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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
It’s a game that many auto journalists play while on their way to their next test car, sitting in the airport waiting for a flight to a car launch, or over e-mail when they don’t have anything better to do. It goes something like this: if you were to leave this job tomorrow, what car would you buy?
For the last couple of years, my answer has been a Nissan 350Z. It’s a car whose design I love – a profile reminiscent, a bit, of a Porsche 911 with a much more modern attitude – and whose driving performance never disappoints. It’s a car that, though it has but two seats, is practical enough for my life, with a large trunk and decent interior space. And it’s a car that I can actually afford.
There was only one thing missing, and that, thanks to a high waistline and really small side windows, was the wind in my hair and the sun over same (no sunroof is available). So when the company introduced the Z roadster last fall, I had high hopes that it would be even better than the coupe. An initial drive on the rainy press launch wasn’t enough to convince me; I needed some more time behind the wheel.
After a week tooling around in a new roadster, I have a definitive answer. And it’s yes. And no.
There’s no doubt that lopping the top off the Z makes it a more enjoyable car to drive. You can hear more of the 3.5-litre, 287 horsepower V6 engine’s glorious noise as you slam your way up through the six-speed manual gearbox (a five-speed automatic is optional). Wind buffeting is expertly managed, partly thanks to those high sides and partly thanks to a handy little Z-inscribed wind deflector between the dual roll hoops. Some of the roadster-exclusive interior touches are pretty cool as well, including different tuning of the superb Bose six-CD audio system and optional seats that have leather side bolsters and mesh backs to keep you cool during hot summer days.
The rest of the Z driving experience remains pretty much undiminished in the roadster, as well. Significant structural bracing has been added to maintain the body’s stiffness, and the results are impressive, with only the merest hint of cowl shake on the roughest of roads. The heavy steering still has that almost telepathic feel: the car goes where you point it almost before you point it there. And though all of the major controls share the steering’s heft – the clutch is kind of heavy and the shifter requires a deliberate shove to engage the next gear – they also feel trustworthy, accurate, and like they’ll work that way forever. The engine’s power delivery at first seems similarly leaden, with an incredibly linear and flat power delivery, but you soon realize that this is a very fast car, just one that gathers speed deceptively well thanks to the well-controlled movements of the suspension and the impressive isolation from road and wind noise, even with the top down.
If you’re sensing a “but” coming on, you’d be right. I have a few “buts” about the Z roadster, not least of which is aesthetics. While the car looks fantastic with the roof down, its profile with the fabric roof in place is decidedly awkward; it’s as if they stretched the minimal amount of cloth over the simplest possible structure without regard to the way the car would look. It’s not so impressive from the inside, either, as the roof has a very thin lining, making for significant noise and flutter at highway speeds; it also requires you to undo a fiddly latch before pressing a dash-mounted switch to fold it all into the trunk. At least once you do so, it looks good, with a full tonneau cover and two sporty-looking fairings behind the roll bars.
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One of the nice things about the Z is how practical it is, and that’s something that translates to the roadster, as well. In addition to a generously-sized trunk (accessed through a wide but high opening), there are large storage bins behind the seats, a couple of deep console bins, cupholders, and storage pockets in the doors. Unfortunately, there’s no glovebox, its contents instead relegated to a shelf with a flip-down cover behind the passenger’s seat. The cabin itself is quite comfortable – you sit really low, but there’s plenty of room to stretch out, more than enough headroom, and plenty of arm-waggling space in the middle, if not against the doors. And the interior quality of my 2004-model-year tester seemed a definite step up from various Z cars I have driven earlier. If not exactly luxurious, the Z now feels a lot more solid.
With a list price of over $50,000, the Z roadster isn’t cheap, but it is exceptionally well-equipped for a car of its price, with standard leather upholstery, power-operated roof, 18-inch alloy wheels, Bose stereo, and much more. It stacks up well against the slightly cheaper, but much more extreme, Honda S2000, and the more expensive but softer BMW Z4. For me, though, it doesn’t quite stack up to the driving experience, and the styling experience, of the Z coupe, which starts at about $5000 less, and is available in a “Track Pack” version with lighter Rays Engineering wheels, powerful Brembo disc brakes, and a stripped-out interior.
As nice as the roadster is, that’s the Z I really want.
Technical Data: 2004 Nissan 350Z Roadster
|A/C tax||$ 100|
|Price as tested||$53,950|
|Type||2-door, 2-passenger convertible sports car|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||287 @ 6200 rpm|
|Torque||274 ft-lb @ 4800 rpm|
|Tires||225/50R-17 front; 235/50R-17 rear|
|Curb weight||1555 kg (3428 lb)|
|Wheelbase||2649 mm (104.3 in.)|
|Length||4302 mm (169.4 in.)|
|Width||1816 mm (71.5 in.)|
|Height||1328 mm (52.3 in.)|
|Trunk capacity||116 litres (4.1 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.0 l/100 km (24 mpg)|
|Hwy: 8.4 l/100 km (34 mpg)|
|Fuel Type||Premium unleaded|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|