Sep 102006
 

If Skyline GT-R is Nissan’s grand masterpiece overseas then the Z must be the crown jewel of Nissan USA.

Background
This sports coupe was acquired as a rental vehicle with 12,000 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for 24hrs. We drove approximately 670 miles. The test route included the congested San Francisco urban traffic, twisty HWY 121 & 128 from Fairfield to Winters, the nationwide I-80 to Reno, & from the back route HWY 88 – passing thru the high sierras back to Stockton. The entire trip in the Z was with 2 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 24 mpg.

Introduction
Nissan introduced the 350Z in August 2002 as the fifth generation of its flagship Z-line after 4 years of long waited anticipation from the fans around the globe – chassis code: Z33. At a glance, the interior and exterior styling has resemblance to its original predecessor – the 240Z. In fact, the 350Z was intended to capture the original spirits of the 240Z, being an affordable, sensational and reliable performance coupe. This Z33 has special meanings to the was falling Nissan Motor Corporation at the time of its introduction. Nissan had lost its initiative when the reward winning 300ZX (Chassis Code: Z32) got discontinued in U.S. market in 1998 due to the increasingly compatible Yen to USD exchange rate – a fully loaded 300ZX Twin Turbo was running in the $40,000-and-up category in 1998. To many, the Z symbolized Nissan. The lost of Z affected the whole Nissan model structure. Nissan was in a nearly fatal dive in the late 1990s. The introduction of the Z33 is a major milestone in Nissan history. To Nissan the Z33 is just as important as Nissan introduced the 240Z in 1969. The 240Z defined and paved a successful path for Nissan, symbolically, the Z33 is meant to carry Nissan thru its deep puddle, and open up a market for more performance oriented models to came, such as, the Infiniti G35.


In 2006, the 350Z is available as a coupe and a roadster. The coupe comes in 5 different trim levels: Base, Enthusiast, Touring, Track and Grand Touring. There weren’t much of a change since its introduction aside from the always welcoming power increase in the manual transmission model. Our tester is the Enthusiast model – the base model in the automatic transmission trim. It is manufactured at Nissan’s Tochigi plant in Japan. It equipped with an all aluminum 3.5L 24valves DOHC engine (VQ35DE). The engine equipped with Nissan’s CVTCS (Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System) on the intake cams. It pumps out 287hp@6,200rpm and 274Ib-ft of torque@4,800rpm. Engine is longitudinally mounted, driving the rear wheels via a 5 speed electronic automatic transmission with manual mode. Power is then transferred by a carbon fiber reinforced driveshaft to the rear wheels via viscous limited-slip differential. Traction is provided by a set of Bridgestone Potenza RE040 tires, where a pair of P225/45R18s is used in the front wheels, and P245/45R18s driving the rear. The chassis is supported by independent multi-link aluminum suspensions on all four corners with stabilizer bar. Stopping power is generated by 4 wheel vented discs brakes with ABS, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

Impression
It was a delightful experience when approaching the Z in the parking lot. From a distance, the exterior styling of the Z gives somewhat of large stance, perhaps due to its bubbly appearance, and muscular fenders. Once you are closer to the Z, realizing the roof of the Z is only chest high, you will be surprised how compact its actual dimensions are. Our delightfulness didn’t stop there. Once we entered the Z, and glided our body into the inviting bucket seats that perfectly matched the contours of our body with plenty of lateral support for stock seats. “Fits like a glove” is the proper way to describe them. Fire up the V6 and lightly blip on the lag-free electronically controlled throttle, our delightfulness amplified with the exhilarating exhaust note.

The Z’s commanding driving dynamic perfectly endorsed the bubbly and muscular exterior styling. The engine revs with award winning and class leading smoothness. Its rev increase quickly and effortlessly to its 6,600rpm redline, as if there is neither friction nor intake/exhaust restrictions, thanks to the extensive use of microfinishing on both of the crankshaft and camshafts, molybdenum coating on the pistons to lessen internal friction. The free flowing 4-valve cylinder heads breathes in and out freely via the carefully tuned intake ducts, and high-flow exhaust system. On paper, the VQ shows a relatively flat torque curve, resulting a very linear increase in horsepower output. On the road, the broad torque curve provides power to propel the Z at any given rpm, even in the model equipped with automatic transmission like our tester. Operation of the AC compressor almost doesn’t affect the engine’s overall performance, where AC has a significant affects in a smaller displacement engine that has lower torque output. The Z has ample power to pass or accelerate at any given degree of incline with confidence and enthusiasm. There is no hence of its curb weight being at ~3,350Ibs. And it should consider being respectable in today’s high crash safety standard. Off the line accelerating is extremely rewarding as well. With the equipped traction control switched off (by simply pressing the conveniently located button), a pedal-to-the-metal action by your right foot leaves a pair of black sticky rubber strip from rear tires with no hesitation. TCS’s involvement in the Z is minimal, due to the ultra high limit of its capable chassis. Engine vibration thru the steering wheel is communicative, and offers a natural sophisticated feel. The fuel consumption ranged from 22 to 26 mpg, which is outstanding for a performance sports car.

