It's called "The Fastest Road in the West" for a reason. Willow Springs International Raceway is known for its staggeringly high lap speeds, and it defines itself with one of the gnarliest, high-speed corner combinations anywhere in the world: a long decreasing-radius bend from Turn 8 to Turn 9. And so in an effort to preserve the world's population of auto scribes like us, Nissan has created a makeshift chicane to successfully emasculate these corners during our test of the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z. Smart move.
Fortunately there are ample opportunities elsewhere on this track to explore the car's increased performance over the standard 2009 Nissan 370Z. Namely Turn 6, which apexes at a blind crest and is followed on the downhill side by a huge midcorner bump that makes the standard Z-car wallow like a Buick LeSabre over a Wyoming frost heave. It's here that the Nismo Z sells itself.
In the Sport Z-car we're afraid. Afraid of physics. Afraid that the track will toss us — like a Buick — into the unforgiving desert. But after a few laps in the Nismo Z, we're confident. And we're faster. We keep our right foot planted all the way over the Turn 6 crest and across the bump, gaining enough speed that a few hundred yards down the track we ingloriously annihilate most of the orange cones that Nissan deployed to keep us alive. Nice.
Stiffer and Stuff Primarily this extra speed comes courtesy of the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z's all-new suspension components. Front and rear spring rates are up 15 and 10 percent, respectively. The front antiroll bar is 15 percent stiffer and the rear one is 50 percent stiffer. Front damping is increased 40 percent while rear damping is increased 140 percent. The combination yields a 15 percent increase in overall roll stiffness, the Nissan engineer tells us, making the already flat-cornering Z corner even more, well, flat.
Wider rear tires don't hurt, either. The 245/40ZR19 front and 275/35ZR19 rear Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires of the standard 370Z with Sport package have been replaced with 245/40ZR19 front and 285/35ZR19 rear Yokohama Advan Sport tires. The stickier rubber is mounted on forged-aluminum Rays wheels (19-by-9.5 inches front and 19-by-10.5 inches rear) with rims that are a half inch wider than the stock Z's cast-aluminum wheels.
Though the body of the 2007 Nissan Nismo 350Z was seam-welded like that of a racing car, the 370's only additional structural enhancement is a different front strut-tower brace. "This car's stock body is stiff enough to meet the additional demands placed on it by the Nismo hardware," says Nathaniel Mason, senior manager of product planning in Nissan's Specialty Vehicles division.
Like the Nismo 350Z, the 2009 Nismo 370Z utilizes two mass dampers between the unibody's frame rails (one front, one rear) to reduce the body vibration produced when the stiffer suspension encounters certain road surfaces. We'd tell you what the car is like without them except that we have no idea. But we can say you probably wouldn't want this structure any more rigid. Compliant it isn't.
Powertrain Tweaks Nissan engineers found an additional 18 horsepower for the 3.7-liter V6 in Nismo tune. This raises output to a nice round 350 hp, but you'll have to rev the mill to 7,400 rpm to access it. Standard versions of the engine make peak power at 7,000 rpm. Torque is up 6 pound-feet to 276 lb-ft at 5,200 rpm — the same engine speed which the standard Z engine produces its torque peak. Redline remains at 7,500 rpm.
A recalibrated ECU and true dual exhaust (difficult to accomplish with this rear suspension configuration, we understand) are solely responsible for the additional power and torque. The exhaust utilizes a crossover pipe just downstream of the primary collectors and reduces backpressure by 30 percent. What it doesn't do, however, is add any meaningful character to the Nismo Z's engine note. There's slightly more engine sound at idle, but above that speed the engine makes the same coarse, blender-on-puree racket produced by the V6 in the standard car.
This is a disappointing oversight in the base-model Z, but the lack of engaging engine sound is really unacceptable in a specialty model like the Nismo Z.
