Not since the bad old days of the muscle car have we had it so good. What are we talking about? Cheap, fun, fast cars, that’s what.
By this time next year there will be–by our count at least–a dozen recently launched sedans, coupes, convertibles and hatches:
- They can scoot to 60mph in less than 8 seconds; half of those 12 will be even faster, launching to 60mph in under 6 seconds.
- They can turn on a dime, or, at worst, a quarter.
- Six of them will sell for less than $30K; the other six, for less than $20K.
More on the Z–a lot more–in a moment. First, you really have to put things in perspective. This many fast, agile, sporty cars–all offered for such reasonable prices–is truly a bellwether, not just of consumer demands, but also of just how artful car making has become.
Today, Japan, America and Germany can deliver cheap metal that can fly down the road, brake as well as it accelerates, look great and get much-better-than-SUV mileage. Have we not at last entered an age of automotive nirvana?
Perhaps no other car signifies how far we’ve come than Nissan’s big star, the 350Z, which goes on sale in August for a base price of $26,269.
Meant as the successor to the great Z cars of the 1970s-90s (from the 1969 240Z all the way to the 1996 300ZX), the new 350Z is, we think, another breakthrough car, one that is going to scare Porsche, Audi and BMW, and also send Japanese competitors like Toyota back to the drawing board to try and figure out why they stopped making fun cars like the Celica Supra.
What have we been smoking? Tires, of course!
That’s right, we’ve been driving one of the best sports car values in recent history and we’re about to give you all the whys and wherefores behind the great new Z. Are there any faults? Sure, but lets shut up already and cut to the chase.
For $26,269 the base 350Z comes with precisely the same 3.5-liter, 287hp V-6 as the very top of the line, $34,079 Track Model.
Naturally the cheaper car gets 17-inch, not 18-inch, wheels and tires, lesser brakes (the Track edition gets larger stoppers made by Brembo), and neither traction or stability control are available. Nor do you get the Xenon headlamps and many other goodies, but flip that coin over and you’re still looking at a two-seat sports car, auto climate control, ABS brakes, dual airbags, 160-watt AM/FM/CD, six-speaker audio system, power windows and locks and, more to the point, one that makes exactly the same potent exhaust noises on startup.
Move up the ladder a few rungs and you get to the car we think most buyers will want, the $30,429 Performance Model. This offers an in-car tire-pressure monitor (so you can check the inflation of all four tires from the comfort of the driver’s seat), Xenon headlamps, 18-inch wheels, limited-slip differential, auto-dimming rearview mirror, traction and stability controls.
By the way, all cars come with a six-speed manual transmission, but you can opt for a five-speed auto box in the Touring model ($31,589), even though we’d have to hunt you down and kill you. Just kidding.
As for the Track edition, the biggest differences here are the toys that come with the Performance model as well as lighter wheels, exceedingly strong brakes, and special mesh-fabric cloth seats that are lighter than leather buckets.
Motor And Transmission
We’ve raved about Nissan’s 3.5-liter V-6 before, but in this application it finally seems to have found a perfect home.
First, the car weighs about 200 pounds lighter than the recently reviewed Infiniti G35 and yet the engine produces 27 more horsepower (287 vs. 260 in the G35). It fairly blasts out torque, with about 90% of peak twist (274 foot pounds of torque at 4,800rpm) arriving below 3,000rpm. Putting that in perspective, you really don’t have to go near the 6,600rpm redline to get the new Z rolling, and that was the idea.
Bruce Robinson, a senior engineer with Nissan’s Vehicle Evaluation Group, says the goal was to make the process from initial throttle tip-in (i.e., the moment you touch the gas) to the point of hard acceleration as linear as possible. “We looked at Corvettes, Audi TTs, Porsches, Skyline GTRs [a Nissan sports car not sold in the U.S.], and at the Honda S2000, and we didn’t necessarily try to match any of them because we wanted a car that’s drivable everyday. To get that, you can’t have all-or-nothing power. That beats you up.”
Robinson got just what he hoped for: direct power that’s easily applied. There are no surprises, just a steady surge of juice that can be laid on or pulled off with surgical ease.
This buys you time in a set of switchbacks, like those we encountered in rural West Virginia, because you can use the gas to power out of a bend, knowing full well that you won’t hit some nasty spike in the torque curve that will launch you too quickly toward the next apex–or quickly into oversteer, where the power can literally launch you off the road.
Likewise, the transmission is well mated to this motor, with both second but especially third gear being flexible slots; you can drop into to 2 for very tight turns, but 3 is up to the task if the curves loosen slightly, since that torque is available at such low revs.
Here, too, you find that the Z’s flexible powertrain/transmission means you don’t have to drive hard to have fun. In other words, you don’t have to sit in second gear at high revs to feel the pull of the motor, but can lay back in third and let the car run a bit faster and smoother. This also means the motor and gearing work well for passing, since you can stomp down in a higher gear and still get enough mojo going quickly to launch past other cars.
