Nissan's new Z car stays true to its sports car heritage

Sunday, April 5, 2009
Nissan thoroughly revamped its long-running, two-seat, rear-wheel-drive sports car for 2009 with the 370Z. (Associated Press)

The look on the man's face said it all as he asked: Is that the new Z car? He was smitten, so much so he couldn't take his eyes off the 2009 370Z that I had parked at the curb.

The reverential reaction is common for Nissan's new-generation Z car. People who know and appreciate the Z as an affordable sports car dating back to the 1970s were unabashed in their lust for the new model.

It's the new, tightly sculpted styling and the wonderful V-6 engine sounds that get to them first. All the details that Nissan officials addressed in the 2009 car -- from more readable gauges and new, most-powerful engine to a repositioned rear crossbar that makes the cargo area more usable -- simply add to their delight.

Nissan thoroughly revamped its long-running, two-seat, rear-wheel drive sports car for 2009 and in the process improved on virtually everything in the car.

The Japan-based automaker also didn't add much to the base pricing, meaning the new Z provides good value and plenty of driving fun for the money. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $30,625 for a base Z car with 332-horsepower V-6 and six-speed manual transmission.

The 370Z with new, seven-speed automatic starts at $31,925.

Prices are midrange among sport coupes. The 2009 Mazda RX-8 starts at $27,105, while the 2009 Audi TT coupe starts at $42,895.

Z car prices include automatic climate control, key-free entry and ignition, leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, high-intensity discharge headlights, adjustable steering column with gauges attached to the column so the steering wheel never obscures the driver's view of the gauges, and the addition of standard curtain air bags.

Standard safety items also include antilock brakes, electronic stability control and anti-whiplash head restraints.

The Z car is Nissan's long-running two-seat sports car, but it was overshadowed last year by the debut of the company's exotic GT-R two-seater.

Indeed, someone looking to the 370Z to be a stripped-down version of the $77,000-plus GT-R is likely to be disappointed, as Nissan officials studiously kept the 2009 Z car true to its heritage. There are some GT-R parts in there, to be sure. But the GT-R's sophisticated double clutch system and turbo engine aren't in the Z.

Fact is, the 370Z is closer to the Infiniti G37S coupe than it is to GT-R. For example, the Infiniti's 3.7-liter, double overhead cam V-6 is under the 370Z hood, hence the name change from last year's 350Z to today's 370Z.

It's a sweet engine, giving the 2009 Z more power than any other Z car has had. The 332 horses are up from 306 in the 350Z.

Combine the new power with wider and slightly shorter length Z car and a weight that's cut by up to 50 pounds and you can begin to appreciate the attention to detail that went into boosting performance and fun in the 370Z.

The car rockets forward, with Nissan noting that the 0-to-60-miles-an-hour time has been shaved to about 5 seconds. This is faster than an earlier 350Z car with Nissan's Nismo motor sports parts on it.

Torque peaks at 270 foot-pounds at 5,200 rpm, but there's good midrange "oomph" from the engine to get the 370Z scooting powerfully out of corners and accelerating strongly in traffic.

The test car was a base model with manual transmission, whose gearing begged for spirited driving. But what impressed as well was the ease and smoothness at which the engine and transmission worked together in more leisurely drives where the driver doesn't push into the high revs.

Were it not for the considerable road noise conveyed by the base, 18-inch tires, I'm sure I could have enjoyed the engine sounds, too. But as it was, bystanders got the most benefit of the engine tunes, while I found them mixed/muted by road noise.

It's not surprising that premium gasoline is recommended for the V-6, and I managed just 18.9 miles per gallon in combined city/highway travel. The federal government fuel economy estimate for the 370Z with manual transmission is 18/26 mpg. Note the 2009 Audi TT with turbocharged four cylinder is rated by the federal government at 23/31 mpg.

Of course, true sports cars require impeccable handling, too, and the new Z car excels.

The hood, rear deck lid and roof now are primarily aluminum. This reduces weight and essentially helps push the car's heft down closer to the ground, thus improving stability.

The car's height also was reduced a fraction of an inch as the roofline was made more streamlined.

And, with new front wishbone suspension, a number of new, lighter-weight suspension parts and other changes, the 370Z drives like a dream, with the driver firmly in control. The car feels planted to the pavement, moving purposefully, predictably and composed through slaloms even at higher and higher speeds.

The ride is firm and controlled, but not harsh except on sharp road bumps where passengers can get a sharp jolt.

Steering is so well set up, that I could position the wheel at the start of a long sweeping curve and never have to move the wheel again all the way through the curve.

Brakes are strong and provide consistent, ready response.

An extra benefit of the Z car is its reliability record, which is reported by Consumer Reports as "excellent." In fact, the Nissan Z is a recommended buy of the well-known consumer publication.

One nit, though: The little orange dots in the far left gauge that form a line to denote the level of fuel in the tank are gimmicky.

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