Nissan's Z sports car has been part of the American automotive scene for almost 40 years, and while rivals like the Dodge Stealth, Mitsubishi 3000GT, and Toyota Supra have come and gone, the mighty Z soldiers on -- but when there's no competition, the champ tends to get a little flabby. For 2009, Nissan has put the Z through an intensive workout. Compared to last year's 350Z, the trim new Z has a new shape, new engine, and a new cabin. But is it any better? Read on. Estimated prices: $30,625 base, $33,625 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 18 MPG city, 26 MPG highway.
First Glance: A change in direction
My first Nissan Z-car experience was a ride in my Uncle Richard's Datsun 240Z. I was three, and while my view out the window was limited to clouds and tree-tops, I remember voicing my opinion: "We're beating everybody around!" (My uncle's reply: "Some people are beating us, too, you know." Rich, you were such a spoil-sport.) Later, my Uncle Ben became a die-hard Z-man. I'll never forget when he handed me the keys to his 1985 300ZX Turbo -- at 200 horsepower it was the most powerful thing I'd ever driven, and I felt like the king of the world. Unlike Uncle Richard, Uncle Ben really did try to beat everyone around, and the 300ZX gave him little trouble although he flogged it mercilessly for 211,000 miles and then wrapped it around a tree.
2009 is a banner year for the Z, the biggest changes being the new motor and the new shape. (Incidentally, the changes only apply to the coupe -- the 2009 Z convertible is the same 350Z you know and love.) The 370Z is both shorter and wider than the 350Z it replaces, and the profile has been sculpted to resemble the original 240Z of 1970 -- long hood, flipped-up quarter windows, and a more pronounced hatchback shape. Cool details abound, like "Z" fender badges that double as turn signal flashers (link goes to photo). I like the new shape-- it loses some of the blobby anonymity of last year's 350Z. And the new styling has some real advantages in terms of the Z's interior -- but it also causes some serious problems.
In the Driver's Seat: More space, less visibility
The first thing I noticed when I slid behind the Z's wheel was that there really wasn't a whole lot of sliding involved. The new Z's cabin doesn't feel cramped the way the old Z did; chalk that up to the new car's additional width and airfoil-shaped roof. As with past Zs, the gauge pod moves up and down with the steering column, although you still can't telescope the steering wheel in and out and the silver-colored multi-function display has washout and glare problems. The Z's two seats feature slightly different shapes; the driver's seat is designed for good support and free arm movement, while the right seat is designed to help the passenger cling on for dear life. The trunk is even tinier than the old Z's. It's easier to pack now that the rear strut brace has been eliminated, but the big suspension mounts still give the trunk a wasp-waist shape.
The biggest problem with the new design is visibility, or lack thereof. The view out the short windshield is good, and the big side mirrors cover lane-change blind spots nicely, but backing out of a parking space is harrowing -- you simply cannot see anything. I don't mean you can't see much; I mean you can't see anything. It's bad enough that Nissan ought to fit a wide-angle rear-view camera to the Z. They don't, although they do fit six airbags, automatic climate control, keyless push-button ignition, and 18" alloy wheels to the base model 370Z. The uplevel 370Z Touring gets heated suede-and-leather seats, a nicer Bose stereo, Bluetooth, and an auto-dimming mirror, with an optional navigation system.
On the Road: Brilliant as ever
The 370Z has the traditional Z feel that I've grown to love: Heavy, solid and very fast. The new 3.7 liter V6's 332 hp and 270 lb-ft out-powers the outgoing Z by 26 hp and 2 lb-ft, and the new car weighs slightly less than the old one. My observed fuel economy was 18.9 MPG - same as last year's Z. My test car had the $3,000 (est.) Sport Handling package, with stiffer springs, bigger brakes, limited-slip rear differential, front and rear spoilers, and gorgeous 19" RAYS wheels. The ride is hard, but it takes the edge off the sharpest bumps. It's noisy, though, with lots of gear whine from the manual transmission.
Lousy conditions on the Top Secret Curvy Test Road meant I could only do a minimal amount of flogging, but what flogging I did was a hell of a lot of fun. And I was amazed at how easy the Z was to drive on slick roads -- I credit the electronic stability control system, which comes standard.
One cool new gizmo is the 6-speed manual transmission's rev-matching feature, included with the Sport Package. When you downshift, the engine automatically revs the engine to match the gear you're about to select, so you get a perfectly smooth shift with no snatch or jerk. That not only makes you feel like an awesome driver, it also avoids sudden weight transfer, which could cause a loss of control if you're hot-dogging in the curves. (Skilled drivers do this manually by using all three pedals at once, a trick known as heel-and-toe). For the two-pedal crowd, the 370Z gets a 7-speed automatic in place of last year's 5-speed, which improves power delivery as well as fuel economy.
Journey's End: Best Z in years, but still not all that practical
The new 370Z would be at the head of the pack, if there was still a pack to be the head of. The Mazda RX-8 comes close; it's more practical but its high-revving rotary engine makes for a very different driving experience. The Z is almost $20k cheaper than my favorite sports-car bargain, the Chevrolet Corvette, which is faster in a straight line but not as precise in the curves. And it's less than half the price of Nissan's own supercar, the twin-turbo all-wheel-drive GT-R. Don't laugh -- the GT-R may flatten the 370Z in terms of acceleration and grip, but I had more fun driving the 370Z.
Funnily enough, the 370Z's best rival is its luxury-branded cousin, the Infiniti G37 coupe. The two cars are closely related and the G37 is every bit as rewarding to drive. While the base-model G costs $6k more than the base-model Z, the price gap shrinks rapidly if you compare the G against the similarly-equipped 370Z Touring, and it becomes almost negligible if you compare a Sport Package-equipped 370Z Touring against the G37 Sport. The G has the added advantage of a back seat, and as much as I admire the look of the 370Z, I prefer the elegant lines of the G37. And the G37 isn't nearly as difficult to back out of a parking space.
As much as I enjoyed the 370Z, the hard, noisy ride and lack of rear visibility would make me think twice about buying one -- it's just not a very practical car. Even so, the 370Z is, I think, the best Z in years -- fast, fun, and surprisingly affordable. I loved it. -- Aaron Gold