanical system that applies full braking if it senses an emergency-braking situation where the driver has not stepped hard enough on the brake pedal to engage the ABS. Push the car too hard into a corner or find yourself on a slippery surface and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and traction control come to the rescue by reducing power or applying brakes at individual wheels.
If you like to drive on racetracks, then you should select the Track model for its Brembo brakes. The weight of the Z challenges the stock brakes when they are used over and over, lap after lap. Also, the car understeers when driven to the limit, meaning you need to get it slowed down for the corners, then use the torque to power out. The big Brembos probably won't reduce stopping distances, but with dual-piston calipers and bigger discs, they should resist fade better than the standard brakes.
The Nissan 350Z stands alone as an affordable, high-performance hardtop sports car. Its rear-wheel-drive chassis is rigid, its suspension is taut for excellent handling, and the V6 engine delivers lots of torque for strong acceleration performance.
Starting at less than $27,000, the new Z delivers with no-frills hardware, including a carbon fiber driveshaft. All models deliver stellar performance. Whether you opt for the six-speed manual gearbox or the five-speed automatic, there are no dogs in the lineup. The interior is the weakest link here, but it grows on you with a little time spent living with it.
This is the car for drivers who want serious sports car performance in a GT body and don't want to shell out the big bucks.
Nissan 350Z 6-speed manual transmission ($26,269); Enthusiast 6MT ($28,249); Enthusiast 5AT ($29,219); Performance 6MT ($30,429), Touring 5AT ($31,589); Touring 6MT ($33,179); Track 6MT ($34,079).
Options As Tested
floor mats ($69).
Nissan 350Z Enthusiast ($28,249).
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