First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
Images: Nissan
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by Jim Kenzie

Ann Arbor, Michigan – Apart from Mazda’s Miata, no Japanese sports car has been able to maintain a continuing presence in this most style- and image-conscious market niche. Nissan’s new 350Z hopes to re-join the parade. It no doubt has the heritage (see Side Bar).

Can it deliver on the promise?

Certainly it looks good. Thankfully, the production car bears little resemblance to the “retro” concept Nissan showed three years ago. Either that was really a litmus test for the media and auto-show-goers – which it failed miserably — or it was a deliberate red-herring.

Whatever, the real 350Z is a taut, tightly-controlled, wheel-at-each-corner shape that looks both modern and purposeful, although the big vertical silver-coloured door handles look a bit odd in any paint colour but silver. (I love having fun with marketing types – they call these “sport-oriented”. A “sport-oriented” DOOR HANDLE??!?…)

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives

The new Nissan 350Z sports car has a lot to live up to. The original Z – the Datsun 240Z of 1969 – was not only the seminal sports car of its day (we were wallowing around in Triumph Spitfires and MGBs at the time, and you cloth-capped British sports car guys can keep your e-mails…).

But the Z was also the first Japanese car that really took on the Europeans in the sports car class. Sure, the 240Z was a blatant copy of a British car – the Jaguar E-Type. Sure, it was originally styled by a German-American – Albrecht Goertz. Sure, it got bloated and fat as subsequent versions appeared. But at the time, it was king – of the track as well as the road.

At least the line ended with a bang – the 300ZX remains one of the best sports car – certainly the best-looking – of any era. But the buying public balked at spending $50,000 for a 300-horsepower Japanese sports car, preferring to spend $60,000 for a 200-horsepower German sports car – racism? Prejudice? Brand Image? All of the above? Who knows… – and the 300ZX died.

Nissan has already done a Lazarus act in its financial matters; the 350Z intends an encore performance in the sports car market.

There’s not much on the outside to connect the new Z with the original 240Z, although the rear roof pillar and the curved lower rear door cut-out do recall the last 300ZX.

Inside, the car was intended from the beginning to be a two-seater hatchback – in other words, a true sports car, but with some practicality in mind. The glove box has been relocated to the rear, and is said to be large enough to accommodate a brief case. The driver’s seat is contoured differently from the passenger’s, with additional shoulder and thigh support. The designers claim a combination of traditional (leather-covered) and modern (aluminum and aluminum-look) surfaces.

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
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The three-pod instrument cluster is intended to remind you of the original Z. The brace between the rear strut towers is left exposed and is again aluminum-finished, to give a production-sports-racing-car look.

Mechanically, the 350Z uses what Nissan calls its “FM” architecture. FM stands for Front-Midship, and means the engine is in the front, but aft of the front wheel centerline. The idea is to give near-perfect weight balance front-to-rear, which Nissan defines as either 53/47 or 51/49, depending on which car they are talking about. Either is close enough.

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
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The engine is yet another derivative of Nissan’s wonderful 3.5 litre four-cam 24-valve V6, with such advanced features as continuously-variable intake valve timing, drive-by-wire electronic throttle, and microfinished cam- and crankshafts. Better breathing and the freest-flowing exhaust system Nissan makes are responsible for boosting output to the highest in this engine family – 287 horsepower at 6,200 r.p.m., and a peak of 274 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 r.p.m.

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
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Despite this fairly high peak torque r.p.m., the torque curve is decently flat – the engine delivers more than 220 lb.-ft. from about 1,700 r.p.m. onwards. As befits Nissan’s emerging reputation as something of a hot-rod company, these numbers are leagues ahead of cars Nissan considers competitors –
Porsche Boxster S, Honda S2000, Mercedes-Benz SLK and Audi TT.

This motivation flows to the rear wheels through a new six-speed manual gearbox; a five-speed automatic, borrowed from the Infiniti G35 but re-calibrated for sportier performance, is optional.

