The “Z-car” has been with us now for forty years, but let’s be honest: most of those years were fairly disappointing. The original 240Z was a fabulous car that richly deserves its place in history, and the 1990 300ZX Turbo was a singular statement of high-speed style, but the story of the Z is too often a story of bloat, questionable visuals, and dismal V-6 engines. So it was with the 2003 350Z. As with Volkswagen’s New Beetle, adapting show-car style to an oversized platform-variant production model took a horrible aesthetic toll. The interior was dismal and the driving experience was too clearly that of a short-wheelbase G35. A ten-minute test drive six years ago was all I needed to cross the porky Zed off my personal list permanently, and not even the rather stunning-looking Nismo run-out model was sufficient incentive to change my position on the matter.
So now we have a new Z, offering a tidier packaging job and yet more power from the ever-swelling VQ engine. Is it enough? The first impressions are encouraging. The 2003 car had too much Audi TT in the styling, which is another way of saying it had too much Porsche 911 in the styling. This one’s far better, even considering the unfortunate headlamp treatment. It’s smaller, which is always good, and it’s supposedly a bit lighter. Most importantly, it seems to be thoroughly differentiated from its Infiniti cousins. Any G35 owner could sit in a Z and play the old game of “spot the hard points” on the dashboard. That game’s tougher now, and playing it is more pleasant thanks to a higher-quality interior with smaller panel gaps.
Our test vehicle featured a seven-speed automatic transmission operated by column-mounted paddle shifters. This is the Wrong Way To Do It; not only does placing the paddles on the column implicitly encourage the utterly reprehensible practice of shuffle-steering, it makes it impossible to immediately operate the transmission during high-speed driving. Drivers who manage to find the correct paddle will be rewarded with a rev-matched downshift and swift engagement, but there’s simply no compelling reason to choose an automatic Z.
As always, the horses to be found inside a Nissan VQ engine seem to be just a tiny bit smaller than those found elsewhere. Despite a rating of 332 horsepower, this Z will not stay with my much heavier Audi S5 in a straight line. I couldn’t manage to get my Porsche 993 out of storage for this test, but I rather suspect that under most conditions it would run about even with the Z despite having sixty-two fewer theoretical ponies in the corral. Nor is the big-bore VQ engine terribly pleasant to operate; it drones on the freeway and groans under full throttle.
Turning up the stereo to mask the banal thrashing from the firewall doesn’t help matters. This thirty-six-thousand-dollar car can’t match a Ford Focus for sound quality or elegance of Bluetooth/iPod integration. It’s best to shift the transmission into seventh and enjoy the outstanding fuel economy; we averaged nearly thirty mpg over the course of a thousand or so miles. The seats are also decent, with one difficulty. Leaning back against the headrests causes their metal supports to poke out from the seatback. It’s unpleasant for passengers who wish to relax on the road despite the noise and the relatively harsh ride.
A scheduling difficulty meant that there was no chance to track this Z. As a result, we can only guess about the car’s ultimate handling behavior. As a street car it’s pleasant and competent, skittish in the rain but offering decent feedback through the wheel in most circumstances. The quality of feedback and information for the control is sub-Boxster but better than what is found in a base C6 Corvette. In a pinch, this little two-seater can hustle pretty well.
The rest of the Z experience is straight out of the Nissan/Infiniti tool chest, from the bizarre seat adjustment to the unusual steering-wheel audio controls. If you are used to driving these cars, it will seem natural; if you’re a BMW driver, it will frustrate you for a while. The stereo in particular can be difficult to understand without resorting to the owner’s manual. Some commands, particularly those related to the Bluetooth system, can only be engaged through the voice-recognition system. Surely it is possible to do better than this in a new-for-2010 car?
As a single example of the breed, this automatic-transmission, low-option 370Z is a three-star car at best, but very few buyers will take a car like this. The Z formula is much more satisfying as a loaded-up six-speed, or even as a wide-mouthed Nismo Z model. Of course, those cars are priced uncomfortably close to a base Corvette, which simply murders the Nissan on every possible performance benchmark and isn’t really that far off on interior charm and feature count. Don’t forget, too, that the 370Z has already earned a reputation for on-track fragility thanks to inadequate cooling.
Since Z buyers aren’t really Vette buyers, however, this sort of thing won’t matter. Instead of comparing the Z to Chevrolet’s V-8 plastic supercar, they’ll revel in the Nissan’s aesthetic and mechanical superiority to competitors like the Genesis Coupe and Mitsubishi Eclipse. The interior may not be Audi quality, but it beats the old model hands-down. It’s priced fairly and it’s faster than an Evolution in a straight line. If the 370Z fails to touch true greatness, it also fails to truly disappoint.