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Sunday, November 30, 2008

C/D 370Z Review

*We once heard William F. Buckley Jr. say that, and it sounded cool.

At the Z car’s U.S. introduction 40 years ago, Datsun wisely chose not to employ its domestic “Fairlady” moniker, which Yutaka Katayama knew would have been tantamount to calling, say, the Corvette the “Cocker Spaniel.” Since then, the hyphen that originally separated the “240” from the “Z” has vanished, 1.3 extra liters of displacement have more than doubled the original engine’s output, an actor briefly made Mr. K a red-bespectacled TV star, and the car’s price has swollen by about $27,000.

Nissan refers to this latest Z as an “enhancement,” likely largely a male enhancement, rather than a whole new car. The company is being modest. The wheelbase is shorter by 3.9 inches, width is up 1.1 inches, length is down 2.7 inches. The larger engine (same V-6 as in the Infiniti G37) produces 332 horsepower, a bonus of 26, and it sits 15 millimeters closer to the pavement, which is now hugged by a true unequal-length control-arm front suspension. Although Nissan’s engineers had to add nearly 200 pounds of safety and regulatory bric-a-brac, the car is only 33 pounds heavier than the 350Z we tested in June of ’07, in part because the hatch, A-pillars, and doors are now aluminum. We know, because we attacked them with a “Big Sky” fridge magnet.

Two models are on offer: the base car, starting at $30,625, and a Touring version, which leans toward luxury—leather, Bose stereo, so forth. In either case, options are few: a nav system, a seven-speed automatic, and a Sport package. The latter, as fitted to our test car, includes a limited-slip diff, 19-inch wheels, spoilers, larger brake rotors and aluminum calipers, and “SynchroRev Match” for the six-speed manual.

Every body panel is fresh, and the styling, penned in San Diego, is largely successful, although it ignited some vivid office discussion. First, the dual shark’s teeth in the grille look like the outcome of a dolorous ninth-grade study-hall class. The oversize chrome door handles, which we’d paint flat black or body color, would look more at home on a Nissan Armada. And the roof so steeply cants downward that its leading edge forms a sharp, hard crease we’re calling the “Alfalfa peak”—an odd ridge on a car that is otherwise a lava-lamp jubilee of rounded Oprah-ness. Nissan says the roof is intended to look like the GT-R’s. We ask, “Is that important?” A convertible 370Z will arrive as a 2010 model.

The cockpit is richer than its predecessor’s, with graceful contrasting stitching, a kneepad on the center console, and a classy hinged leather panel covering the hole you’ll create if you don’t order the nav system. There’s now even a glove box. The accelerator pedal is floor mounted, and its travel feels freer and more linear. The steering wheel is asymmetrical, neither circular nor oval, but its size and grip are perfect. Although the wheel is adjustable for rake alone, the entire IP moves along for the ride, assuring a clear shot at the gauges. The driver’s seat is more aggressively bolstered than the passenger’s, and both are upholstered in nonslip fabric. They’re a tight fit, with the more globularly hipped among us contemplating the possibility of embarrassing chafing. The size of the shift knob, the pedals’ placement, the three big HVAC controls—all represent an ergonomic hat trick. What’s more, the monstrous cross support aft of the seats, which nearly bifurcated the cargo area, is now replaced by a simple aluminum tube that does minimal damage to storage space.

At the track, the 370Z easily outpaced its predecessor: 0.3 second quicker to 60 mph, a half-second quicker to 100. The 370Z accelerates to 60 mph a mere 10th behind a Porsche Cayman S. The new Z’s 30-to-50 passing potential is now about a second better, and it picked up 0.9 second in its 50-to-70-mph burst. Skidpad grip has risen from 0.93 g to a tendon-bending 0.97 g, and the new brakes (no longer Brembos but Akebonos) have tightened stopping distance to 159 feet—race-car territory, kids.

On the highway and in traffic, the 370Z is one Z-licious companion. From rest, the car rolls away elegantly, asking for a mere handful of revs above idle. Clutch takeup is predictable, and the shifter’s throws are so short and smooth that your forearm barely moves. Power manifests as low as 1900 rpm and flows in one great, seamless rush to redline, with no discernible variable-valve step. Brake-pedal travel is minimal, taut, linear. And the structure feels as solid as a Porsche 911’s, issuing exactly zero rattles or squeaks.