An interesting technical tidbit is a carbon fibre drive shaft which not only reduces weight – almost 20 kg – and inertia, but vibration too. It also shatters in a severe frontal impact, instead of turning itself into a big, heavy scythe.

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
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Suspension is multi-link independent at each corner, with most bits made of aluminum for weight savings and quicker response to road inputs. Four-wheel disc ABS brakes gain electronic brake force distribution (to ensure each wheel delivers optimal braking force before ABS kicks in) and brake assist (which infers an impeding panic stop by the speed, rather than the force, with which the driver applies the brake pedal, and boosts braking power automatically). An optional “track pack” includes an upgrade to an Italian-made Brembo system with larger calipers, lifted from the mighty Skyline GT-R, one of Japan’s best-kept automotive secrets.

Dynamic stability control is standard on manual-transmission cars, but not even optionally available on automatics. Hmm-mm – wouldn’t a customer ordering automatic be more likely to be a less skilful driver in the first place, and be more, not less, likely to need some help driving this very powerful car?

Hey – ask the marketing types…

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
Click image to enlarge

The Ann Arbor area is littered with pretty, twisty, well-paved driving roads. Sadly, it is also littered with urban development and cops – plus, the headquarters of the Michigan Militia, which I think I inadvertently visited when trying to take a photo of the car in front of a lovely old barn. The owner suggested quite colourfully and forcefully that I get various parts of my imaginatively-adjectived anatomy out of there; I didn’t stick around long enough to see if he had a shotgun.

The appeal of the exterior is immediate and enduring. This is the first time I’ve ever been flagged down by a civilian – he flashed the lights in his pick-up truck, and waved me over, just to get a better look. Crazily, I stopped… Geez; he might have been that militia guy…Anyway, he had been following the progress of the car on the Internet, had already placed his order, and was thrilled beyond all comprehension to see the car in the steel/flesh, right in his own neighbourhood.

I confess to being disappointed when I actually got into the car. Despite claims of top-quality materials, the interior looks stark and cheap to me. OK, it’s better than the Tijuana tuck-and-roll job quilted plastic of the original 240Z – or is this another part of the heritage thing? It all works very well, though. The seats are comfortable and supportive, although I can’t say I noticed a great deal of difference between the left and the right. That aluminum rear brace reflects badly in the rear window in a following sun, and the rearward view is already restricted enough. Matte black, maybe?

The engine is fabulous – strong and lusty throughout the rev range. Sounds great too. Nissan claims world-class shift quality on the new gearbox. It feels strong and slick, but does require a fair amount of effort – more Corvette than Miata.

Ride is fine, as is handling – as far as we could tell under the fairly strict limitations the test venue imposed upon us. (What’s that? A full day at a race track? This is me with my helmet under my arm…).

When the 350Z goes on sale in early August, Nissan Canada will be offering three models. The Performance (six-speed manual) and Touring (five-speed automatic) get similar levels of equipment, except the dynamic stability control is traded off for the auto-box, so both can list for $44,900.

First Drive: 2003 Nissan 350Z nissan first drives
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A Track model – six-speed only – adds spoilers front, rear and underneath, which reduce both drag and visual appeal; lighter (by a remarkable 4 kg each) alloy wheels; those Brembo brakes; and cloth seats (yay!). You’ll have to get by with a lower-end single-CD stereo system, to keep the price to $46,500. The variant a serious sports car/grand touring buyer would really want – the Track model without the spoilers but with heated cloth seats and high-end stereo – of course, you can’t get. Those darned marketing types…

But with limited availability and a pent-up demand as expressed by that civilian in the pick-up truck, I’m sure they’ll sell all they can get. Fair warning though – a roadster is coming next spring…

Highs:

  1. Fabulous engine.

  2. True sports car dynamics.
  3. Gorgeous styling.

Lows:

  1. Cheap-looking interior.

  2. Unfortunate model/options line-up.
  3. Limited rearward visibility.

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