2003 Nissan 350Z First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Nissan 350Z Coupe

(3.5L V6 6-speed Manual)

Excellence on a Budget

Super Bowl XXIV. Like most Super Bowls, this one was a snooze; the San Francisco 49ers humiliated the Denver Broncos to the tune of 55 to 10. If there was a highlight, however, it was a Ridley Scott-directed commercial for the then-all-new 300ZX.

This 1990 spot showed a twin-turbo Z out-accelerating motorcycles, a race car and, finally, a jet plane. As car commercials go, it's actually pretty rad. The subtext, however, hints at the car's ultimate demise. It was too advanced and too expensive for a market that was increasingly unwilling to plunk down large chunks of cash. By 1996, the 300ZX's EKG was near flatline. Nissan pulled the plug, and its flagship sadly winked out like a Steven Bochco cop show.

Within the depths of Nissan, however, the eternal light wasn't quite extinguished. At the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Z Concept appeared. Created in secret by a team of designers at Nissan's Southern California studios, this orange-painted car relied heavily on cues from the first-generation 240Z. Its styling wasn't perfect, and the hardware underneath was mostly 240SX, but it was enough to get Nissan's top execs — as well as the public — excited about another Z.

So now, almost a decade later, the Z is back. It's pumped. It's buff. It's The Matrix's Neo after he packs up and reloads to rescue Morpheus from the agents' grasp. The 350Z is here to kick Porsche and BMW tail.

This latest iteration stays true to the sports car formula: two seats, front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive and a tidy size. T-tops aren't available and there is no 2+2 variant. Nissan also wants it to be accessible, meaning less like the '90-'96 car and more like the original 240Z that got the whole party started. There will be plenty available (about 30,000 units the first year), and they will have price tags not much more than your average Ford Explorer's.

The 350Z is built on Nissan's new FM platform. FM stands for front midship and refers to the positioning of the engine. Compared to most front-engine cars in which a considerable amount of engine weight is placed over the front wheels, the 350Z's engine is located further rearward behind the front wheels. The engine isn't fully behind the front axle (like it is in a Honda S2000), however. Only the engine's centerline is.

Therefore, the Z isn't a true front mid-engine car, but the gains from this platform are tangible and real. It boasts a compact engine compartment, a long wheelbase (104.3 inches), wide wheel tracks, short overhangs (an overall length of 169.7 inches) and a 53:47 front-to-rear weight bias. Compared to a '91 300ZX, it's about the same length, but with a better weight bias and a much longer wheelbase. The new platform also gives the 350Z a high level of stiffness and rigidity.

Reduced flab was another goal. With an approximate 3,200-pound curb weight, the new car is about 300 pounds lighter than a '91 300ZX Twin Turbo. That means the car has a power-to-weight ratio of about one horsepower for every 11.1 pounds. For reference, this is roughly the same ratio that Mustang GTs and Chevy Camaro Z28s have.

For power, the 350Z relies on Nissan's increasingly popular 3.5-liter V6. Different versions of "VQ" engines are found in products like the Maxima, Altima, Pathfinder and Infiniti G35. This advanced V6 features 24 valves, dual overhead cams, variable valve timing and an electronically controlled throttle. For the 350Z, Nissan has applied its most astringent state of tune yet, including redesigned intake ports, increased valve lift and a 10.3:1 compression ratio. These changes allow the engine to make 287 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 274 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. It's connected to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. From here, power is routed to the rear wheels via a carbon-fiber driveshaft. Nissan says this special driveshaft is quieter and weighs 40 percent less than a comparable steel unit.

We had a chance to drive a selection of 350Zs at Nissan's brief one-day press introduction. There are five trim levels available, ranging from base trim to the top-level Track. There's nothing special or gimmicky about getting started — just turn the key, buckle your seatbelt and go. Around town, the V6 is quite docile, and the manual transmission's clutch is easy to depress. Open it up a bit, and the dual exhaust pipes produce an enjoyable and throaty V6 growl. In our experience, few V6s sound truly special, though. Compared to the bass-heavy rumble of a domestic V8 or the frantic revving of an S2000 or Boxster S, the 350Z's soundtrack isn't as inspiring.