The steering is a little heavy but is always accurate, quick, yet never nervous. Aim for a pebble at an apex, and you can place the inside front tire atop it. Select a path through a sweeper, and no further corrections are required. Over scabrous pavement, the 370Z tracks better than its predecessor, and it has a locomotive’s sense of straight-ahead. Brain-damaged text messagers will be in heaven—that’s how long you can take your hands off the wheel.

Body motions are virtually nonexistent, and the ride can be borderline harsh, but both traits remain appropriate to a dedicated sports car. In the hills, the 370Z is simply BMW-ish in the manner its engine and transmission talk to each other. Jump in or out of the throttle, and there’s no jolt, no windup, no neck snap. Revs build and dissipate rapidly but without notice. The car eagerly establishes a soothing driving rhythm, such that glancing at the speedometer always produces a shock. When did we get going this fast? That’s a sure-fire sign of sedulous engineering.

Up to about eight-tenths on the Blow-Your-Lunch meter, the Z is remarkably neutral. On low-friction surfaces, however, you can deactivate the stability control and induce shooting chest pains courtesy of big throttle-induced oversteer. What’s just as fun and less stressful is to apply 100 percent power out of every corner and let the stability control sort things out.

Speaking of miraculous driving aids, here’s one we weren’t expecting. If you order the Sport package, the manual trans is fitted with the aforementioned SynchroRev Match, which blips the throttle during downshifts. We did some patent searches and believe this electronic boon to be a first on a wholly manual transmission. Upon hearing about it, we warned Nissan that our old-fashioned heel-and-toeing was pure Nureyev—no electronic wet nurses for us. We were wrong. Our own dance steps matched revs accurately about 80 percent of the time. Nissan’s electronic shoes matched revs 100 percent of the time. And you can’t fool the thing. A downshift from fifth to second that requires 4500 immediate revs? No problem. That tricky 10-mph downshift from second to first on a cold morning? Piece of cake. Enter a turn so fast that your whole focus is on braking and steering? Let Nissan manage the blipping. If you still think you can do better, you can deactivate it. But those creamy downshifts add so greatly to the car’s prescient interaction with the driver that we bet you won’t.

Our complaints are few. Visibility astern is slim through that gun slit of a backlight—now sans wiper—and the rear-three-quarter windows don’t even qualify as portholes. The V-6’s exhaust note, at least inside the cockpit, isn’t much sexier than a Pathfinder’s. The gas gauge comprises 16 orange LEDs that are hard to read and look like a temporary fix conjured by the doofus who forgot to order the real gauge. Finally—and this is the big one—the sticky Bridgestones double as megaphones. Boom, slap, echo, hiss, the swishing of water, the pinging of pebbles. You name a road-borne sound, and the tires can magnify it. Perhaps it’s the fault of paper-thin wheel-well liners, because neither engine nor driveline NVH find their way so effortlessly to your tympanic membranes. At idle and at wide-open throttle, the 370Z is louder than its forebear. We’d trade a couple of points on the skidpad in return for less racket and a slightly cushier ride.

Do we love the 370Z? It might now be instructive for the reader to review the text and take a census of superlatives. This latest Z offers amenities sufficient to satisfy a commuter, without doing any obvious harm to the car’s original charm—its bare-bones purity.

In the race among automakers to make in-car cell-phone calls and iPod twiddling ever easier, it’s refreshing to find an addition such as the 370Z’s rev-matching downshifting that actually enhances the driving experience. I must have shifted 500 times on the way home just to marvel at this clever tech tidbit I never knew I wanted. The 350Z was always a road-course missile, now complemented by a much-needed dose of refinement. With cars like the Z within reach, do adolescents still aspire to Mustangs?


The 370Z is proof that revolutionary changes aren’t mandatory to keep a model line fresh. The 350Z lacked a decent interior and storage space, and its styling was starting to look dated. The new car addresses these shortcomings and improves what was already a good package. The result is one of the most desirable sports cars on the market. Steady progress in a model line is not a new idea—Porsche has been following it since, well, forever. Other automakers should take note of this success.