Only a handful of cars become legendary in their time, and few of those are in the moderate-price realm. Nissans Z-car falls into that limited category by having attracted a loyal following over its three-decade run.
This sports car was first seen in 1969 as the Datsun 240Z. The two-seat hatchback was the first Japanese-built sports car to sell in appreciable numbers in the United States. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the 240Z evolved into the 260Z and 280Z, culminating with the 300ZX that lasted through 1996.
Ever since its demise, Z-car fans have clamored for a modern-day version. In response, Nissan exhibited a Z concept at Detroits North American International Auto Show in 1999. Three years later, a near-production 350Z was unveiled at Detroits 2002 auto show.
The 2003 350Z went on sale in mid-August 2002. Like the original, the 350Z is a two-passenger hatchback with rear-wheel drive and a six-cylinder engine. An open roadster is expected in early summer 2003. Nissan expects to sell more than 30,000 units annually in the United States.
Get in line. Its here, said Jed Connelly, Nissans senior vice president of sales and marketing, during the 350Zs Detroit debut. Connelly also said the 350Z will cost less than the company originally anticipated; it will start at $26,269 (not including the destination charge). Seven versions will be available. Enthusiast editions get traction control, xenon headlights, drilled pedals and a limited-slip differential. Among other comforts, Touring models have a 240-watt Bose stereo, leather-appointed upholstery, and heated seats and mirrors. The Performance edition is available with only a six-speed-manual shift, and it comes with Nissans Vehicle Dynamic Control, xenon headlights and 18-inch tires. Topping the pack is the Track model, which is equipped with front and rear spoilers, 18-inch aluminum wheels, vented Brembo brakes and Vehicle Dynamic Control.
Styling cues adapted from the original 240Z include a long-nose and short-deck profile, its triangular cabin form, and lines that extend from the arch-shaped roof to the hatchback opening. The wheels have been pushed out toward the corners to emphasize nimbleness, and the coupe features a long wheelbase and wide stance. The fender bulges are accentuated, but the corners have been pared down to emphasize the short overhangs.
What Nissan calls its soft, warm body shape contrasts with the geometrical forms of the projector-type headlights. The company says the belt line provides a distinctive spine, which crosses over the form to the rear and ahead of strongly styled taillights. The 350Zs glass design is similar to the one that appeared on the 240Z. Standard tires measure 17 inches in diameter, but certain models get 18-inch tires.
Like the early Z-cars, the 350Z seats two occupants. Considerable aluminum is used in the cockpit. Three gauge pods are installed on the instrument panel, which resembles the layout on the 240Z. The steering wheel and gauges move together as a unit. A navigation system is available. An integrated, aluminum, rear-suspension strut tower brace that features the Z logo can be seen from outside the car.
Under the Hood
A new 3.5-liter VQ35DE V-6 engine develops 287 horsepower and 274 pounds-feet of torque by using continuously variable valve timing control system technology and an electronically controlled throttle. Nissan claims the 350Z can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 6 seconds. Both a five-speed-automatic transmission and a six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox are available.
Dual-stage front airbags and antilock brakes with Brake Assist are standard. Side-impact airbags and inflatable curtain-type airbags are optional. Traction control and Vehicle Dynamic Control are installed on certain models.
What a sweet machine this is. The steering in this car could hardly be more precise, confident and satisfying. Even though suspensions are defiantly taut, the ride is enjoyable. The 350Z maintains outstanding control and avoids overreaction. Only in very quick curves does a little hop occur. Maneuverability and stability are top-notch.
When equipped with the manual shift, the V-6 yields plenty of energy. Because you can feel the engine as the revs build, theres sometimes a tendency to hold back on the gas. This intensity tempts the driver to shift to a higher gear a little sooner.
With short throws and a short lever, the gearshift snicks masterfully and positively through the ratios. The clutch behaves in near-perfect unison. The exhaust sound is distinctive but appealing. With its manual-shift provision always on tap, the automatic transmission functions smoothly and responds crisply. Theres no glove box, but cargo space is available beneath the hatch lid. The seat bolsters are really snug, but most drivers will fit comfortably.