Remember the Datsun Z sports cars? No, thought not. The Datsun name is largely synonymous with small, rusty hatchbacks with almost mythical reliability. That’s a shame, because the 1969 Datsun 240Z is widely credited with bringing the affordable sports coupe to the mainstream.
While Nissan, custodians of the Datsun brand, tried their best to keep the Z concept alive with a succession of powerful but largely obese Z cars right up until the mid nineties, it’s fair to say their eye hasn’t really been on the ball.
Until now, that is, and the Nissan 350Z.
The 350Z was first launched in the US mid way though 2002, but us Brits had to wait more than a year before the Z came to our shores. During this time, Nissan fettled with the suspension and other oily bits, keen to ensure European appetites for road-holding were satisfied, while many wondered if the largely fashion-driven appeal would wane even before the car was launched.
They needn’t have wondered too hard. When the order books finally opened in March, and despite an October delivery date, the UK’s entire 2003 allocation sold out within one hour. Clearly, Nissan was on to a winner.
Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s President and CEO, opined that “the Z sports car dramatically epitomizes the renewal of the Nissan brand.” While that sounds like marketing guff on the face of it, he might actually have a point.
The 350Z is a ground-up remake of the original Z concept – Z Car DNA, as Nissan likes to call it. In a typically Japanese approach, engineers have analyzed the key ingredients that create a true sports car – weight distribution, poise, balance, power, and noise, for example – and have worked to ensure each has been incorporated into the 350Z.
So, the new Z drives its rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission, with the engine mounted behind the front wheels to give a 53/47 front/rear weight distribution. The extra weight over the front wheels helps initial turn-in, but as the driver accelerates out of a corner, the weight transfers towards the rear to create a perfect 50/50 balance.
Overall weight has been kept in check, through the use of aluminium in key body panels and forged aluminium in suspension components. The design of the multi-link suspension itself is subject to 14 new patents.
Powerful Brembo brakes take care of the stopping abilities, while a redeveloped version of Nissan’s VQ power plant provides the go. All-aluminium construction, lighter pistons and connecting rods, hollow camshafts and a variable valve timing system help the 3.5-litre V6 to develop 276bhp at 6,200rpm and peak torque of 268lb/ft at 4,800rpm. It’s controlled by a drive-by-wire throttle arrangement, designed to work in conjunction with the traction control systems and to increase the feeling of flexibility in the power delivery.
To find the right noise, Nissan engineers sampled intake and exhaust sounds from a range of performance cars. Tuning the exhaust system like a musical instrument allowed Nissan to amplify the satisfying qualities of the engine’s sound while eliminating the less welcome.
The design of the new Z car takes more general styling cues from the cars that went before it, such as the short overhangs and long bonnet, and adds a contemporary simplicity of form. There are very few cut-lines in the body, and where panels meet their lines are continued into other functions. The rear hatchback, for instance, incorporates the wrap-around C-pillar while the bottom edge meets the waistline that runs almost perfectly horizontally from the front to the rear lights. The flared wheel arches accentuate the wide and purposeful stance while vents for the front brakes cut into each side of the bumper show that this Nissan means business.
Some of the detailing is a little fussy, though. The big, bright, aluminium door handles draw too much attention away from the basic body shape and begin to look like an afterthought. The Z badge mounted behind the front wheel would have been better on the C-pillar where it was on the 240Z. On balance, though, it’s striking without being vulgar.
On paper, then, it looks as if Nissan have ticked all the right boxes. What about on the road?
Turn the key, and the effort put into creating a sound you can get emotional about is evident. There’s a purposeful rumble that changes to a rasp as you blip the throttle, and out on the open road that rasp hardens to a snarl as the needle heads towards the red line.
Ward’s Auto World Magazine has named the VQ power unit one of the “Ten Best Engines in the World” every year since its debut in 1994. Not without reason, either. It has bee-aitch-pee enough to propel the 350Z to 60mph in 5.9 seconds and on to a 155mph top speed. It’s tractable at low revs, where it burbles and rumbles, but is equally happy bouncing valves off the redline. Unlike the Porsche Boxster that goads you into nailing the throttle at every opportunity, the Z is happy throughout its rev range and does a better job of matching your mood. While the peaky Mazda RX-8 can be frustrating on a wet Monday morning commute, the Nissan will kick back and go with the flow. Likewise, nail the loud pedal in a moment of enthusiasm, and the Nissan will play along.
