2003-’08 Nissan 350Z scores an A-plus with buyers
The Fairlady Z — or as it was imaginatively called around here, the 240Z, followed by the 260Z, 280Z, 280ZX, 300ZX, 350Z and 370Z — is considered to be the world’s most popular sports car, with 2 million examples having rolled out of Nissan’s Japanese factories since October 1969.
Yes, some of them were four-seaters — verboten in this klasse — but even after subtracting those, the Z-car still holds the crown.
Like the people who drove them, the Z grew soft and pudgy in the 1980s, before the fourth generation was reincarnated as a low-slung coupe in 1990. The comely 300ZX sold well at first, but succumbed to the rapidly rising yen and punishing insurance premiums.
North Americans went without a new Z-car for five years while cash-strapped Nissan consummated a merger with France’s Renault.
The fifth-generation 350Z, released in mid-2002, was a bold re-imagining of the original car at a lower price than that of the previous 300ZX. It made use of Nissan’s rear-drive FM platform, or “front midship,” which situated the engine behind the front wheels’ centre line to enhance weight distribution.
About 20 cm was excised from the FM’s wheelbase to make the Z more agile. Its sophisticated independent suspension used multilink components all around, forged in aluminum to pare weight. Ride height was set lower than in other FM applications, with more negative camber dialed in.
To hit its lower price target, the 350Z’s cabin was finished in less-than-lavish materials, although the array of plastics, garnished with real and fake aluminum, remained tasteful. Interestingly, the instrument cluster moved up and down with the steering wheel when adjusted for height.
The cockpit was adequate for two adults, but there was little storage space. The seats were hugely supportive, with plenty of lateral support and an unusual hump — the “femoral support device” — on the seat cushion between the driver’s thighs. Mercifully, the passenger seat had less aggressive shaping.
Luggage space under the rear hatch was severely compromised by the plastic-encased structural brace. Owners have taken to using soft luggage, such as garbage bags, to stuff around the intrusive extrusion.
True to its nomenclature, the 350Z used the all-aluminum 3.5 L DOHC V6 engine out of the Altima, but with slightly hotter camshafts and freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems, resulting 287 horses and 274 lb.-ft. of torque. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, with a manumatic five-speed autobox optional.
A two-passenger convertible joined the lineup for 2004, featuring a power cloth top with heated rear glass.
The 2006 manual-transmission models gained an upgraded 300-hp engine, while all Z-cars received a restyled instrument panel and LED tail lamps. For 2007, all models earned the 306-hp version of the heavily revised 3.5 L VQ-series engine, along with subtle exterior styling tweaks.
ON THE ROAD
Zero to 96 km/h came up in 5.4 seconds in the earlier 350Z; 5.2 seconds with the hotter 306-hp version (both using the manual gearbox). Unfortunately, the VQ engine exhibited some inherent coarseness.
The FM chassis was rigid and balanced, permitting the Z to carve and brake with poise. The ride quality was a little stiff, especially with the optional 18-inch wheels, but grip was tenacious on smooth asphalt. Nissan engineers had targeted the Porsche Boxster during development and, in the opinion of one major magazine, the 350Z hit the performance bulls-eye.
“This car makes you feel like a champion every time you drive it, (and it) sounds freakin’ awesome,” one owner gushed online.
On the downside, owners noted the poor visibility out back, and underlined the car’s desperate need for four winter tires in icy and even wet conditions.
WHAT OWNERS SAY
The 350Z offers drivers an intoxicating mixture of wicked power, a well-sorted chassis, and avant-garde styling for their money. It’s also unusually reliable for a performance automobile, although it comes with a few caveats.
Owners of 2003-’04 models have complained about short-lived front tires that feather and cup, indicating a problem with camber and toe alignment. Loud tire noise almost always accompanies the odd wear pattern. Dealers know to carefully correct any toe-out during alignments, but the problem can persist if the adjustment is done imprecisely.
Owners of six-speed manual cars with the special 300-hp engine (2006) have reported excessive oil consumption; some have even had their engine replaced.
Other deficiencies include bad clutch slave cylinders (a recall item), faulty window regulators, noisy brake pads, short-lived wheel bearings and batteries, and sundry rattles.
Still, not a bad showing for “Japan’s Corvette,” which might be a backhanded compliment.
2003-’08 Nissan 350Z
WHAT’S BEST: Talented chassis, robust engine, sexy exhaust song.
WHAT’S WORST: Budget interior, coffee-grinder coarseness, eats tires for breakfast.
TYPICAL GTA PRICES: 2003: $16,000; 2008: $25,000