The equipped 5 speeds automatic transmission is responsive, and it shifts willingly and efficiently. Its 1st and 2nd gear provides enormous acceleration. The downshift-rev-match, where the ECU automatically blips the electronic controlled throttle to match the shorter gear’s rpm, is excellent for attacking corners without jerkyness that affects weight distribution/transfer while approaching a corner. During normal driving, the downshift-rev-match improves the overall comfort without jerking the car from going into a lower gear when the driver decided to downshift manually. Gear ratios are properly matched with the engine output. When cruising with the top gear at 70mph, the engine rpm is at ~2,600rpm. In combine with the benefit of close gear ratio and downshift rev-matching, the manual mode is a joy to use. Often times, it makes me wonder how soon the automatic transmission is going to phase out the manual shifting transmissions since newer automatic transmissions are highly efficient with great maneability.

Suspension is firm with high level of civility – it will definitely be too stiff for Camry-standard drivers, but it is perfect for car enthusiasts. It offers a very educated ride. If one has experience with a properly designed aftermarket springs and struts, you will find the Z has the perfect setup – stiff but not bounce enough for driver to complaint about. Body roll is non existent, thanks to the ground hugging overall height and stiff sway bars. Cornering speeds can easily double the post speed limit at all corners without even knowing, and there always seems to have a lot more adhesion reserved at the tires and the car is capable for even much faster speed. Turn in is razor sharp. Tires are generally quiet, and hardly even squeal when cornering. The car has neutral balance, and it comes with a slight touch of understeering when approaching its limit. TCS seldom kicks in. It makes us wonder how much room a set of aftermarket suspension can improve this well balance stock suspension upon.

Steering feedbacks are direct and communications from the front tires are accurate – the best amount the cars that we have driven. No wonder Nissan earned fourteen patents for the front suspension design. Steering effort is nicely weighted, maybe too stiff for some at parking lot speed but offers great stability at high speed, and provides a quality steering feel. Steering input is also quick.

The FM (Front Midship) platform is ultra stiff, thanks to the overall chassis architecture and the help of the factory equipped front and rear strut tower bars. Shorter wheel base benefits on torsional rigidity without causing the deficiency of shorter wheel base, harsh ride. Road noise intrusion can be a bit excessive at washboard pavement surface, but it is a common trait for 2-box design where combined the trunk space with the passenger compartment, where the glass hatch has a tendency to amplify the noise. And the high performance tires are meant for traction, but short on overall comfort and noise reduction. But the noise didn’t cause any complaint from us – it might be too noisy when judged by Camry drivers.

The standard brakes are impressive. Under hard braking, the 12.6″ front & 12.1″ rear vented discs brakes are capable of providing mind numbing deceleration G-force. The stopping distance is within super car range. Brake feel is excellent. Brake pedal is extremely linear, predictable and offers great confidence. The Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) ensured the level of confidence even under hard braking on a partially wet and curvy road. ABS involvement is infrequent and barely noticeable even if it has kicked in. We noticed no fading from repeated use of the brakes.

Rear visibility is much better than the shape of the car suggests. The Z emblem on the trimming of the rear strut tower bar takes away some of the rear view mirrors viewing area but we’ve found no difficult in checking out any tailgaters – perhaps any potential tailgaters aren’t often a threat. Potential tailgater often becomes the potential “eat my duster” under a simple squeeze on the throttle. Visibility from the side mirrors is sufficient, and there are no blind spots. The size of the Z allows for a very proficient driving experience. HID headlight is the best we have seen. Seats provide sufficient lateral support for high speed cornering, and comfort for daily commute. However, the lower seats can be a bit harsh for an ultra long journey.

