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Story and photos by Greg Wilson
Whistler, British Columbia – Happy faces are everywhere this week in Whistler with the announcement that Vancouver and Whistler were chosen as the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. My face was also smiling – but for a different reason. I had the opportunity to drive a new Nissan 350Z Roadster over the twisty two-lane highway that winds north from Whistler to the small town of Pemberton which sits under breathtakingly beautiful Mount Currie. Not a bad way to spend a sunny July afternoon..
The 2004 “Z Roadster” follows the 350Z Coupe (hatchback) introduced last August – all its mechanical bits are basically the same – including the 287 horsepower 3.5 litre V6, six speed manual transmission or 5 speed automatic, independent double wishbone suspension, disc brakes with ABS and EBD, traction control and cornering stability control – but the roadster has additional structural reinforcements incorporated into the front engine/rear-wheel-drive platform to compensate for the lack of a roof. Reinforcements include a centre floor V-shaped crossbar, A-shaped front end crossbar, and a crossbar behind the rear seats. I found its body rigidity to be exceptional for a convertible. On the road, the Z Roadster feels rock-solid over bumps and uneven surfaces, and there are no cowl vibrations or body flexing under hard acceleration.
The driver sits low, with good outward visibility when the top is lowered. With the top up however, the rear glass window (with defroster) is rather narrow, and the view over the right shoulder is obscured by the design of the top – a common problem with convertibles.
To lower the power-operated top, the driver releases a single latch in the centre of the windshield header, depresses the brake pedal, and presses and holds a button on lower left dash – the hard, plastic rear tonneau cover lifts up, the top folds into the cavity, and the tonneau folds down again – all in twenty seconds. Curiously, the passenger seat tilts forwards slightly to allow the top clearance to lower. Unlike sports cars of old, you do not have to zip out the rear window, and get out of the car to button down a tonneau cover. And because it’s so easy to drop the top, there’s more incentive to lower it even for short drives.
Twin roll hoops behind the seats provide rollover protection in the unlikely event that you flip this car.
Cruising down the highway at about 100 km/h with the top down and the side windows up, wind buffeting is confined to the top of the head, and the noise levels are relatively low. A clear plastic windblocker between and behind the seats prevents the air from buffeting the back of the head, and Nissan even provided seatbelt anchors to prevent them from flapping around in the wind.
With the top down, engine, tire, and wind noise levels are comparably low at steady cruising speeds. At 100 km/h in sixth gear, the engine does just 2200 rpm; and at 120 km/h, it turns over at 2800 rpm. As well, the ride is surprisingly comfortable, and the optional Burnt Orange ventilated web-mesh bucket seats in my test car were both comfortable and extremely supportive. My guess is that you could drive the Z Roadster across the country with no problem.
Of course, cruising is not what this car is all about. On the winding highway north of Whistler, the 350Z Roadster stayed glued to the road in a way that reminded me of the BMW Z4, or even the mid-engined Porsche Boxster. The 350Z Roadster exhibits excellent stability and balance in high-speed S-curves, and minimal brake dive under hard braking – I didn’t even begin to reach its limits. Thanks must go to its 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, standard four-wheel multi-link independent suspension, limited slip rear differential, and sticky Bridgestone 225/45WR-18 inch high performance tires.
Its 3.5 litre twin cam 24 valve V6 powerplant develops 287 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 274 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. Acceleration is quick, if not blindingly quick, and with variable valve timing, there’s a surprising amount of pull in fifth or sixth gear when pulling away at 20 to 50 km/h. The Roadster weighs 98 kilograms (216 lb.) more than the coupe (er, hatchback), so I would expect 0 to 100 km/h times to be slightly higher. With the top down, the driver can more readily enjoy the rorty sound of the engine which sounds somewhat like a baritone superbike.
I loved the 350Z’s standard 6-speed manual transmission – shifts are short, direct, and quick, and clutch effort is light. A five speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability is also offered for no extra charge above the base price.
The big standard four wheel disc brakes with ABS and EBD feel very strong with minimal pedal effort, and its engine-speed sensitive power steering is quick and direct, though perhaps a bit stiff during low speed driving.
The interior is similar to the 350Z Coupe, with a 3-instrument pod that tilts up and down with the steering wheel, three round dials on the centre dashtop, and a prominent centre stack with a standard 240 watt stereo with 6-disc in-dash CD player and cassette and seven speakers, and automatic climate control. Front and side airbags are standard, but unlike the coupe, the convertible doesn’t have curtain side airbags.
Leather bucket seats are standard, and ventilated leather web-mesh “Burnt orange” buckets that “breathe” are optional. They both have seat heaters.
Though there’s no glove-box, there is a bin in the centre of the dash where the optional navigation system would go, a small bin between the seats, two storage bins behind the seats, and a larger storage behind the passenger seat. The Roadster’s trunk is about 2/3rds the size of the 350Z hatchback, good enough for a couple of overnight bags.
With either a 6-speed manual transmission or a 5-speed automatic transmission with gated shifter and manual mode, the 350Z Roadster has an MSRP of $52,900, or about $7,500 more than the base 350Z Performance and Touring coupes. An optional GPS Navigation System with DVD is an additional $3,400.
When you compare the 350Z Roadster’s price and level of standard equipment to the BMW Z4 3.0i and the Porsche Boxster, both around $60,000 – or even the Corvette convertible for $75,000 – the 350Z Roadster seems well-priced in this segment.
The 2004 350Z Roadster arrives in dealers this month.