2003 Nissan 350Z Road Test

2003 Nissan 350Z Road Test

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

2003 Nissan 350Z Coupe

(3.5L V6 6-speed Manual)

Z One to Beat

By now, we're sure that most of you have seen the new "Z." And maybe even read about what it's like to live with one via our long-term test of a Track model. The new 350Z, with its 287-horse V6, athletic chassis, eye-catching looks and bargain starting price has given many enthusiasts cause for rejoice. Our staff has celebrated, on many occasions, Nissan's return to a pure sports car, usually in the form of adrenaline-pumping runs through empty canyon roads north of L.A.

When the first Z (the 240) debuted in 1970, it had everything an enthusiast needed, such as a smooth and peppy inline six, precise steering, a well-sorted chassis and full instrumentation. With its vinyl seats and roll-up windows, it was clear that this car was all about having fun while driving, not being pampered with power everything and a posh interior. A low price (around $3,500) and a sleek body influenced by the lovely Jaguar E-Type wrapped it all up.

The car remained essentially unchanged, save for subsequent increases in engine displacement (hence the 260Z and 280Z) through 1978. The next generation saw the Z adopt an "X" in its name and a plushness to its character that made it more of a luxurious GT than an elemental sports car. Things got more out of hand in 1984 when the more powerful 300ZX debuted, bringing more power but also more bells and whistles, including the option of "Body Sonic" seats that would vibrate in time to the music. The 1990s began with a revamped 300ZX that had both performance and luxury in heaping portions — there was even a 300-horsepower, twin-turbo version that could run with most Porsches and Ferraris. But it all ended in 1996, when a combination of increasing prices and decreasing interest in sports cars sounded the death knell for Nissan's Z car.

Well, joy, joy, happy, happy, the Z is back in more ways than one! Nissan has taken an almost militant approach to getting its sports car back into fighting shape and any extraneous baloney that didn't enhance performance was left on the product planners' Palm Pilots. The result is a car that's around 300 pounds lighter than its predecessor. Even the car's name has been pared down, losing the "X" and returning to just a "Z" after the numbers that denote its engine size.

The 350Z possesses a powerful bulldoglike stance with its high beltline, aggressively flared wheel openings, meaty tires and minimal front and rear overhangs. Large-diameter dual exhaust outlets that trumpet the sound of the sweet six finish off the car nicely. The overall effect is one of a muscle-bound sprinter rather than a lean distance runner. Close examination reveals interesting details, such as the "Z" insignia being incorporated into the door's ductwork for the air vents.

There are no less than five trim levels of the 350Z — base, Enthusiast, Performance, Track and Touring — with pricing ranging from around $27,000 to $35,000. The base model comes well stocked with an automatic climate control system; 17-inch wheels; antilock brakes; power windows, locks and mirrors; a CD player; and remote keyless entry. The Enthusiast model adds high-intensity discharge headlights, cruise control, traction control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and a limited-slip rear differential. Performance models add Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), a tire-pressure monitor and 18-inch wheels to the former. The subject of this road test, the Touring model, ups the ante with an upgraded Bose audio system with a six-CD changer, power heated seats and leather trim. Hard-core enthusiasts will want to check out the Track model, which has front and rear spoilers, 18-inch lightweight wheels and high-performance Brembo brakes.

Perhaps most telling of the no-nonsense design dictum is the Z's cockpit. Even in this luxury-themed Touring model, it's obvious that performance still takes precedence over luxury. Scan the dash, console and doors and you'll see no burled walnut or softly padded surfaces. "This interior is about as luxurious as the plasticized cabin of our long-term Altima," one editor snapped. Well, it's not quite that barren; a sprinkling of metallic accents, racy drilled aluminum pedals and a ball-shaped, leather-wrapped shifter add a little pizzazz and serve to confirm the serious attitude of the 350Z.

As with the Track model, the Touring Z's seats are well shaped, offering comfort as well as support when the Z is being zig-zagged through the corners. However in the Touring model, they are plumper, offering more comfort than the thinner units in the Track car. But what's up with the manual height adjustment on a "power" driver seat? Still, there's no denying the functionality of the cockpit; three smaller dials (whose design and location pay homage to the original 240Z) atop the center stack are canted toward the driver, making "at a glance" readability possible. One of those gauges is actually a display for the car's standard trip computer that offers expected functions like average fuel economy, as well as a few surprises like tire-pressure monitoring and a driver-selected maximum-rpm warning. All the controls are easy to operate, particularly the three-knob setup for the automatic climate control and the logical cruise control buttons mounted on the steering wheel.