The gearbox is in on the act, too. The stubby lever needs short but determined movements to make progress through the gate, but there’s a satisfying, mechanical quality to the way the lever slots home. The well-balanced clutch allows the driver to swap ratios with familiarity from the word go, and pulling away from a standstill is easy, too. It’s flattering in a way the RX-8 can only dream about, and gives the impression the car is actively helping you to enjoy yourself.
Into the corners, and while the steering allows the car to be placed precisely, there’s a touch less feedback through the wheel than in the Mazda. However, that’s countered by a more grown-up feel to the handling that allows the throttle to get in on the steering action. It’s more adjustable, too – step over the boundary set by the tyre’s grip levels, and you have a choice of safety-minded understeer or inside wheel-spinning heroic oversteer. And everything in between. This is the way rear-wheel drive cars used to handle, before litigation and nannying traction control and, although it may not be to the tastes of the PlayStation generation, driving enthusiasts will appreciate it.
The ride is definitely on this side of firm, but in a way that engages you and makes you feel part of the experience. There is more road noise transmitted into the cabin than we’d like, and on some surfaces it can become intrusive. Still, it’s perfectly comfortable on a long weekend away.
You won’t be able to take much luggage with you, though, with a boot occupied largely by a strut brace between the two suspension towers. Nissan haven’t bothered with the pretence of rear seats, and have instead filled the space behind the front seats with speakers and cubby holes. They’re all rather naffly lidded, though, with catches that feel likely to break easily.
The other plastics are equally hard and scratch-prone, although the basic shape of the cabin with its high transmission tunnel works well with the sports car feel. The seats are supportive in all the right places and even tall drivers will have no trouble finding their favoured position. We particularly like the way the instrument pack moves with the height-adjustable steering column, although the stalks look straight off a concept car but disappoint with a rather insipid action. Some of the other switchgear looks at odds with the rest of the car, too. The rotary controls for the climate control are bang up to date, but the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel look inspired by a 1970s Rotel amplifier. Design for design’s sake? Maybe.
Mind you, the Bose-developed 240 watt stereo system of our GT model sounds quite unlike anything Rotel were producing in the seventies. With seven speakers, one of which is a 10.5″ sub, the system also incorporates Bose’s AudioPilot noise compensation witchcraft to tune the sound and adjust the volume depending on speed, road noise and whether it can hear rain on the windscreen.
The 350Z starts at £24,500 for which you get climate control, trip computer, four-speaker 160 watt stereo with six-disc CD changer, cruise control, electric windows, folding and heated electric mirrors, ABS with EBD, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with Traction Control System (TCS), front, side and curtain airbags, auto-levelling Xenon headlamps with pressure wash, 18″ alloy wheels and twin exhaust pipes.
The £27,000 GT model adds the seven-speaker 240 watt Bose stereo and heated and electric leather seats, with the £350 option of Alezan Orange leather instead of charcoal.
Other options are confined to the popular 18″ Rays alloys (£1,000) that save 16kg in unsprung weight, metallic paint (£350), CD-based satellite navigation (£1,650), and parking radar (£325). Order now and yours should arrive in around four months.
Depreciation on the nearly-new market is well controlled due to its current popularity and waiting times, and trade experts are currently quoting a 53% retained value after three years. Insurance is a hefty group 18, while servicing costs are higher than average, and with 9,000 mile intervals. Fuel consumption is on a par with its performance, with a combined cycle figure of 24.8mpg.
The Nissan badge might not inspire, but as an overall package, the 350Z is an engaging and emotional drive. It sounds great, offers a tactile driving experience, and is significantly cheaper than its traditional and somewhat staid German rivals. It’s more focused than the Mazda RX-8, and has a broader range of capabilities that even tempts prospective Porsche buyers.
It’s our coupe of choice.
Nissan badge might disappoint some, but it more than makes up for it with a fine engine that even sounds the part. There’s a responsive and involving chassis, a great gearchange, and useful spec levels. Some of the interior plastics are a little naff, and there’s more road noise in the cabin than we’d like, but it’s undoubtedly more focused than a Mazda RX-8, and a serious alternative to a Porsche Boxster. The 350Z is our coupe of choice.