Although Nissan won’t confirm or deny it, the 0-60mph times for this engine are somewhere between 5.2 and 5.5 seconds.
That’s smoking-quick, on par with some current-model Porsche 911s, faster than the Porsche Boxster S, the Audi TT, all non M-edition BMWs, every Lexus, any Mercedes that sells for less than $50K…get the idea? This baby is quick, but also, we must emphasize, eminently livable. You don’t have to burn rubber every morning to feel like this powertrain–this car–was worth every penny and more.
Still, although we have very few misgivings about this car, one has to be that Nissan’s manual transmissions take some getting used to. Throws are short and direct in the Z, and after a day at the wheel you won’t wonder about the gearing, but the Z doesn’t have the simultaneously crisp and light throws of a 3 Series BMW or a Porsche 911. On the up side, clutch effort is reasonably light and the engagement point for shifts is always palpable and easy to modulate.
After two days of shifting this car we had it down, but that’s different than saying it’s the best gearshift we’ve ever toggled. It’s a transmission that’s usable, even likeable, but it doesn’t create the smiles. That role is left to the engine, brakes and handling.
Brakes, Suspension, Handling
The reason our headlines is “The Best Sports Car Value On Earth” comes down to balance. If the Z had its potent V-6 but only twitchy steering, or it had great grip but a spleen-splitting ride…Well, as you can see you can’t make a great sports car with a single ingredient, you need the whole pile of starch, spice, sweetener and fat spilled out of the cupboard and mixed together just right.
That recipe is here, in the 350Z, and if you break it down you can see why.
First, it sits on Nissan’s stellar new Front-Mid chassis, which means the engine rests behind the front axle but in front of the cockpit, giving the car naturally even weight distribution. To this, Nissan adds a very wide, fairly long wheelbase (about a foot longer than a Porsche 911). The wide stance gives the Z a naturally planted feel with less body roll, and the longer wheelbase meant Nissan wouldn’t have to worry as much about cockpit reverb (a longer “stride” means road impacts are spread out over a longer period of time and the car itself is more stable).
Then the Z gets an independent multilink suspension in an optimized application. Nissan’s Bruce Robinson says engineers thickened the gauges of some suspension pieces and, to improve steering feel and reduce chassis flex, used doubler brackets and triangular braces at ever wheel, essentially bracing the suspension against the frame.
“The hatchback architecture costs a lot of stiffness,” Robinson says, referring to how a big back window that opens essentially weakens the Z’s chassis. That’s why Nissan also adds a strut tower brace across the front and rear suspension. The rear brace, in fact, is a visible part of the rear cargo hold. “That’s something a lot of people would go buy in the aftermarket, but we wanted to give it to you up front,” Robinson says.
Naturally, all this suspension dynamics talk has got you woozy with specs, so wake up, because the equation is finally done.
The ride isn’t punishing, not even on nasty, rotten Midwestern roads, and the same goes for the Track model. This is truly a smooth long-runner, not just a sprinter.
But get the Z into some rotini-shaped twists and that’s when the fun really begins.
The steering, which is light at low speeds, loads up nicely but doesn’t get lumbering. Instead it just reveals the road-and-tire feel to you through your hands. The suspension, too, stays poised at all times, begging you to plant your right foot a little harder, to drive closer to the edge. You can lose the back end if you really get overconfident, but even then you can catch it again by getting off the gas and flicking the car the other direction with a tad bit of counter-steer.
Even over rolling terrain, where bends come in great rushes of downhill then roller-coaster back up again, this machine never gets nose heavy, never squats back on its heels, either. Rather, it’s progressive and linear, so you always know how much grip is left, how much power you should apply and when you should ease off.
Nonetheless, we wouldn’t push this hard if the brakes weren’t terrific, and as we mentioned we were testing the Track model with its oversized Brembos. Just the name of that Italian brake maker sounds like magic to many a car nut, but like any part, you can’t just pop them out of the box and have them be perfect. Robinson says with both the optional and standard brakes Nissan wanted to calibrate brake power to match the range of pedal motion.
“Some car companies do it by effort, but we don’t think people can sense subtle gradations of how hard they’re pushing,” he says. There’s actually a bit of travel to the Z’s stop button, so you can dial in braking with ease. Sadly, that just isn’t the case with a lot of sports cars, where it’s either full stop or nothing.
Although the car we were driving is called the Track Model, Robinson and others at Nissan are quick to point out that this is a road car that can be driven to the track, but the first goal was to make the suspension livable. “That’s a scary thing to say,” Robinson whispers as an aside. “People think that means you’ve made it soft and that’s not the case.”
No, it’s not at all.
In fact the car we kept thinking of while driving this Z both on the road and at the raceway wasn’t the Porsche Boxster S, a car Nissan openly admits they wanted to better, but the base Porsche 911. Having just driven the new Targa recently (our review comes out shortly), in fact right on the heels of the Z, our instincts were confirmed.
