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Tested: 2003 Nissan 350Z Returns to Its Roots

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 2 days ago Csaba Csere
a blue car parked in a parking lot: A reborn Z dazzles us with its design, performance, and value. © Provided by Car and Driver A reborn Z dazzles us with its design, performance, and value.

From the August 2002 Issue of Car and Driver.

All you need to know about this new Nissan 350Z is that when it comes to its price-and-performance quotient, it is a re-creation of the segment-busting Datsun 240Z that set the sports-car world on its ear in 1970.

When that original Z-car appeared, sports-car aficionados basically had two choices. On the one hand, they could spend less than $4000 and choose from an assortment of Fiats, MGs, Opels, Triumphs, and the Porsche 914/4, all of which had about 100 horsepower and not enough performance to keep up with a Chevy Impala that didn't know it was racing. On the other hand, if they wanted serious speed, they had to spend well over $5000 for a Corvette, Jaguar E-type, or Porsche 911. The 240Z, which came with a 150-hp, 2.4-liter inline six and a price of $3601, neatly split the difference and established a new category all its own.

a close up of a motorcycle: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

Fast forward to today. For $21,800 you can get a 142-hp Mazda Miata. For a couple more grand, there's the similarly powerful Toyota MR2. But if you want serious grunt -- over 250 horsepower these days—in a true sports car, you have to step up to the $42,420 Corvette.

The new Nissan 350Z completely fractures this horsepower hierarchy. With a base price of $26,809, the resurrected Z-car costs barely 10 percent more than a Mister Two, yet it has more than double that little Toyota's power. In fact, the 350Z's total of 287 horsepower is only a few ponies shy of what is offered in a Porsche 911 that costs two and half times as much as the Nissan.

Even the top-of-the-line Track model tested here—with its front and rear spoilers (eliminating front and rear lift and cutting the drag coefficient from 0.30 to 0.29), Rays Engineering forged-aluminum 18-inch wheels (saving a total of almost 18 pounds of unsprung weight), Brembo brakes, viscous limited-slip differential, aluminum pedals, and raft of nonperformance upgrades—goes for only $34,619, $7810 more than a base Z.

a close up of a car: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

This remarkable bargain is possible because the Z employs mass-produced components from Nissan's parts bins. The Z's V-6, for example, is the ubiquitous 3.5-liter, 24-valve, quad-cam unit that sees duty in everything from the Altima to the Infiniti QX4 sport-utility. For use in the Z-car, Nissan engineers have retuned this engine with slightly hotter camshafts and freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems. The resulting 287 horsepower at 6200 rpm is about 10 percent more than the Infiniti G35 engine musters.

This engine resides in the nose of a version of Nissan's FM platform that was recently introduced in the G35. The designation "FM" stands for "front mid-engine" and means that the engine sits fully behind the center line of the front wheels, providing decent weight distribution. For use with the Z-car, this platform has had about eight inches chopped out of its wheelbase, which at 104.3 inches is still on the long side, about the same as a Corvette's.

As you'd expect from a brand-new design, the FM chassis employs a sophisticated independent suspension with multilink geometry front and rear. Except for the rear diagonal links, all the suspension components, including the rubber-isolated rear subframe, are made of forged aluminum. The FM platform also includes rack-and-pinion steering, anti-lock brakes, and on this Track model, electronic stability control incorporating a welcome "off" switch. Compared with the G35 application of this chassis, the ride height is set lower for the Z, with more negative camber all around.

a blue car parked in a parking lot: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

We're delighted to report that this hardware makes for more than an impressive spec sheet. How does this sound: 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph? How about 0.88 g of cornering stick, a stopping distance from 70 mph to standstill in 164 feet, and a top speed of 156 mph? That's essentially the same performance as a Porsche Boxster S, which has a base price of more than 50 grand.

Not only is the Z swift in a straight line and around corners, but it is effortlessly so. With a generous 3498cc under its hood and well-chosen ratios in the six-speed gearbox, healthy thrust is always just a twitch of your foot or a flick of your wrist away. There's even plenty of poke in sixth gear, which drops engine revs comfortably on the highway. Both the 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70-mph top-gear acceleration times are about nine seconds, indicating good flexibility.

Despite its performance, the 350Z does not feel as downy light as a Miata or MR2. Sure enough, at 3322 pounds it's heavier than a Corvette. That said, the Z is a very satisfying drive with terrific control feel.

a clock on the seat of a car: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

The shifter is precise and accurate, with a direct mechanical feel. The brakes are firm, proportional, and easy to feather on and off. And the pedals are perfectly arrayed for heel-and-toe shifting.

