Hunkered down inside the Nissan 350Z Roadster convertible with the top up, you know the way a clam must feel when it looks outside its shell. The top is screwed down like one of those heavy-duty chop jobs on a lead sled of yore. While claustrophobics need not apply, the Z’s powerplant’s guttural moan vibrates through the floorboards and around the metal carcoon in a most sensually satisfying manner. Open the lid and this is what a proper sports car is all about: pure, unadulterated exhilaration.
Of course, there’s nothing “pure” about the 350Z’ looks; the coupe could have been penned by a Cadillac designer on acid. Fortunately, the Z convertible is a different (if equally fantastic) beast. If you have a thing for 1957 and 1958 Porsche Speedsters but want something altogether more modern, this is your scene. Once the top drops, the Z’s basic shape is clean enough that most of us will forgive Nissan for the lid’s afterthought deportment.
Excuse my obsessive-compulsive digression, but I’d like to point out that the lamentable door handles that debuted with the new 350Z remain in situ. The handles– which wouldn’t look out of place on a cheap chest of drawers– ruin the clean concave sweep of the upper portion of the car’s body. What’s more, they’ve been known to open when massaged by automatic car wash rollers. On the other hand, the rear taillights are minor works of art; the red and white plastics fit together like a Piet Mondrian painting.
Let’s face it: the Z’s target audience is getting on a bit. Perhaps that explains why Nissan’s logo design department seems to think 350Z buyers have Alzheimer’s. There’s a big Z emblem on the lower inside doorsills, a Z emblem on the (rear) wind blocker, a Z emblem on the steering wheel and even Z emblems on the floor mats.
It might also account for the fact that the Z’s cockpit is perfect for aging baby boomers. All the controls and switchgear have an oversized funky, chunky feel that’s as practical as it is stylish. The drop top roadster also has two speedometers, an analog gauge in the main instrument panel (for the nearsighted) and a digital unit in a cluster of three instruments in the center of the dashboard (for the far-sighted).
Staying with the theme, baby boomers can adjust the Z’s instrument pod up or down for comfort and visibility; a feature pioneered by Porsche’s long defunct, long nosed 928. And while the driver’s seat lacks lumbar support and a lift function, it comes with plenty of lateral bolstering and enough power adjustment for the most delicate spine. The power top could use some Viagra; it goes up or down in about 25 chronologically challenged seconds.
Thankfully, the 350Z’s heart is young, fit and free– well, free revving. Pistonheads might pine for a bit more than the 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V6’ 300 horses, but it’s all about torque people. And we’re torquing 260 ft.-lbs. of twist at 4800 rpm. That’s enough power to motorvate the relatively heavy roadster (3400 pounds) to sixty from rest in 5.8 seconds. Engine thrust in second and third gears is enough to dislocate a bobblehead’s, er, head. AND you get great big earfuls of the Z’s characteristic moan-into-wail aria for no extra charge.
The 350Z sits upon Nissan’s (and Infiniti’s) ubiquitous FM platform. This high fidelity set-up offers an aluminum multi-link suspension (front and rear) and an engine position set so far back in the chassis that the M stands for “mid-engine.” In fact, the weight balance is more like 60/40, despite low weight, high tech solutions like a carbon fiber drive shaft. Although it shares a platform with Nissan's company sedans, the 350Z a wonderfully balanced, perfectly poised pavement partner.
The “Enthusiast” edition’s big ass rubber helps the convertible grip like a hooker’s thighs. Optional 18-inch aluminum wheels, not only help the “bling” factor, but also do wonders for the unsprung weight equation. The bottom line: the Z roadster’s combination of grip, go and near neutral handling allows for a lot of, um, driver error. When rain slicked highways induced a bit of looseness in the rear end department, simple counter-steering got the Z car back on-line.
Yup: the 350Z roadster convertible is ready for its close-up. After driving this $35k rice rocket ship (plus $90 for carpeted floor mats emblazoned with the aforementioned Z emblem), it’s hard to believe that anyone other than an almost-died-in-the-woods Porsche aficionado would want to pony up the extra money for a less powerful Boxster S or Audi TT. Still, at this level, in this category, it’s all about emotion. The 350Z roadster may ultimately lack the Germans’ stoicism, but for some of us, that’s a very good thing indeed.