Sound system is a bit weak on bass and overall complexity of notes. But it is better than average and noticeably better than the system used in a ’07 STI. Trunk has enough room to swallow a weekend getaway worth of belongings for 2 – as long as you pack consciously, and not bringing every household appliance with you. Motorcycle inspirited gauge cluster that move along with the steering column is a nice touch, that allows the driver to have a perfect view of the simple yet easy to read gauges. The center tri-gauges are a nice capture of the original Z’s spirit. The information provided by the left gauge is extremely helpful info including real time individual tire pressure, Avg. MPH, MPG, DTE, outside temp., and elapse timer. Interior material quality is a bit shy from Lexus standard, but overall workmanship is better than average, panel gaps are tight, and there are a few interior rattle in this particular car, but not enough to be iterating.

Since the Z33’s introduction of the retro style, several domestic makers did the same thing such as Ford Mustang, and the late Thunderbird. The Z33 has defined, and redefined the image of Nissan. It combined and magnified Nissan’s car building philosophy into a complete package. Nissan always maintain a level of uniqueness in its products – better handling, more powerful, balanced torquey engine, and costs less when compare to its Japanese revives. Despite its design is approaching 4 years old, the 350Z still has an edge over the under powered RX8, easier to live with in a daily basis than a 4-door Evolution, and STI. A recent Road & Track article on “12 Best Cars Under $30k. We Pick the Best Enthusiast Car for the Money”. Without too much of a surprise to me, the Z came out on top out of the 12 cars. Direct quote from the Road & Track (p.69 12/2006), …the Nissan 350Z won by a whisker over the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution RS, with the Ford Mustang GT landing on the remaining step of our podium in a very respectable third. Nissan’s sporty coupe, despite getting on in years, still impresses with its fine handling, rigid structure, free-revving engine and impressive brakes.” All we have to say is, Amen, R&T summed it up for us. And the history has proven itself again, regardless it is 2006 or 1969 when the Z first appear in the native Big Block soil, the Ford Mustang has always been a step below the Z.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 9.5
Comment: Plenty of power available at any given moment.

Drivetrain: 9.5
Comment: Smooth revving, frictionless engine. Efficient tranny and differential. Lays down power to the pavement with authority.

Handling & Cornering: 9.5
Comment: Perfect handling in stock form. Cornering with way higher limit than one can imagine.

Brake Feel: 9.5
Comment: Confident feel with short braking distance to support the claim. What more to ask for.

Ride Characteristic: 9.5
Comment: Firm, sports car ride with no noticeable body lean in corners and it has the proper composure if your Camry-driven mother-in-law rides along.

Interior Comfort: 8.5
Comment: Sufficient room and support for average sized driver in a 2-seater coupe. Stock seats provide sufficient lateral support.

Workmanship: 8
Comment: Some rattles. Reasonably priced materials on dash board and interior trim. But this is ain’t retirees’ Lexus.

Functionality: 6
Comment: Plenty of storage compartments, and map pockets. Trunk space require careful packing for a long journey. Only seats 2 – but who wants dead weights in a sports car.

Technology: 8.5
Comment: No VW’s DSG, Lexus IS’s Direct Injection, nor LS460’s 8 spd automatic transmission. Heck, who need all of fancy electronics, when all resources spent on a rigid chassis, and a refined drivetrain. Z has proven that common practices when applied properly can be a perfect thing.

Afterthoughts:
The $30K performance car segment in the U.S. market has been increasingly competitive. Almost any major manufacture has at least a car to fill in that market segment. Some are based on an econobox platform such as the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Scion tC TRD. But to name a few that is in the same league as the Z includes Mazda RX8, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution & Subaru Impreza WRX STI. The front wheel drive econobox layout is in no comparison to the 350Z. But among the RX8, Evo & STI, the Z seems combined all the strong traits of each. The 350Z has the very similar front mid-mount engine, rear wheel drive like the RX8, with the precise and agile steering response as the Evo, and about the same horsepower and wider torque band as the STI. At the same time, the Z is easier to live with in a daily basis than the Evo. It has a mature sports car style than the boy-racer feel in the STI, and Evo. However, it can be a tough call for a buyer to choose a sports car in this $30K segment. We have been having a hard time on choosing one. It would definitely be nice to have a 350Z, RX8, and STI under one roof. END

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