EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

Chevrolet likes to proclaim that the Corvette is America’s sports car.

Maybe that’s true, but after a week with the new Nissan 350Z, I’m starting to wonder about that claim.

Few cars have elicited more smiles, thumbs up and questions from total strangers, friends and co-workers. It is somewhat bewitching; even the police seemed to let me go as I whizzed past them at speeds sure to have me hauled before some district justice.

But the car casts its magic spell from the moment you set eyes on it. Its heavily sculpted flanks blend various classic Z-car design elements with fresh design cues that meld into an aggressive, yet instantly recognizable form.

Walking around the car reveals this to you.

From the block-like front bumper with its inset lights, the beltline flows smoothly back into the hatchback opening, while the whole form sweeps back gracefully into the angular tail lamps. Wherever you look, there’s a masterful bit of design.

Then you open the door. (You’ll want to, just so you can grasp the brawny metallic door handle.)

Climb inside and adjust the tilt steering column. The gauge cluster will tilt with the wheel. The tachometer is dead center, flanked by a speedometer and coolant and fuel gauges. The cloth seats are grippy and comfortable, although the bolsters are way too narrow for anything resembling comfortable support.

Start the car. The exhaust rumbles with menacing promise. Put the car in gear and take off.

Surprise. You’re going way too fast.

It’s easy to see how, as a friend of mine remarked, that “your license is in jeopardy every time you climb in the car.”

It wasn’t always true.

After all, the Z-car has suffered from the bloat that always seems to bedevil sports cars.

The original Z-car, the Datsun 240Z, was light, cheap, fast and fun. As engine size and the car’s size grew, from 240 to 260 and 280Z, the car lost its sporting edge. By the time the car became the 300ZX, it was a fast sports car once again, but heavy and very expensive. It had traveled far from its affordable fun roots.

With declining sales, and a corporate culture too intent on producing bland sedans, the Z-car faded into memory. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of the story, and we are rewarded with a stunning new sports car.

The newest Z is strictly a two-seat, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive hatchback. It’s built using the same DNA Nissan uses for the Infiniti G35. That means Nissan uses its “Front Mid-ship” platform, or FM for short. That means that the engine is placed just behind the front axle for better weight distribution.

It also means that the new Z-car uses the corporate 3.5-liter double-overhead-cam aluminum-alloy V-6. In the Z, it’s tuned to produce the highest horsepower available for this engine: 287 horsepower and 274 fo ot-pounds of torque.

Transmission choices are a six-speed-manual transmission or a new five-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.

If that’s not enough, check out the equipment. Nissan uses a sophisticated fully independent multi-link suspension. The suspension uses aluminum alloy to save weight. While Nissan’s use of an integrated strut brace in the rear isn’t surprising, its use under the hood most definitely is. That is what lends the car its incredibly sporting feel.

Simply stated, this car stops, goes and handles with some of the finest machinery on the road. The steering is quick, the braking linear and the handling accurate. Unlike the numb sensation of most Japanese cars, this car communicates its intentions constantly. Road surfaces are constantly broadcast to the driver. The back end is a positive delight, as you can feel it progressively getting lighter until it breaks loose. The driver can then easily reign it back into line. It’s a real ho .

Four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist are all standard. What does all that mean? You’ll stop with a whiplash-inducing intensity.

Some will say that the ride is too communicative, or that there’s too much road noise. Fair enough. But that’s what makes this a sports car and not a GT.

The interior is a good place to stay while going fast. The materials have a feel that amplify the 21st century styling of the exterior.

The audio system consists of a Bose audio system with a 6-CD changer and 7 speakers. Its sound is quite good, as you’d hope. But most enthusiasts will never hear it, as the engine’s lovely exhaust note is all the music one needs.

Climate control is automatic and controlled by three rotary dials.

Storage space is perfectly adequate, but there are some minor annoyances. There is no glovebox, but two small compartments behind the seats do the same job. However, the owners manual will not fit in either one. Better to use the large locking compartment behind the passenger’s seat. Luggage space is hampered by a strut brace, which limits cargo flexibility. But if you want hauling space, buy a minivan.

The hauling here is of a terminal velocity nature.

The 350Z comes in five trim levels, Base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring, and Track. The automatic transmission is available on Enthusiast and Touring models. Performance models add Vehicle Dynamic Control, 18-inch aluminum wheels, and a tire air pressure monitor.

Here’s the best part. The 350Z starts at just $26,269. When quizzed, most thought the vehicle would cost closer to $40,000. That makes this car one of this year’s best buys.

It is ironic that in a year where General Motors killed the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, two rear-drive sports cars that cost about the same money, Nissan is able to produce a world-class sports car and capture people’s hearts and wallets.

So, which model is really America’s sports car?

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