The Obvious Changes Overall length of the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z is up 7.1 inches from the standard car, most of which comes from the redesigned nose with its aero splitter, a feature that increases downforce without increasing drag. The Nismo's bodywork also features a new, larger rear wing and a functional rear aero diffuser. All the body changes combine to create 150 pounds of downforce at about 75 mph while generating less aerodynamic drag than the Nismo 350Z.
All these tweaks are still subtle enough to keep the Nismo 370Z under the radar relative to the earlier Nismo Z, which managed to look both obvious and homely. By comparison, the new car is subtle and gorgeous. Sure, there's still a big rear wing, but it's functional and not as obtrusive as some. The rest of the bodywork melds into a perfect balance of purposeful and aggressive, accentuating the Z's rear haunches and making the car faster at the same time.
There's no shortage of Nismo branding, which is sprinkled generously throughout — from the exhaust tips to the wheels to the seats. And of course there's a plaque between the seats on the rear shelf to celebrate the chassis number. Otherwise, this is largely the much-improved 370Z Touring interior we've already praised.
What It Still Needs As purposeful as the changes are to the Nismo Z, there are a few areas Nissan didn't address. Most of all, the rear differential is the same viscous unit used in the standard car. A viscous limited-slip differential is notoriously slow to react and often lacks the durability required in a car of this caliber, although it is inexpensive and proves unobtrusive in everyday driving.
As a result, the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z spins its inside rear tire when exiting tight, slow corners under high load. An autocrosser, she's not.
What's more, the differential in the sole Nismo Z available for testing in the U.S. failed halfway through our evaluation, leaving the car on jack stands. Several journalists who hadn't driven the car as extensively as we had were wondering how they were going to report on a car they had not actually driven. After the differential had been repaired later in the day, one of the assembled journalists unceremoniously answered that question by driving off the track at Turn 3 and destroying the car entirely.
Another bit that didn't make production is an engine oil cooler, a $780 part that Nissan recommends for any Z-car that will see track use, because the electronics put the engine into limp-home mode with a reduced rpm limit as soon as they detect potentially destructive oil temperatures. The Nismo Z we drove had the cooler fitted, as does our long-term 370Z. Nevertheless, the production Nismo 370Z will not get one — an odd oversight in a performance model.
Back-to-Back We drove the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z back-to-back on the street with a standard Z-car with a Sport package, and this is the experience that will separate the men from the boys when it comes to choosing which model to purchase.
On the road, the Nismo delivers more cornering grip and driver confidence, but so, too, does it transmit a lot more road harshness. What you gain in speed, you lose in compliance. If you're extreme enough to road trip in this machine, then we expect you're extreme enough to be drinking energy drinks with names like Monster, Amp, Pitbull and Beaver Buzz. And if you must energize while you drive, we suggest you also buy a sippy cup with a name like Munchkin or Mommy's Helper to keep the swill off your red-stitched Nismo seats. You're going to need it.
We see two different kinds of enthusiasts buying this car. The first is the kind who doesn't know (or care) enough about ride comfort to give a damn about how stiff his car rides. His girlfriend still thinks his spiky hair is cool and that's OK. We can appreciate this guy because there was a time when we were just like him. And it's good there's a car out there for him. The second buyer is the one who will use the car as a track-only driver. Both will appreciate the Nismo Z in different ways for the same reasons.
Get Yours Soon Nissan expects the Nismo model to account for about 5 percent of 370Z sales. The car will be available in late June with one transmission option — the six-speed manual with SynchroRev Match. Pricing will start at less than $40,000 and five colors will be available: silver, gray, black, white and red.
We've got mixed feelings about the 2009 Nissan Nismo 370Z. We can't help but love a hard-core track version of an already highly capable sports car. But a track model that lacks several critical components for track use is frustrating. Still, it's difficult to overlook the value statement it makes. This is a lot of car for the money and there aren't many comparably priced machines that can match its combination of looks and speed — especially on a track.
And Turn 6? Well, few production cars handle it as capably as the Nismo 370Z. Just watch out for Turn 3. We hear that's the real killer.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.