Most important, the steering is direct, linear, and beautifully weighted. The thick-rimmed, cast-magnesium three-spoke wheel provides a seductive combination of stability and immediate responsiveness. As you bend into a corner, the Z carves a smooth line with the exact radius that you command. Turn up the cornering speed, and the tires just bite harder into the pavement, with very little extra steering input required. As you approach the edge of the grip envelope, however, the Z will resolutely understeer. Only at low speeds, in the lower gears, can you use power to kick out the tail.

On the give-and-take of bumpy Midwestern roads, this combination allows you to cover ground very rapidly. The Z's structure is rock solid, never yielding so much as a creak or groan, even when the road surface is an endless series of cracks and pits. The firm suspension always takes the hard edge off the bumps, so you never endure any audible or physical pounding. For a firmly sprung high-performance car, the ride is impressively compliant.

Contributing to this comfort are the 350Z's excellent seats. They're supportive and well shaped, with plenty of lateral support, thanks to shoulder-level bolsters, grippy ersatz carbon-fiber upholstery, and an unusual hump -- the "femoral support device" -- on the driver's-seat cushion between your thighs. This seat is even cut away slightly on the right to provide better access to the shifter, and the passenger seat has a generally less aggressive contour.

a close up of a car: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

Although the 350Z's interior is not fabricated from lavish materials, the overall mix of plastic panels, molded in various shades and textures of dark gray, is tasteful. And everywhere you look there are delightful details, such as the cast aluminum door handles, and the metallic trim on the steering wheel, instrument surrounds, shifter, various switches, and door-mounted ventilation registers.

We also like the instrument cluster that moves up and down with the steering wheel when you adjust its height. And when you look at the dash from outside the car, you appreciate that these dials are even finished on their backsides. The three instruments that are angled toward the driver atop the dash recall the original 240Z's interior. And the damped motion of the lid on the central cubby as it flips up and retracts into the dashboard is positively seductive.

Interior space is plentiful for humans but less so for their trinkets and belongings. The adequately sized glove box is tucked into a panel behind the passenger seat. The cubby in the central console is small and well astern of the shifter. And the only power outlet is on the panel behind and between the seats, which means that your radar detector's coil cord will be at shoulder level stretched as taut as a high-tension line.

a piece of luggage sitting on top of a car: 2003 nissan 350z © Car and Driver 2003 nissan 350z

In back, the luggage compartment is bisected by a stylized brace bolstering the upper suspension mounts . This device does not facilitate the accommodation of any large suitcases, although Nissan claims that two golf bags will fit on the inclined floor—if you stow the woods outside the bags. And should your cargo protrude too high, it will obscure the sightline of the rearview mirror, which is already restricted to a thin letter-box view, owing to the sheetmetal at the top and bottom of the rear hatch.

You will draw your own conclusions about the 350Z's styling, but the editorial eye likes it very much. The lines are distinctive, muscular, and clean. But there's just the right amount of visual jewelry in the form of the exotic headlights, the architectural door handles, and the taillights.

Overall, it's a terrific combination of performance, practicality, style, and value.In other words, if you liked the original240Z, you'll love the new 350.

Counterpoint

At less than 27 grand, the 350Z is a helluva car. At $35,000, I'm thinking I'd rather beg a Chevy dealer to cut me a sweetheart deal on a Vette. I should be gaga for this thing, but I'm not. Perhaps because the expectation of brilliance isn't quite realized. The rear flanks are gorgeous, but the rectangular backup-light cluster and the front grille don't fit, and an aggressive rev limiter steps in abruptly if one strays over the redline. The handling is crisp at turn-in, but then the Z resolutely plows the front end, forgoing any notion of an agile, tossable car. Some sedans are better balanced. I expect more from a sports car. —Larry Webster

Nissan has been trading on heritage in its publicity ramp-up for the Z-car revival, inventing words such as "Z-ness" and drawing parallels with the glory days of the 240Z. There are times when invoking images of past greatness is absurd; consider the current Chevy Malibu. But in this application, Nissan has a case. The as-tested price of this new car is almost 10 times that of the one we reviewed in June 1970, but it fits the same general parameters: eye-catching, thoroughly competent, reasonably brisk, and affordable compared with competitors. In 1970 we said, "For the money, the 240Z is an almost brilliant car." My 2002 impression: ditto. —Tony Swan

I admit I was not initially taken by this new Z. Maybe it was the droopy, flabby-looking butt. Maybe it was the spectacularly space-inefficient interior and cargo areas. The plastic-encased structural support in the rear severely limits carrying capacity. There are 1002 covered cubbies scattered about the cabin, none of which is large enough to carry much. But three curves into our 10Best handling loop I actually uttered this phrase, "Dude, this car rules!" With its short shift throws, linear throttle response, excellent torque, excellent steering, and excellent ride and handling responses, this car totally books. —Daniel Pund


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