But there sure is enough power to have fun. Plant the throttle, let the tach swing north and the Z shoves you back in the seat. Power delivery is linear and athletic, with the most fun coming on around 4,000 rpm. Redline is 6,600. Though we haven't had an opportunity to test the car yet, expect a 0-to-60-mph time less than 6 seconds and a quarter-mile time somewhere in the 14s. Top speed, should you somehow manage to sneak out onto Indianapolis Motor Speedway's tarmac, is limited to 155 mph.

The six-speed's shifter has short throws and precise gates, and the automatic can pop off impressively fast upshifts. The auto also has a sequential-shift mode to give the driver more control, especially during handling maneuvers. Unlike most other sequential-shifting automatics, the manual mode really is manual — if the driver bumps into the rev limiter, the transmission won't shift until the driver selects the next gear.

Equally impressive is the car's handling. It's an easy car to get acclimated to and drive fast. The suspension is fully independent, with advanced multilink designs both in front and back. Many of the suspension components are made out of aluminum to reduce unsprung weight. Front and rear stabilizer bars are standard, as are front and rear suspension tower braces. For braking, the 350Z has ABS- and EBD-equipped vented discs at each corner. Track models have brakes designed by aftermarket brake specialist Brembo. These rotors are larger and thicker and are clamped down upon by larger calipers. On certain trim levels (including the Track), Nissan's Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) stability control system is available.

Like the suspension, the wheels are made out of aluminum. They are 17 or 18 inches in diameter, depending on trim. The front wheels have a 7.5-inch width, and the rear wheels are 8 inches wide. For the seven-spoke 17-inch wheels, the tires are summer-compound W-rated 225/50R17s in front and 235/50s in back. Cars with six-spoke 18-inch wheels get stickier Bridgestone Potenza RE 040 tires sized at 225/45R18 in front and 245/45R18 in back. Cars in Track trim get the bonus prize: special 18-inch lightweight wheels, with the rear wheels having an 8.5-inch width.

When driving over rough or bumpy pavement, one can feel how solid the body structure is. The suspension does all of the work, allowing the Z to stay composed. Outright grip is high, and the car feels well balanced. The steering, too, is properly weighted and presents decent feedback to the driver. Overall, the car stakes out new territory. It's not as nimble as the S2000, but it's also not as fidgety. There's no doubt that it's much more maneuverable than a Corvette. After our brief drive, we'd say the 350Z's handling and demeanor most closely matches the BMW M3 or M Coupe.

The 350Z isn't hardcore, though. It's tuned softly enough to be a decent daily driver. Highlights for the cabin include a gauge cluster that moves in tandem with the tilt-adjustable steering column (it doesn't telescope, unfortunately), automatic climate control and an optional navigation system. Depending on trim, you can also get leather seating (cloth is standard), an autodimming rearview mirror and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. Side airbags are optional.

As in most sports cars, there's not much storage or luggage space. The Z lacks a glovebox, and the only real storage comes from two bins located inconveniently behind the seats. Cargo space behind the seats (the car is still a hatchback) measures just 6.8 cubic feet. The rear suspension tower brace, though cool-looking and certainly effective in stiffening the body, takes up a lot of room. We didn't get a chance to test this ourselves, but Nissan says the cargo area will hold two golf bags. Fitted luggage, available from the dealer, is rumored to be available.

The 350Z arrives in dealerships in August 2002. Our choice would be the Performance trim level, as that nets the most desirable equipment for less than $31,000. If that doesn't float your boat, perhaps you'll be intrigued to know that Nismo high-performance parts will be available soon after launch, or that the Z roadster arrives in February 2003. For the money, the 350Z looks to be one of the best performance buys to come out in a long time. If we're lucky, maybe Mr. Scott will direct another commercial for Super Bowl XXXVI.

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