The first thing that comes to mind when we stare down the nose of our 2008 Nissan 350Z Enthusiast Coupe test car is that it looks like a life-size toy. The sporty yet still modern exterior design strikes a successful balance between aggressiveness and cuteness. The flared fenders, 18-inch wheels and dual exhaust let onlookers know the car means business, yet the front fascia manages to keep a friendly grin. Even six years into this generation, the Z still turns heads — especially in Nogaro Red, a bright crimson that puts fire engines and the lacquer red soles of Christian Louboutin shoes to shame.
But unlike some midpriced sport coupes, the Z isn't a blown-up version of an attractive yet disappointingly hollow die-cast model. Beneath the comely exterior lies a pretty darn good sports car. The Z's rear-wheel-drive platform, powerful V6, nicely balanced weight distribution and responsive handling make available to the masses what is normally reserved for wealthy enthusiasts: a genuine high-performance sports car. And although newer competitors have reared their heads — some offering more horsepower and some touting more luxury at similar price points — the Nissan 350Z still offers one of the highest performance-to-dollar ratios on the market.
Nissan isn't big on offering many options à la carte; rather, a particular model usually comes ready to roll in a variety of trim levels. In the case of the Z, our Enthusiast coupe is a step up from the base model and comes equipped with features that improve driving dynamics, such as traction control and a limited-slip differential. It's not by any means in the same league as the top-of-the line Nismo, which boasts its own sport suspension, big Brembo brakes and a specially tuned exhaust, but the Enthusiast coupe starts at nearly $8,500 less.
Powering the 2008 Nissan 350Z Enthusiast Coupe is a 3.5-liter DOHC V6 engine that makes 306 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque. It's paired with a six-speed manual transmission (although an optional five-speed automatic is also available) and a standard limited-slip rear differential. It uses an independent, multilink front and rear suspension with stabilizer bars and strut tower braces on both ends — both of which help reduce body roll and keep the car stable around demanding corners. Front and rear vented disc brakes come standard with ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution.
In our tests, that amounts to an impressive 0-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds and a quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 103.6 mph. That's an awfully close second to the Nismo's 0-60-mph time of 5.1 seconds and its quarter-mile run of 13.6 seconds at the same speed. The Enthusiast coupe also zips through the slalom at a respectable average of 68.4 mph. Braking performance is quite good, with a 60-0 stopping distance of 112 feet. Fuel economy was disappointing, however. Against the EPA combined figure of 20 mpg, we averaged 15.5 mpg. Chances are you'll do better — we must admit that we're fully enjoying that muscular V6.
All those numbers tie into a nimble, albeit somewhat heavy package. The clutch takes a bit of getting used to, as the point of engagement seems high. But once the driver is acclimated, the Z launches off the line in a consistent, predictable way — although it's not what you'd call super snappy. When the temptation strikes to let it out, the 350Z offers plenty of power at all revs, although it seems to favor the upper range of the tachometer. On twists and turns in the road, the car feels nicely balanced and, in line with expectations for a rear-wheel-drive sports car, turn-in is crisp and responsive. Steering, however, feels unnecessarily heavy, and there is a tendency for the back end to come out a bit around corners during particularly spirited driving. In those respects, the Z's handling doesn't fare quite as well as, say, the Mazda RX-8. If the Z were lighter, it would be even more nimble and responsive.
Like most performance cars, the 350Z's seats offer firm support over cushiness, and side bolsters keep both driver and passenger relatively stable in the twisties. The manual adjustments on the seats are somewhat cumbersome, although pretty typical of the usual cranks and levers found on non-power seats. Drivers on either the taller or more petite side may find the range of adjustability somewhat limited, especially when it comes to seat height. The knee pads on either side of the center console are a surprisingly nice touch, which longer-legged occupants are sure to appreciate.
The manual short shifter gives an authentic sporty feel, but it is quite stiff, as is the clutch pedal. As such, be prepared for a sore arm and leg after commuting in stop-and-go traffic if you make the 350Z your own.
The Z is relatively quiet inside, although there is some road and wind noise at highway speeds. The engine gets rather vocal at full throttle, though this throatiness is expected and even preferred by most, as it gives the feeling of a closer connection to the car.
The Z's controls are well laid out and easy to navigate. The three-pod gauge cluster is connected to the top of the steering column, so it moves with the tilt steering wheel to ensure visibility of the instrumentation. Unfortunately, the wheel doesn't telescope, which can prove uncomfortable for drivers who need to sit either far back or very close.
The standard six-speaker audio system with radio and CD player provides a good range of both volume and sound quality, although an auxiliary/MP3 jack is conspicuously missing. Lighted audio controls on the steering wheel are also a plus, although they feel a tad fragile — especially the toggle switches that control the volume and track selection.
One of the most glaring downsides to the 350Z is its lack of storage space. Strangely, there is no glove compartment on the passenger side. Instead, there is a small, squarish compartment in the center of the dash (although those who opt for navigation lose that space), and a couple of slender cubbies along the back panel behind the front seats. Cupholders in the center console are adequate, although the ones in the door will only hold slim bottles or cans.
In the rear cargo area, a wide suspension brace, while structurally necessary, takes a considerable chunk out of the trunk space. Small, low-profile bags or packages can slip beneath the brace, and a medium-size suitcase will have to sit sideways, either in front of or behind the brace. A bag of golf clubs will fit diagonally, but only with the woods removed and strategically placed.
In government crash tests, the 2008 Nissan 350Z Coupe received a top five-star side-impact rating. In frontal-impact testing, it received four stars. Optional side and curtain airbags offer occupants additional protection.
Design/Fit and Finish
When it comes to affordably priced performance cars, it's hard to have it all. With such a respectable powertrain and well-sorted chassis, there is little room left over in the 350Z for opulence. The exterior manages to appear solid and well put together; plastic air intakes and trim pieces look endearing, not cheap.
But the biggest telltale sign of the car's price is its interior. Although materials, textures and durability seem to be greatly improved over those of previous years, the inside is still mostly riddled with hard plastic. And the fabric seats, while supportive, aren't particularly plush.
Who should consider this vehicle
Sports car enthusiasts looking for the performance capabilities of more expensive cars at a moderate price should find the 2008 Nissan 350Z Enthusiast Coupe tempting. Also, professional and family types yearning to add a shiny weekend plaything to the garage alongside their daily drivers would be wise to consider Nissan's value-packed sports car.