2003 Nissan 350Z
Photo: Nissan, Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson
photos by Laurance Yap

New 350Z offers exhilarating driving experience

Sports cars are often the image vehicles that represent an automaker’s entire vehicle lineup – even though they’re usually not the volume sales leaders. What would Chevrolet be without the Corvette? Mazda without the Miata? Mercedes without the SL? This very vitality has been missing from Nissan’s persona since the demise of the Nissan 300ZX in 1996 and to a lesser extent, the 240SX in 1998. Just as Nissan’s fortunes took an upward turn in 1969 with the 240Z, they took a downward turn with the discontinuation of the 300ZX. With the introduction of the 2003 350Z, Nissan has finally got its mojo back – and that excitement is rubbing off on Nissan’s other, less exciting models.

Or maybe I’m just too excited after having driven the 350Z. The exhilaration of driving this car tends to get your adrenaline flowing. There are only a few sports cars under $100,000 that can give you this kind of rush, and the 350Z is up there with performance leaders like the Porsche Boxster S, Chevrolet Corvette, BMW Z3 3.0i, and Audi TT turbo.

Nissan 350Z
Photo: L. Yap. Click image to enlarge

For starters, it has tons of power, a rock solid body, tenacious grip, and powerful brakes. It’s not like other current and previous Japanese sports cars and sport coupes which tended to be, well, boring. The 350Z’s 287 horsepower 3.5 litre twin cam V6 engine has lots of torque, and it’s rather noisy and unrefined at certain speeds. Its suspension is unapologizingly firm, and its quick steering requires the driver to stay alert. The standard six-speed manual is precise, quick and quiet.

To me, the 350Z feels like a smaller, tighter version of the Corvette Z06 rather than like, say, the old Toyota Supra turbo. The 350Z has more of a raw performance feel that’s more like American sports cars – though not quite as rough.

Driving impressions

2003 Nissan 350Z
Photo: Nissan. Click image to enlarge

Three aspects of the 350Z’s performance really stand out when compared with its competitors: its powerful long-legged V6 engine, its super tight body, and its road-hugging handling.

The all aluminium 287 horsepower 3.5 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 engine produces lots of torque over a wide rev range (274 ft-lb of torque at 4800 rpm) thanks to its continuously variable valve timing and generous displacement. After an initial lag, power comes on strong and just keeps on keeping on all the way to the redline. Yet, the engine is so flexible, it’s possible to accelerate away in sixth gear while doing just 1000 rpm.

I found the engine noticeably noisier than the less powerful versions in the Altima and G35, particularly at around 5 or 6 thousand rpm where it starts to sound very gutteral. But it’s a macho, V8-like sound which thrills rather than annoys. 0 to 100 km/h comes in just over six seconds, putting the 350Z into genuine performance car territory.

Despite its aggressive performance, freeway cruising is comfortable and relaxed, with the engine turning over 2250 rpm at 100 km/h and 2750 rpm at 120 km/h. My only complaint was some road noise seeping in from the rear of the car.

I enjoyed shifting the 350Z’s 6-speed shifter – the shifts are short with a precise shift feel, and quiet operation. On occasion, I could hear the mechanical sounds of the clutch mechanism engaging, something that reminded me of the Corvette. Reverse gear is over to the right, and just so you don’t engage it by accident, you have to push down on the shift lever first.

The 350Z has an extremely tight body, even though it’s a hatchback, and much of that can be attributed to a massive lateral brace between the two rear suspension mountings. The 350Z’s fully independent aluminium multi-link suspension, wide 18 inch tires (Bridgestone Potenza RE040 225/45R-18 inch summer tires in front and slightly wider 245/45R-18 inch tires at the rear) and a longitudinal engine that’s mounted well back in the body provides flat, fuss-free cornering, and excellent stability and control over sudden dips and bumps.

2003 Nissan 350Z
Photo: L. Yap. Click image to enlarge

The ride is firm, but I was surprised at its ability to absorb the sudden slap of potholes and railway tracks. Still, with such short shock rebounds and low-profile sidewalls, the ride is definitely not plush.

The 350Z’s engine-speed sensitive power rack and pinion steering is quick and responsive, and brake pedal modulation firm and responsive – four wheel discs with ABS and EBD bring this 1459 kg (3217 lb.) car to a stop in short order.

All 350Z’s come standard with traction control and Vehicle Dynamic Control, a computer operated anti-skid system that helps prevent understeer and oversteer. In this lightweight, rear-drive car, these features should be useful in wet or icy conditions.

Interior impressions

I could live without the 350Z’s long, clunky metal door handles – they make it more difficult to open the door than conventional pull and squeeze door handles or even flip-up door handles.

Taking a cue from BMW, the 350Z’s windows automatically lower a centimetre when the door handle is pulled, and raise a centimetre when the door is closed in order to equalize air pressure and provide better sealing when the doors are closed. I often wonder if this feature is really worth the expense.

2003 Nissan 350Z
(Not as tested) Photo: L. Yap. Click image to enlarge

The roof is low, but once seated, there is enough headroom for a six-footer. Visibility outward is clear to the front and sides, but the thick C-pillar obscures rear three-quarter vision, and the steeply sloping rear window provides a fairly narrow rear outlook.