The Z is forgiving as a daily driver, like the Targa, fast as a whip, and eminently at home on any raceway, also like a Porsche 911.
What we found most evocative about the Z on the track was how positively electric the steering can be at the very edge, yet it was never twitchy when we drove the car in heavy highway traffic.
Then there’s the muscle of the engine, with that easily usable third gear and the quick-flick downshift to second always on tap. For a tight road course (we were at Virginia International Raceway), the Z was ideal, and even the kink in the front straight (where the Z will pull to 135mph even in this amateur’s hands) didn’t upset the back end of the car–it feels positively glued.
It’s worth noting that in some cars you may not want to risk turning off the traction or stability control at high speed. But in the Z we shut down both with no problems. The car just rails around and the only way to really loose control is to go super deep into a turn then lay on the gas too quickly, powering the tail end around. Otherwise the ingenious, addictive, ear-to-ear-grin-making magic of the Z is that anyone could drive it at 9/10ths and feel as though he’d been transformed into Formula One driver Juan Fangio or, more correctly, that famous Nissan Z racer, Paul Newman.
Nissan’s head of design, Shiro Nakamura, doesn’t like the term “retro.” Instead, he says that to make the interior of the current 350Z, designers essentially borrowed a few key traits of prior-generation Z cars and left out what they didn’t like. Which is why the trio of center-mounted oval gauges survives as a nod to the original 240Z but pretty much everything else is unique to the car.
Designers mounted the tachometer at the center of the instrument pod, emphasizing revs rather than how fast the cops think you should go, and the entire gauge bank moves when you adjust the height of the wheel, so you can always see the dials.
Speaking of adjustments, if you get the track model you can’t adjust the fully manual seats for height. This matters if you’re short because, unusually for a sports car, the Z is meant to accommodate real-size drivers, not gymnasts. In fact, Nissan almost errs on the side of capaciousness, since this smallish driver (5′ 8″) could only just get comfortable at the wheel and might opt for a model with electric seats just to be able to raise the perch to a less low-rider height.
Which creates a dilemma, because we like the cloth seats better than the leather ones, but these don’t come with electronic controls. The cloth seats are covered in a grippy, open-weave mesh that is much more comfortable than most leathers and also breathes very well. It also won’t be nearly as clammy as leather in the wintertime.
Looking around the rest of the cockpit, you find a cross-hatched rubberized material on the doors (called “machine” grain) and a faux-leather pebble plastic across the dash. This eventually meets a center waterfall of instruments bracketed in metal-flecked plastic, and a number of real metal accents frame the gauges, accent the wheel, detail the shift knob, and so on.
Aesthetically it’s a sort of mixed bag. We like the metal, we like the machine grain, we like the waterfall and the climate controls, but the distinct parts unfortunately don’t quite cohere completely. It’s hardly a travesty of design, it just needs a little help working together.
Two things we really love, however, are the onboard computer (closest of the small center instruments) that lets you do nifty things like see your speed digitally (in addition to the analog speedometer) and to program a red shift light that flashes on the tachometer when you’ve reached a certain rpm. The latter might be a gimmick but could also prove to be a great tool if you spend weekends club racing your Z.
The most obvious realization that comes after a few days at the wheel of the 350Z is that it could stand even more horsepower.
A stock Porsche 911 weighs about the same as this car and easily handles another 33 horsepower. We think the 350Z could be made to go still faster without becoming hard to control. Nissan’s aftermarket parts division, Nismo, may even be selling performance-boosters as early as this fall. (These boosters are like automotive steroids and are essentially enhanced computer chips that get patched into a car’s computer brain.)
These boosters will be for track use only, Nissan officials tell us, but who’s going to check? You could also bet that future Zs may well come from the factory with more like 320hp, you’ll just have to wait a few years.
What else? A roadster is on its way next spring. This will probably be a cloth-top only, to keep costs down, and of course is targeted at the Audi TT roadster, the Honda S2000, which only comes as a cloth-top, and the Porsche Boxster.
You might also expect a very high-end Nissan Z, built along the lines of the Europe- and Japan-only Nissan Skyline GT-R, a car meant to go after Corvettes and 911s and to flat out beat them.
Nissan engineer Robinson is fairly open when discussing this possibility: “Nissan is an engineering company, it’s what we’re proud of. We’d love to have crown jewel like that, but it has to make sense.”
That means Nissan doesn’t want to end up with an Acura NSX, a technical tour-de-force that nobody’s heard of and that doesn’t sell because, unlike with Porsche, Acura doesn’t have a reputation for making high-performance sports cars.
Still, Nissan does, and this latest Z will only further cement that reputation. Whether that will be enough to convince buyers to spend twice as much as the 350Z on a Porsche hunter is an open question, but one Nissan may well be able answer after word gets out that they already have a world-class sports car for sale–at a rock-bottom price.