Used 2003 Nissan 350Z Coupe Review
Nissan's crown jewel. Expect initial high demand, but for the money, this is one of the best performance buys of 2003.
Introduction: Few Nissan products have a more loyal following than the Z. Light, nimble, sporty and affordable, the original 1970 Datsun 240Z sports car was the company's first big success in America. It went on sale as a 1970 model. Prospective owners had to wait nearly six months to get one. Horsepower was set at 150 and the car's list price was $3,526.
Though it became increasingly heavier and more luxurious, the Z continued to sell well throughout the '70s and '80s. In 1990, Nissan debuted an all-new 300ZX. The car had a 222-hp V6 and a completely new body and interior. Later in the model year, a twin-turbo 300ZX went on sale with 300 horsepower. By the mid-'90s, however, the sports car market was shrinking. A strong yen also caused the Z's price to skyrocket. Sales slid and Nissan pulled the plug on the 300ZX in 1996.
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, as is Nissan. 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 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 (as 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, wide wheel tracks, short overhangs 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.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: For now, only a two-seat coupe is available, though a roadster will be available by February 2003. Five trim levels are offered: base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track. Base models come with items like an automatic climate control system with air conditioning; 17-inch wheels; antilock brakes with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD); power windows, locks and mirrors; a CD player; and remote keyless entry.
Going with an Enthusiast model adds high-intensity discharge headlights, cruise control, traction control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and a limited-slip rear differential. Performance models get these items plus Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), a tire-pressure monitor and 18-inch wheels. For even more performance, the Track model has front and rear spoilers, 18-inch lightweight wheels and upgraded brakes. Those interested in comfort should take a look at the Touring model, as this has an upgraded audio system with a six-CD changer, power and heated seats, and leather trim. The 350Z's only optional feature is a DVD-based navigation system and side airbags. Dealer-supplied high-performance parts will likely appear in the fall of 2002.
Powertrains and Performance: The front-engine, rear-drive 350Z features a newly developed 3.5-liter V6. Similar to the engines found in the Nissan Maxima and Altima 3.5 SE, the Z's engine has variable valve timing and an electronically controlled throttle. It makes 287 hp and 274 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed close-ratio manual transmission is standard, and a five-speed automatic is available.
Safety: The 350Z comes standard with front airbags and seatbelts with pre-tensioners and load limiters. The seatbelts also have automatic and emergency locking retractors (ALR/ELR, with the driver seat having ELR only). Side and head-protecting side curtain airbags are available as an option. Crash testing by the NHTSA or IIHS has not been performed.
Interior Design and Special Features: Inside the contemporarily styled body is a driver-oriented cabin that combines both classic and cutting-edge designs. The instrument panel features three gauge pods similar to the original 240Z, while a rear suspension brace resides prominently in the cargo area. While this brace certainly improves body rigidity, it also compromises valuable luggage space.
Driving Impressions: 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. Power delivery is linear and athletic, with the most fun coming on around 4,000 rpm. During cornering, 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 offers handling equal to some of the best sports cars and sport coupes available.
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