EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

Couldn’t escape even in church. Inquiring parishioners wanted to know:

“It’s the new Z car.”

“Yeah, a 6-speed manual.”

“They call it sunset orange.”

Folks inside couldn’t get enough of the new car resting in the lot outside.

Back home, the attention didn’t stop. The driveway filled to capacity with the curious stopping to admire the machine.

“Looks like a Porsche. Looks like an Audi TT coupe.”

A trip to the store brought even more gawkers. Stop at the gas station? No way. Wait until dark.

The 2003 Z sports coupe has come a long way from the Z prototype Nissan unveiled to media in Smyrna, Tenn., in July 1998, when the carmaker’s viability in the U.S. was in question. Nissan used the event to reveal future products in the hope it could convince the media it deserved a future here.

Neither the media nor those who owned a Z and read what the media had to say welcomed the Z concept.

Nissan brought out the 240Z in the 1970 model year. With each more potent engine, the Z went through a name change to the 260, 280 and the 300Z. In doing so, the 240Z also went from a $3,500 sports coupe for the masses in ’70 to a $40,000-plus 300ZX twin turbo for the elite by ’96, its last model year in the U.S. market. Almost from the moment the Z was discontinued, those who wouldn’t get into a U.S.-built Corvette, even if Oprah gave them one, began lobbying Nissan for a return of a low-cost, high-performance coupe.

But the execution on the ’98 concept was lousy. It had been rushed out for the media preview so hurriedly (three months from sketch to clay model concept) that some of the clay was cracking under the thin covering of orange paint holding it together. Rather than a vehicle of the future, the Z concept looked like it fell off the salvage truck.

The media, as well as Z owners, began peppering Nissan with suggestions on how to scrap the concept but save the car.

The ’03 Z that goes on sale next month is a testament to the fact that Nissan listened to its critics. Over three years stylists enlarged headlamps, taillamps and even turn-signal lamps; replaced small, body-colored door-handle slits with large aluminum grips; broadened the nose; beefed up the wheel-lip moldings; and slenderized the outside mirrors.

The roof, with its eggshell bulge, was kept as a reminder of the 300Z and a necessity to provide headroom in the cabin. But the roof also was elongated and the glass area enlarged, a styling change that will allow for a convertible to join the coupe in February.

With the changes, the concept glob of clay has been transformed into an attention-grabbing magnet. The Chrysler PT Cruiser doesn’t draw such crowds.

A winner in the Nissan fold, provided they don’t screw this one up like they did the original car.

Nissan has priced the 350Z at $26,269. But then, that’s the base model with 6-speed manual only. There’s also the Enthusia st model at $28,249 to $29,219 depending on choice of 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic with manual mode; Touring at $31,589 to $33,179; Performance at $30,429 (6-speed only); and Track at $34,079 (6-speed only). Add $540 freight to all.

Different names and prices, but all share the same sports suspension as well as the same 3.5-liter V-6 found in the Infiniti G35, though in 287-horsepower form rather than the G35’s 260 h.p. Variations of the 3.5 also are offered in the Nissan Altima and Maxima and Infiniti I35. All also share the same G35 platform, though shortened by 7 inches.

What separates the versions other than price is a confusing list of equipment, such as tires (17-inch base and Enthusiast or 18-inch everything else), traction control (Enthusiast), stability control (Touring/Performance/Track), leather seats (Touring) and beefed-up Brembo brakes and front/rear spoilers (Track).

We tested the Touring edition with 6-speed manual. Nissan estimates 70 pe ent of buyers will opt for the manual.

While the last Z offered a twin-turbo engine, the jury is still out on whether the new model will. The convertible is in the five-year life-cycle plan, the turbo isn’t.

Actually, kick the pedal hard and you might be fooled into thinking the 3.5-liter comes with a turbo boost. Spirit to spare. The short-throw 6-speed complements the V-6, though some might argue that finding reverse–push the lever down and then move it over–is awkward.

The sports suspension is firm, but then this isn’t an Altima sedan. The Z is agile, limber yet sure-footed thanks to its 18-inch radials, tuned sports suspension and speed-sensitive power steering system that requires just the right driver-in-control effort into and out of corners and sharp twists in the road. Stability control is standard along with four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Inside, Nissan took pains to ensure the driver feels in charge. As with the Infiniti G35 (Transportation, June 16) when you move the steering wheel up or down, the instrument pod goes with it to ensure proper sight lines.

And the driver’s seat provides good support for aggressive motoring. Rises in the sides and bottom of the seat cushion are designed to provide thigh support while a notch in the side bolster allows for added arm movement when using the 6-speed lever.

While designed as a so-called driver’s car, the Z comes with three cupholders, one upfront, two at the back of the center console. The two in back are a mystery because driver or passenger can barely reach either. Since there’s no rear seat, why were they even added?

There are a variety of small stowage areas all over the cabin, the biggest in a wall directly behind the seats. The “glove box” is behind the passenger seat.

If you can put two cupholders behind the driver/passenger, why not the glove box, too?

The hatchlid opens to reveal modest carrying space, thanks mostly to a large rigid structural suspension brace running the width of the cargo hold. While the beam eats up most of the room, it’s vital to make the convertible version a reality next year.

Nissan insists you can slip two golf bags into the back end, provided you remove the woods (Transportation, June 16). Perhaps the engineer in charge of golf bags also placed the glove box and cupholders?

Standard equipment includes AM/FM/CD player, power windows/locks/mirrors and automatic climate control.

Only two options, a navigation system at $1,999, and side air bags/curtains at $569. The navigation screen is behind a pop-open lid in the dash. Pass on the navi and the space becomes a small stowage compartment.

Nissan expects to sell 30,000 Zs annually.

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