Our car was fitted with the optional DVD-based navigation system that features a bird's-eye viewpoint, and it proved fairly easy to use. The nav system hides behind a plastic panel that glides away at the push of a button but is a little clunky to close as it must be pulled out and then down over the screen.

Another gripe concerned the rearward visibility. Extra caution is advised when backing up or changing lanes as the small rear-quarter windows and nearly flat back window limit the view astern.

Petty criticisms of the cockpit vanish upon twisting the key and hearing the urgent timbre of the Z's 287-horsepower V6. Put simply, Nissan's 3.5-liter deserves a spot in the pantheon of great engines. It's powerful and smooth; blast through the gears and there's a constant, insistent rush that, time and again, made this elder editor grin like a grade-schooler driving a go-kart. Although we weren't able to perform instrumented testing on this particular Z, our long-termer hustled from zero to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds and scorched through the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds.

But what's equally impressive is how that prodigious thrust is delivered. With such a high-peak output from a naturally aspirated (that is, not turbocharged or supercharged) V6, one might expect that you need to rev the bugger to redline to get to the sweet spot of the power band. Nothing could be further from the truth, as most of the tach's face represents this engine's sweet spot. While trolling through city streets, the engine is strong and flexible enough so that constant up- and downshifting aren't required. Leave it in third when the urge strikes to dip down into second and it's no sweat; even from just 900 rpm, the V6 will pull smoothly, without a hint of shudder.

A six-speed manual gearbox with a progressive clutch adds to the joy of piloting the Z. Although a few staffers thought the shifter felt a bit notchy, this editor enjoyed its short throws and precise, rifle boltlike action. Ideal pedal placement makes it easy to blip the throttle and match revs while attacking a favorite stretch of serpentine blacktop.

It was interesting to note how much better this Touring model rode when compared with our long-term Track model. If you've read the long-term updates on our Track Z, you'll see that many staffers have complained about the ride quality that borders on being harsh. But the Touring model places no such stress upon the occupants' vertebrae; the ride is supple by comparison. As both cars have identical suspension calibrations, we attribute the greater ride comfort to the Touring Z's more luxurious and softer seating. We all agreed that this is a high-performance car that would be easy to live with if the daily commute involved pockmarked pavement.

Fortunately, it seemed as if no handling prowess was sacrificed for the comfier ride. Push this car hard and the Z talks back — in a good way. The steering is sharp and quick with good feedback; the Bridgestone Potenzas have immense grip; and the powerful brakes are easy to modulate. The Z feels incredibly well-balanced, due in part to the FM (front-midship) architecture which places the engine further back in the chassis than a typical front-engine car, reducing weight over the front wheels.

Loosely translated, this means that the Z cuts into corners eagerly. Yes, in the Touring Z there's more body roll when compared to the Track's dead-flat cornering attitude, but that can only be discerned if one has driven both cars hard on a familiar road. And it's all relative; compared to most anything else out there short of a high-dollar exotic, the Touring Z's handling dynamics are hard to fault. Make no mistake; even if one chooses the Touring Z, this is still a sports car first and foremost, with a level of capability that most drivers will never discover.

When the sad day came to turn the car in, we were struck by how far Nissan has come in the last five years. After being on the verge of bankruptcy not too long ago, Nissan has come back strong by offering products that are heavy on the performance and light on the wallet. The 350Z is a great example of why it's a great time to be a car enthusiast with champagne taste and a beer budget.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7.0

Components: Simple and clean. That's the best way to describe the way the 350Z Touring incorporates the Bose head unit into its rakish dash area. There is one minor complaint — while the overall look and feel are very pleasant, the "load" button for the CD changer seems to be placed rather far from the buttons one must use to choose which slot you want to load a CD into. Otherwise, everything is just where you'd expect, and changing functions or skipping tracks is very intuitive. Given the high-performance nature of the Z, we'd like to see the addition of steering wheel-mounted audio controls — especially on the Touring model.

Despite the rather cozy quarters inside the Z, they still managed to fit a six-disc CD changer in the dash of the Touring model. In addition to the six speakers, there is a rear-mounted subwoofer that really helps with the low end — that's a grand total of seven speakers stuffed into a rather compact interior. The two rear speakers are mounted behind the seats, but are angled up and forward. Two door-mounted speakers are complemented by two tweeters mounted high on the doors. Those seven speakers are driven by a 240-watt Bose system. Should you care to bust out those old mix tapes you made for old what's-her-name, there is a cassette player as well.

