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First Oz drive: 350Z delivers thrills

Speed sports: The Nissan 350Z is a highly capable and exciting car to drive

Nissan's master blaster 350Z sports car has arrived Down Under

6 Feb 2003

NISSAN worldwide sees the launch of the new 350Z sports coupe as a symbol of the renaissance of the company's fortunes - as much a leap forward for the car-maker today as the original 240Z was three decades ago.

And it is right.

Such was the importance of getting this car right in terms of its corporate integrity, Nissan has clearly put all resources available into it.

Nissan could not afford to trip up on this one because it is too important.

And the winners are not just Nissan people and their dealers, but also those sports car lovers who buy the 350Z.

The 240Z was a sensational car in its time because of the straight-six performance and the raunchy design it delivered at the price.

The 350Z in today's terms repeats that achievement.

The designers had their eye on the Porsche Boxter and the Honda S2000 - and they got a bit of both with some traditional Z car DNA thrown in.

The combination is already popular.

In Japan more than 6000 have been sold since August. In the US, in four and a half months the 350Z outsold the Porsche Boxter, the S2000, Audi TT and BMW Z3/Z4 for the entire year.

Australia is the third world market to get the car. Pre-selling in Australia started at the Sydney motor show in October and so far there are 220 locals who have bought a 350Z without having driven it.

These courageous souls will not be disappointed when the first shipment of 150 cars is handed over in the next few weeks and they get a chance to feel it in their hands.

Nissan Australia now wonders if the 800 350Zs it planned to sell this year might be a tad conservative.

The 350Z starts at $59,990 for the Touring version with a wound-up 3.5-litre version of the brilliant 3.0-litre Maxima V6 engine, which remains Nissan's best-kept secret.

With 24 valves and a twin overhead camshaft, this engine comes in with 206kW of power at 6200rpm and 363Nm of torque at 4800rpm.

There is a close ratio six-speed manual gearbox with an optional five-speed automatic ($2800 more), initially available only on the Touring model.

There is plenty of fruit - traction control, viscous limited slip differential, rear-wheel drive of course, carbon-fibre driveshaft and ventilated discs all round with electronic brake force distribution and ABS. The wheels are 17-inch alloys with 50 series tyres. The rear tyres are 10mm wider.

There are six airbags (dual front, side impact and side curtain), heated sports leather seats, auto climate control, a Bose 240 watt sound system with seven speakers, power windows, central locking and - straight out of the Z car styling manual - three gauges for oil pressure, voltmeter and trip computer.

For $6000 more you can buy the Track version, which means what it says.

This is for those with a little competition in mind. Add in Vehicle Dynamic Control, Brembo braking system with four-piston callipers and larger discs plus some front and rear spoiler treatment.

Track tyres are on 18-inch six-spoke wheels, are 45 series with the rear tyres 20mm wider than the front for greater spread of driving wheel rubber in quick getaways.

The five-speed auto will not be available on the Track until later this year.

So far Australian buyers are equally divided with half wanting the Track and half wanting the Touring. Of the wide range of colours, silver is way ahead at 61 per cent in popularity.

In practical terms, the 350Z is strictly a two-seater. There could be a fair bit of luggage space under the rear hatch but that is severely compromised by a substantial brace running across between the suspension towers.

Nissan says it can take two sets of golf clubs. We'd like to see that.

Nissan 350Z Touring manual $59,990
Nissan 350Z Touring auto $62,690
Nissan 350Z Track manual $65,990
Nissan 350Z Track auto $68,690*
*Not available until late 2003


From the beginning lets get one thing straight. This is not a continuation of the 300ZX, which was a Z car that lost its way and became fat, flabby and expensive.

The 300ZX was a boulevard car for bored Californians. It lost its verve for life and got its just deserts. People stopped buying it.

It was put out of its misery in 1996 when production stopped.

This new 350Z is everything the original car would have become had Nissan stuck to its core values.

Frankly, the car is impressive with the caveat that it was driven in somewhat trying torrential rain in the tail-end of a Queensland cyclone.

Nevertheless, we came away impressed with the way it behaves, taken with its good looks on the road and wondering how they achieved the package for the price.

The driver area is snug with firm, form-fitting leather seats with electric adjustments every which way.

Big, clear instruments confront the driver with the rev counter getting centre spot. There is enough brushed alloy finish to cheer up the interior from the dreaded Japanese all-black cockpit syndrome. The optional tan leather seats look snazzy.

The instruments and controls are simply laid out, but a handbook is handy to track down things like a power outlet and the traction control switch.

Clearly, the wiper and indicator switches received design focus for silky, refined movement.

The steering wheel is thick with a sporty circumference and the stubby close-ratio six-speed manual shift is on hand.

So, well set up for action, you find yourself in a very precise piece of machinery. The body is very tight and everything feels solid. The steering delivers road feel and is obedient.

Fortunately, the Japanese engineers have not fallen for the Lexus trap of insulating the life out of the car.

This sports car feels the road and feeds back through the seat. You hear what you are doing as well. Road and wind noise are present and gravel clatters in the wheel arches. You either like that or you don't.

When the 3.5 litres are called on, the V6 runs quickly up to the rev limiter. It gives a raunchy growl from the twin exhausts along the way but it remains calm and free of the clatter that often comes with Japanese engines at full revs.

Much was made of the six-speed close ratio gearbox. This is necessary because the car is a solid piece of equipment and getting into the torque curve is important for maximum performance. The smorgasbord of gears to choose from is therefore right.

Yes, the changes were snappy, but there are a lot of neutrals in a six-speed box and you needed to keep concentrating on gear shifts to find your way around into the right gear. For some reason fifth was often elusive.

Importantly, however, this is not a car that is hard to drive in the daily traffic routine. You just stay on the left-hand side of the gearbox.

If anything stands out it is how well the 350Z sits on the road and how it follows the lines you are sighting through corners with no resistance or pushback. You just aim and it delivers.

Some roads show up the firm suspension. You want a sports car to stick to the road surface. That comes with the handling you demand of them. But you pay the price - at times being jostled over tired bitumen that sags and ripples from the weight of constant traffic.

The main question is: how do they do it for the price? Clearly that was part of the brief because the original 240Z was successful because it offered sports performance and styling that had never been available at such a relatively low price.

While the 350Z represents good value, it has not quite achieved that same pricing edge that its predecessor did in the early 1970s.

Back then a 240Z was $4200 and a Holden Belmont was about $2900.

Today the Commodore Executive costs $30,000 and the 350Z is double that at about $60,000. So there is a premium in there that did not exist in the original car.

The other thing that undermines the value equation is that Mazda's forthcoming RX-8 rotary four-door is a little cheaper - and that was certainly no accidental decision!But, overall, the 350Z is an impressive car that is going to bring a lot of smiles to a lot of faces.

Just leave kids off the family agenda for a while - or get a bigger garage.

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