LAS VEGAS–The original Datsun 240Z hit the world’s car market in 1970 right between the eyes.
First, it dealt a death blow to the British car industry – two-seat sports cars like the MGB were about all it still did well in those days, and the Z put those things on the trailer, turning itself into the bestselling sports car in the world.
It also put the rest of the world on notice that the Japanese auto industry would not be content to just produce dull little economy cars. Hard to imagine now, but in those days many people thought the Japanese car industry would never amount to much.
Subsequent iterations of the Z car were variably successful. It got bigger, fatter and decidedly less sporty as the years wore on, until the 300 ZX in 1990. It also was too big and heavy to be a true driver’s car, though it remains one of the most beautiful Japanese cars ever.
It was discontinued in 1996 and not replaced until 2003 with the debut of the 350Z.
The 2009 version – the Nissan 370Z sports coupe – returns the Z car to its pure sports car roots, being smaller, lighter, and more powerful than ever.
It debuts in Canada at the Montreal auto show in January and goes on sale shortly thereafter.
Only one model, called “Touring,” will be offered at launch. It will have two options: a Sport package with aerodynamic body kit, 19-inch wheels and Bridgestone Potenza tires and a trick new transmission. The second option is a NAVI package with hard disc-based satellite navigation iPod interface and Nissan’s 9.3 gig Music Box digital music storage system.
Pricing has yet to be announced, but it is expected to start around $40,000. That’s a lot less than the current base price for the 350Z of about $49,000, because most of the content in the optional Sport package used to be standard.
Still, comparably equipped, the new car should offer better value than before.
The 370Z is derived from the so-called FM architecture (FM standing for Front-Mid-engined) that also underpinned the previous 350Z, as well as several other Nissan and Infiniti products, including the new GT-R.
It has been significantly upgraded for the 370Z.
Most significantly, the new car is shorter (by 167 mm overall, 100 mm in wheelbase), a bit lower and wider, but most importantly, lighter by some 50 kg. Of the car, 18 per cent is now aluminum, including door inners and outers, hood and front suspension cradle.
The smaller body alone would make the structure stiffer; judicious use of braces – under the hood, behind the seats – bring increases of 30 per cent in front body torsional rigidity, 22 per cent in the rear, and 30 per cent in bending.
The reduced mass would improve performance anyway; the new 3.7-litre engine previously seen in the Infiniti G cars adds 26 horsepower, for 0-to-100 km/h sprint times in the low five-second range, about 10 per cent quicker than before.
Most of the power upgrade comes from a 500 r.p.m. increase in maximum engine speed, to 7500 r.p.m.
The improved acceleration is more a function of the flatter torque curve.
A new six-speed manual transmission has lighter shift effort. The Sport package includes a world-first “SynchroRev Match” function, which interprets shift lever motion on downshifts to intuit the next gear the driver wants, and automatically blips the throttle so the engine revs at exactly the right r.p.m. to ensure a smooth downshift.
The automatic option is an also-new seven speed, which actually returns better fuel economy ratings than the manual.
Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are included with this transmission; manual shifts can also be initiated by toggling the shift lever itself.
The front suspension is now a classic double wishbone; the rear retains its multi-link concept. New shock dampers enable smooth response to large-amplitude disturbances at lower speeds, and quicker reaction to bumps at higher speeds.
All of this is clothed in sheet metal that appears to have been vacuum-shrunk onto the car. The exterior, penned by Vancouverite Randy Rodriguez (whose first car was a 240Z) retains the profile proportions of the 240Z, with long hood, sleek fastback rear, and upswept rear quarter windows.
The roof appears cantilevered from the back, as in the GT-R. Broad flared fenders and a strong character line in the rocker panel give the car a muscular look.
The boomerang-shaped headlights and taillights border on boy-racer, but look better on the car than in photos.
Inside, higher-quality materials are probably the biggest single improvement in the entire car.
The U.S. offers a base cloth upholstery option, but the vastly (if inexplicably) more popular leather has been made standard in Canada.
Speaking of inexplicable, transponder-based push-button ignition is standard. I hate these things because it’s way too easy to lose the transponder and I have never seen any functional advantage to them.
Also standard is an eight-speaker Bose sound system.
Las Vegas has grown so fast that it takes a while to get off the strip and onto some interesting roads. And once off that strip, does this place ever look seedy – especially when seemingly half the houses and stores are for sale or rent.
The car attracts a fair amount of attention, especially in the chrome yellow of the steed we chose for our test. One 350Z owner darn near killed himself to get a better look.
The upgraded interior is an almost total success. I particularly liked the soft padding on the armrest and transmission tunnel where my various extremities used to take a beating in the 350Z.
Still a few hard trim bits, though.
And what was the instrument panel designer thinking? Nice big tach in front of the driver, slightly smaller speedo to the right (very Porsche-like). But to the left, a nasty, plastic-trying-to-look-like-metal housing containing two light-point bar graphs for fuel level and temperature – both hard to read – and a black-on-orange trip computer. This looked at odds with the rest of the car – more Mattel than high-quality automobile.
Said instrument cluster tilts with the steering column, so the gauges should be visible no matter where you set it.
The windshield pillars are thinner, to improve front-to-side visibility. But the big side-view mirrors eliminate much of that advantage.
The seats are comfortable and supportive. A real shame there is no mechanical release for the seat backs – stuffing a briefcase behind them requires you to operate the dead-slow power-seat adjustment, whose button is awkwardly located on the inboard side of the seat.
The first thing you will notice in driving the car will be the vastly improved manual transmission – assuming you choose that version. Shift effort is drastically better, but still direct and positive.
The SynchroRev Match thing? As one who tries to take pride in his heel-and-toe downshifting technique – blip the throttle with the side of the right foot while selecting the lower ratio – I hate to admit that this system does a much better job than I can. Than anyone, I venture to say.
Even during semi-hot laps at Spring Mountain racetrack in Pahrump, about two hours southwest of Lost Wages, it simply eliminated one of the details you have to worry about, especially on a track with as many tight curves as this one.
Nissan has always done great V6 engines – this one is maybe the best yet. Strong, torquey, smooth. More powerful, yet lower emissions and fuel consumption too. It sounds good as well.
We had been warned that one wheel in the dirt would send us home; suitably forechastened, we didn’t want to push too hard.
But the car feels very composed when leaned on a little, with just a steadying touch of understeer if you approach a corner too quickly.
On the road the steering felt just a trifle sticky on-centre. Ride quality was fine, and road and wind noise are both well controlled.
It is a little difficult to find direct competitors for the 370Z. Price-wise, it fits around the Audi TT, Honda S2000 and Mazda RX-8.
I’d suggest the latter makes the most interesting comparison. The RX-8’s Wankel engine demands lots of revs to even begin to match the 370Z’s scootability, but that’s part of the sporty car fun. Yet the Mazda also has a usable back seat.
In performance and handling, the 370Z is probably closer to the Corvette, or the cars Nissan chose for its targets: the Porsche Cayman, and when the 370Z roadster arrives in about a year, the Boxster.
The 370Z doesn’t have the surgical precision of the Porsches, but it’s more refined than the Corvette.
At the new price, people who might look at, say, the Mitsubishi Eclipse might be tempted too.
Without doubt, the 370Z is the best all-round Z car ever, and should be successful – if our economy doesn’t totally implode.Travel was provided to freelance writer Jim Kenzie by the automaker. [email protected]