Performance: At first, the Bose system really impresses. In fact, familiar tracks will seemingly sound better as the first few riffs make their way into the cabin. It's only as the cacophony builds that the system's Achilles' heel is revealed. When listening to music that is not terribly layered, the sound quality is pleasing and slightly above average. Country music with its lack of crunching guitars sounds particularly good. But slip in that favorite Dance Hall Crashers disc with layers of midrange rhythm guitar and the sound quickly turns muddy. The more complex the music, the less definition the system delivers. The addition of a midrange control would probably help. Bass response is great no matter what you're listening to, while a boost of +4 or +5 delivers a nice punch and doesn't overwhelm the speakers thanks to the rear-mounted subwoofer. This system delivers bass you can feel without distortion. Highs remain sharp without squealing, but as the volume climbs, it all runs together like a watercolor painting left out in the rain.

Best Feature: Straightforward controls and nice bass.

Worst Feature: Lack of midrange.

Conclusion: The 350Z doesn't exactly provide the ideal listening environment for hard-core audiophiles, but the Bose system does make a nice companion to the sweet exhaust note that seems to come in just above the music as you're running through the gears. A slightly better than average system overall. — Brian Moody

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
There's no arguing that the new Z is a tremendous performance bargain. We have a long-term Track model in our fleet, and it can handle or accelerate as capably as sports cars costing twice as much. But our Track model can be a bit of a jawbreaker when tooling around L.A. with no particular place to go. The suspension tuning combines with the low-profile, 18-inch tires to bounce you around more than a Martha Stewart popular opinion poll. After experiencing our long-term car for the last six months, I'd pretty much written the Z off as a realistic daily driver. Then I spent a few hours in a Touring model and discovered it's basically a G35 coupe without a backseat — rich leather, comfortable ride quality, even an available DVD navigation system. And the best part? It still performed like a true sports car when pushed (also like a G35 coupe). This widened my view of the 350Z, but it made me ask an oft-heard question: Why not just get the Infiniti and be done with it? The price difference is negligible, and the G35 even has a (somewhat) functional rear seat. And while the Z guys will deny it to their dying day…the G35 looks better, too.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I guess this is just not the car for me. The Touring is the second version of the new Z I've driven and I just can't get excited about the car. The engine/transmission combination is nearly perfect, and handling is nearly slot-carlike — these facts I will readily admit. Still, the car overall is underwhelming. I can't warm up to the interior, and the exterior styling looks like it is just trying too hard.

I really love the G35 coupe, which is very similar to the Z. The G35 coupe seems to offer excellent handling without the harsh ride — so there I've said it, the Z is too hard for me. As one editor put it, "The Z is a no-compromises kind of car." Well I guess I'm a "compromises" kind of guy, as I'd like to eliminate the bone-crunching and jarring ride from whatever sport coupe on which I choose to spend my $30,000!

I can see how the Touring is a little softer than the Track model, but not by much. I also don't appreciate the lack of steering wheel-mounted audio controls — if one Z deserves them, it's the Touring.

Consumer Commentary

"This car is fun to drive, getting away from an automatic and back to a stick is great! I love the looks, size, automatically sealing windows and CD changer. No major complaints, though I would like a better way to mount a front license plate and something on the side to protect the doors from getting dings in parking lots. Everything is easy to use. I could go across the country with no problem." — Chasey, April 26, 2003

"I've always wanted a sports car. Saw the 350Z for the first time and fell head over heels. I ordered a red, manual transmission Touring edition from my local dealer — all in the same day. The car is everything I imagined — fast, beautiful, smooth and sexy. Driving it is a total rush! Acceleration is instant. I love the little unexpected extras, like the auto-dimming rearview mirror with garage door opener, and the holder that keeps the empty passenger seatbelt from rattling. I was surprised at the very smooth and quiet ride — not what I expected in a sports car! The seats wrap around you like a glove, and there's plenty of head- and legroom for tall drivers. I'm sold on my car. As far as I am concerned, no improvements are needed!" — Gypzy, March 3, 2003

"The wait to get this car is worth it! Great performance in a beautiful package. The handling is tremendous in 'spirited' driving and the car gives you confidence in how it will react. No surprises. The performance is my favorite aspect of the car; it pushes you back in your seat and it goes around corners as if it's on rails. I think adding two more inches to the top of the rear hatch would increase visibility." — BillR, March 3, 2003

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