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Nissan 350Z


The road is narrow, twisting, rising and falling.

A demanding road, made more demanding by sections of pavement that have been worn away and have been filled temporarily with loose metal.

Traffic has scattered some of that loose stuff on to the tarmac, making the surface trickier than it would usually be.

Sports car country you might call it, though traditional rear-drive sports cars would bang and crash their way across the bumps, slip sideways alarmingly on the loose metal-strewn sections of asphalt.

A road for a keen driver and on a later summer afternoon last week the road was being driven keenly.

I've driven unlikely cars quickly on roads like this is the hills and gullies of the central North Island - like a Holden Commodore V6 station wagon. But surprisingly good as it was - the longer wheelbase and independent rear suspension worked wonders for the VT/VX Commodore wagon - the big Holden couldn't hold a candle to this mount.

You wouldn't expect it to, really, just as you wouldn't expect Nissan's new 350Z sports car to carry a vintage oak wardrobe. In fact, the 350Z is not much good as a load carrier: two occupants - driver and passenger - and maybe a set or two of golf clubs and some soft luggage stowed fore and aft of the suspension tower brace which spans the luggage area.

Nissan calls the 350Z stunning, and that's a fair description. Its looks will invite extremes of opinion but they certainly make an impact with their echoes of the last 300 ZX of the 1990s and the car that started the Nissan sports car legend, the Datsun 240Z coupe of 1969.

That original Z had some of the Austin-Healey 3000 about it character - in-line six cylinder engine, masses of sports car character. Like the big British roadster the Japanese coupe proved its mettle in rallying, notably in the gruelling East African Safari which became a sort of unofficial Datsun accessory.

The legend was progressively watered down by an increasingly softer set of follow-on Z-cars, culminating in the poorly proportioned 300 ZX two-plus-two of the 1980s: though I have fond memories of a two-seat version of that turbocharged V6 coupe with its prodigious acceleration and far better handling and road manners than it's ever given credit for. Racing driver Robbie Francevic - then a Nissan dealer - used one as a road car for several years which is a good enough credential for me.

The new Nissan Z car, pushed by the company's French boss Carlos Ghosn, is intended to resurrect the appeal of the original 240Z and to usher in an era of new excitement in Nissan cars.

Design teams in the USA, Japan and Germany worked on the car. Nissan says, using the currently fashionable motor industry jargon, that their task was to incorporate the original 240Z's DNA - passion, performance, practicality and value for money - in the new car. I never feel comfortable with inanimate objects being described as having DNA, but I know what Nissan is driving at.

On the strength of two brief drives in the 350Z last week - and looking at the attractive prices - I think Nissan's designers have succeeded in their brief.

I've never driven a Datsun 240Z - it was the last car outgoing motoring writer Warren Walsh tested for the now-defunct 8 o'clock newspaper before I took over the job in 1971 - but I did ride in one while Walsh showed me the standard road test route (mapped out by the former doyen of NZ motoring writers Des Mahoney). It certainly had plenty of sports car feel.

So too does the 350Z. Its steering is beautifully direct, much more direct than you imagine. I've always considered HSV steering to be fairly precise and accurate but on the journey back to Auckland the road test Clubsport R8's felt woolly by comparison to the 350Z's.

Roadholding, borrowing Nissan's word, is stunning. The car hung on no matter what - and despite the loose gravel atop the tarmac - helped by the standard traction control.

It turned left/right/left like an extension of the driver's mind and never once felt as if it would break away or sledge on.

Ride was firm but not jarring. Road noise was moderately high, especially on chip-sealed surfaces.

The six-speed manual gearbox in the Track-spec version - 19-inch diameter wheels, bigger Brembo brakes - moved swiftly and smoothly between ratios. It's not the lightest shifter, and you can feel the gears, but it's quick and unerringly accurate.

The five-speed auto (in the Touring-spec model) proved just as satisfying and can be shifted manually. It would be just the thing for Auckland commuting, though you lose the big wheels (18-inch are standard) and the brakes aren't as secure as the beefy Brembos.

The sports-style seats - which do take on some 240Z DNA with their styling and colour - offer excellent support. Nissan has thought about the passenger's comfort in high-g cornering. The driver's seat has cut-away upper bolsters to allow freedom to steer the car. The passenger gets strong bolstering all the way up the sides of the seat.

Driving position is excellent, low-sited in true sports car fashion.

Both models run the same 24-valve naturally aspirated quad camshaft 3.5-litre V6 which develops 206kW of power at 6200rpm and 363Nm of torque at 4800rpm.

It has a glorious sound both inside the cockpit and out, and produces sparkling performance - around six seconds to 100km/h, says US magazine Car & Driver.

Both 350Z model's standard equipment includes leather upholstery; front, side and curtain airbags; automatic climate-control air-conditioning; seven-speaker Bose Compact Disc sound system; and power windows, door locks and side mirrors.

The track adds a body kits that includes underbody diffusers, Vehicle Dynamic Control system, the Brembo brakes and wider, 245/45R rear tyres (the fronts are 225/45R). The Touring has 235/50R rear tyres and 225/50R fronts.

The final piece of the DNA is value for money and Nissan seems right on the button.

The Touring costs $64,990 and the Track $67,990.

On initial, brief, acquaintance we agree with Nissan's summation: the 350Z is stunning. Our only reservations were some of the plastic items in the cockpit trim, notably the fiddly door on the dashboard cubbyhole. It didn't look too durable and we understand it's in for a redesign.

That and the odd minor rattle and seat creak aside we can only say 'well done Nissan' and stand in line for an extended road test.

Story by Mike Stock. Photos by Mike Stock and Nissan.


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