My test car, a base Performance model with an optional navigation system, had a black leather interior with orange stitching, a dark grey centre console, and aluminum trim on the doors and steering wheel spokes – it’s a purposeful, simple design. The driver’s seat offers terrific thigh, side and shoulder support when cornering and is actually slightly different from the passenger seat. Both leather seats have seat heaters.

The driver’s power seat buttons are located on the upper right side of the driver’s seat cushion facing the driver rather than out of sight on the left side of the driver’s seat – so they’re easier to see. Curiously though, height adjustment is by a rotary dial on the left side of the seat. The power passenger seat has buttons on the upper left side of the passenger seat cushion.

A glovebox, instead of being in front of the passenger, is behind the passenger and is about three times as big, but not as easy to access. As well, there’s a smaller compartment just above it.

gauge cluster
Photo: L. Yap
Click image to enlarge

A sporty three pod gauge cluster (with the tachometer in the centre) tilts up and down with the tilt steering wheel so that the gauges are always visible: a great idea! Three smaller round gauges on top of the centre dashtop – information readout, voltmeter, and oil pressure – are angled towards the driver – a good idea but their dashtop position causes them to reflect in the windscreen. By pressing a button just to the right of the steering wheel, the information readout gauge will alternate between time, outside temperature, distance to empty, average fuel economy, average speed, tire air pressure, and vehicle speed.

The standard 240 watt Bose sound system includes a 6 disc in-dash CD changer and a subwoofer behind the driver’s seat – it doesn’t take much stereo volume to fill the car with sparklingly clear sound and thumping bass rhythm. Very nice.

Nav system display
Photo: Nissan. Click image to enlarge

A large colour display for the optional navigation system is hidden under a cover at the top of the centre stack. A colour map, which can be adjusted to different scales from 100 metres to 256 kilometres, has a user-friendly feature which I hadn’t seen before: it allows the operator to scroll across the map to the point of destination and input it without having to actually type in the address location – a big time saver. An arrow-shaped cursor follows the car’s position on the road, and visible or audible instructions give advance warning when and where to turn. It’s useful, but as with other navigation systems, the fastest route is often not the fastest way if you’re already familiar with the area. I did like the fact that you could distinguish surrounding roads as through-roads or dead-end side streets.

The display also shows maintenance information such as tire pressure, oil filter life, and engine life readings.

The rear hatch can be opened with a button or with the remote key fob, but there is no keyhole in the hatch. The cargo area has a high liftover height, and it’s fairly long and shallow. The brace crossing the trunk takes up a lot of trunk space and prevents storing larger items in the trunk. But of course, it’s a key component of the car’s tight body. There are four hooks in the carpeted cargo area and a temporary spare tire under the cargo floor. The rear hatch includes a wiper as well as a defroster – the former useful for clearing frost and snow in the winter.

Three models – three prices

In Canada, Nissan offers the 350Z in three trim levels: Performance, Touring and Track Pack. They’re all well-equipped and there’s not a lot of difference between them. The Performance model ($44,900), this week’s test car, has the 287 horsepower 3.5 litre DOHC 24 valve V6 engine, a standard 6-speed manual transmission, low-profile 18 inch tires and alloy wheels with a built-in tire pressure monitoring system, traction control and Vehicle Dynamic Control, limited slip rear differential, xenon headlights, cruise control, leather upholstery, power seats, aluminum pedals, and Bose 240 watt audio system. My test car also had the optional Navigation system ($3400) for a total price $48,300.

Photo: L. Yap
Click image to enlarge

The 350Z Touring model, also priced at $44,900, is similarly equipped, but has a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode. The Track Pack model ($46,900) has larger vented Brembo brakes, front and rear spoilers, lightweight 18 inch alloy wheels, and the 6-speed manual transmission.

Competitor overview

Comparable sports cars include the Porsche Boxster S ($73,300), BMW Z3 3.0i ($56,200), Mercedes-Benz SLK320 ($61,050), Audi TT turbo ($54,900), Honda S2000 ($48,000), and possibly, the Chevrolet Corvette Coupe ($62,400).

The 350Z is the least expensive, by far – more than $20,000 cheaper than a Boxster S. It has more horsepower than all but the Corvette, and with the possible exception of the S2000 and Corvette, it offers the most performance for the dollar. Exclusive of price, the 350Z may be the best handling sports car on this list next to the mid-engine Boxster S.

Unlike all of its competitors however, the 350Z is not available as a convertible model (yet) which will turn off many buyers. And it remains to be seen whether the 350Z’s styling will attract image-conscious sports car buyers, particularly when there are so many handsome competitors.

But there’s a lot to recommend the 350Z – and number one on that list is its incredible driving experience, which is after all, what sports cars are all about.

Technical Data: 2003 Nissan 350Z Performance

Base price $44,900
Options $ 3,400 (navigation system)
Price as tested $48,300
Type 2-door, 2 passenger sport coupe/hatchback
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, cont var. valve timing
Horsepower 287 @ 6200 rpm
Torque 274 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission 6 speed manual

Tires Front: 225/45R-18; Rear : 245/45R-18
Wheelbase 2649 mm (104.3 in.)
Length 4308 mm (169.6 in.)
Width 1816 mm (71.5 in.)
Height 1318 mm (51.9 in.)
Trunk space 193 litres (6.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption NA
Fuel Premium unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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