Learning lessons from the racetrack
As we buried our right boot exiting the last hairpin in 2nd gear, the tach needle of the 2007 Nissan Nismo 350Z raced northeast across the dial. It didn't waver and we rode a tsunami of forward thrust toward 7,000 rpm.
We'd heard that Nissan would be testing the 2007 Nismo 350Z at Tsukuba Circuit, the most popular racetrack in Japan, so we dropped by to see what all the fuss was about.
That's how we found ourselves at 125 mph on the back straight of this 1.3-mile circuit with the 2007 Nismo 350Z asking for more.
Z, the next generation
From the moment the Nissan 350Z launched in 2002, it's been a hot prospect on the road. There were plenty of people (including many at Nissan) who believed the Z-car would never make a comeback from the brink of irrelevance, yet 200,000 350Zs have been parked in garages around the world since then, including 27,278 in the U.S. last year.
The centerpiece of the 2007 350Z is a new, high-revving 306-horsepower version of Nissan's well-known, 3.5-liter VQ-Series V6. Motohiro Matsumura, the engineer who directed the design of the original VQ, tells us that Nissan originally asked him to control noise and vibration in the company's first all-aluminum engine, and his use of lightweight yet rigid parts led him to excellent performance at the same time.
Some 80 percent of the VQ35HR engine is new. Twin throttle bodies, a higher compression ratio and straighter intake ports help squeeze out more power, while variable valve timing for the intake and exhaust cams broadens the power band. To help the engine withstand the higher 7,500-rpm redline, the crankshaft's pins and journals are larger in diameter and the crankshaft's main bearing carrier is supported by a ladder-type frame. Meanwhile, the connecting rods are 8.4mm longer to help reduce vibration, a measure that required a revised engine block with a taller deck height.
When the new high-revving, 3.5-liter VQ35HR V6 is hooked up to the Nismo 350Z's six-speed manual transmission, it delivers 306 horsepower at 6,800 rpm. The torque output is 268 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm, but, more important, 90 percent of peak torque is available between 2,000 rpm and 7,000 rpm.
Chassis tricks from Japan
The chassis of the Nismo 350Z has been developed by Autech, a Japanese company that produces specialty models for Nissan and also prepares Nissan's entries in the Japanese Super GT racing series.
Autech welds up some of the seams in the Z-car's body to increase structural rigidity and also installs the usual strut-tower braces. The Nismo 350Z also features special Yamaha-built mass dampers between the left- and right-side frame members beneath the unit-body chassis to control vibration in this new, stiffer body. This is technology adapted from the mass dampers Yamaha formerly supplied to the Honda Formula 1 team.
There are plenty of signature Nismo pieces within the interior, but the car is more noteworthy for special exterior bodywork developed by Nissan for racing, including a front aero splitter, a front bumper cover, rocker-sill extensions and a dramatic rear treatment with a wing.
The Nismo 350Z rides on lightweight forged wheels and carries 245/40R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE-01R tires in front and 275/35R19s in the rear. Specially tuned springs and dampers are part of the package.
The racing connection
It took just two corners of Tsukuba to realize just how freely the new V6 spins toward its 7,500-rpm redline. The outgoing VQ engine had loads of punch through the midrange, but the new HR (high-revving) engine has real staying power at peak rpm. It has a dry, crisp and yet authoritative exhaust note that becomes an addictive roar above 5,000 rpm.
As we charged toward Tsukuba's second hairpin at 80 mph in 3rd gear, we jumped on the brake pedal and engaged the big four-pot Brembos, plucked 2nd gear with the short-throw shift linkage and then clipped the tight apex at around 45 mph. Letting the tach needle plummet to an indicated 2 grand, we floored the throttle and unleashed a torrent of power that continued right to the redline at 7,500 rpm.
The newly found high-end power tempts you to keep the engine on the boil above 5,000 rpm, yet if you find yourself lower in the rpm range, there's plenty of torque to climb the ladder to peak power again.
Just like a classic Nissan engine, the new VQ's throttle response is crisp and the engine pulls strongly across the full sweep of the tachometer. There's no difference between the engine of the Nismo 350Z and that of the 2007 Nissan 350Z, yet the engine feels so rewarding, there might not need to be any difference.
The Nismo 350Z's real mark of distinction lies in its track-ready chassis. At Tsukuba, the Nismo 350Z recorded a lap time of 1:05.9, some 1.3 seconds quicker than the most aggressive model of the standard 350Z. The Nismo 350Z turns in sharper, corners quicker with less body roll, and both squats less under acceleration and dives less under braking.
Push the Nismo 350Z as we did through the track's long right-hand sweeper, and it will understeer at first. Once you feather the throttle for a moment, though, the car assumes a neutral attitude and you can use the VQ 6's wide power band to steer the car with the throttle in a way that's more progressive and controllable than ever before.
Of course the V6's meatier top-end power means that the rear end will break traction sooner, but the slide is easier to catch once the sideways stuff starts.
A track car, not a street car
The downside of the Nismo 350Z is quickly apparent on the street.
All the newfound chassis rigidity combined with the stiff-legged, track-ready suspension calibration and aggressive, low-profile Bridgestone RE-01R tires combines to deliver a harsh ride that'll shake your fillings loose even on Japan's magically smooth roads.
It'll be interesting to see if Americans are willing to pay a premium for a track-ready Z-car that doesn't feature a special measure of added engine power, but the new VQ V6 is so impressive that they might not notice.
With the 2007 Nismo 350Z, Nissan has taken one of the world's best sports cars, given it a look that's both unique and functional and built up a razor-sharp chassis that's capable of extreme performance. You'll want to keep the engine on the boil at nearly 7,000 rpm just like we did.
We'll see what's next for Nismo, as we hear it's preparing a 400-hp 380RS edition of the Z-car that will be powered by a detuned version of the 3.8-liter V6 used by the Autech-prepared Z-car driven by Michael Krumm that won the 2006 Japanese Super GT racing series.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.