Back in 2002, on a whim, my father bought the recently re-introduced Nissan 350Z for the simple reason that he loved the way the car looked. He then proceeded to rarely drive it because it was loud, rough, and generally lacking in refinement, and sold it after only a year and a half. I haven’t driven a Z since. Nissan has reportedly worked to smooth over the car’s rough edges, most notably with a redesign for the 2009 model year. So another look seemed in order.
The Z gained some curves with its redesign, rendering it prettier to some eyes, more bulbous to others, and still clearly a Z to all—but it seemed insufficiently changed to re-ignite the car’s sales. Then again, the segment is dormant. Among two-seaters, only the Chevrolet Corvette outsold the Z last year, and not by much (12,624 vs. 10,215). The third-place Miata trailed both by a sizable margin. The tested car’s $3,030 Sport Package includes a limited-slip differential, beautiful 19” RAYS forged alloy wheels, an understated rear spoiler, and a chin spoiler that gives the road noisy kisses when tempted by the slightest dip.
The Z’s interior was inarguably improved by the redesign, with a more upscale appearance and upgraded materials. The center stack, similar to that in the G37, is now upholstered in a very good imitation of leather. It’s so close at hand that the controls on the steering wheel are hardly necessary. But too many interior parts remain a silver-painted plastic that would appear much less out of place in a Versa than in a $40,000 sports car.
The instruments, a perennial Nissan aesthetic weakness, are especially hard on the eyes. Why the compulsion to put rectangular displays within round holes? And to employ orange lighting? Orange is also employed for the perforated leather on the seats and the faux suede on the doors, but it proved quite popular in these locations.
The Z’s driver seat is comfortable, but a little short on lateral support. The Infiniti G37’s power-adjustable bolsters would be welcome here. The view forward from the low seats includes a fair amount of hood.
The view rearward is nearly nonexistent, between the wide C-pillars and mail slot of a rear window. Even with a rearview camera backing out of parking spaces proves a dicey proposition.
The cargo area under the rear part of the hatch is barely tall enough to hold an upright gallon of milk, which can be counted on to slide around all the way home unless restrained by a cargo net (not provided with the tested car).
With the redesign, the 350Z received a bump in its engine’s displacement. At 3.7 liters, the VQ is now quite large for a six. Even without the benefit of direct injection, power output is now 332 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. Not the 400+ available in a Camaro or Mustang, but the Z, tipping the scales at just over 3,200 pounds, is considerably lighter than those cars. So the big six feels plenty muscular even well short of its redline. A NISMO variant adds 18 horses, a firmer suspension, and less subtle body kit, but these mods add to the cars strengths rather than addressing its weaknesses. The latter tend to be subjective—so your opinion of them may well vary. An exhaust that roars loudly at the slightest provocation drowns out any singing by the mechanical bits under the Z’s hood. Without much in the way of character, this roar suggests brute force rather than mechanical sophistication. Which, it turns out, fits the overall character of the car.
The 370Z’s manual transmission’s short-throw shifter and clutch require meaty inputs. Though the former feels satisfyingly solid and precise, smooth upshifts in casual driving require concentration. Yet smooth downshifts couldn’t be easier. Thanks to an innovative rev-matching feature, engine rpm automagically almost instantly increase by the appropriate amount. Unfortunately, the automatic bump in engine speed is accompanied by an immediate exponential increase in exhaust noise. Appropriate during spirited driving. But a bit of a shock until you get used to it, and less welcome when slowing for a stoplight, where you’ll feel the (quite possibly imagined) disapproving stares of everyone around you. The feature can be turned off, but a better solution would be a variable exhaust like those offered in the Corvette and some Porsches.
The 370Z’s steering similarly calls for meaty inputs. Partly as a result, the car continues to feel much larger and heavier than it actually is. Though the steering is quite quick, the Z doesn’t feel agile. Instead, clearly a real man’s car, it must be muscled through curves. This said, there’s less steady state understeer than in the past, and the car feels more balanced. Unless you get on the gas. Like the related Infiniti G37, the Z has a tendency to snap oversteer, especially when fitted with the limited-slip differential. In a quick-and-dirty fix, the stability control is programmed to intervene early with a heavy hand. A better fix would be rear suspension geometry that yields the sort of progressive power oversteer that makes GM’s rear-wheel-drive performance cars a joy to drive.
Road noise remains a Z weakness, with a hum and/or roar emanating from the rear tires on concrete road surfaces. Ride quality, on the other hand, is much improved over the 350Z early in its run. While the suspension is certainly firm, it takes the edge off road imperfections and no longer tortures the car’s occupants. Evenly spaced expansion joints at highway speeds can provoke rhythmic bouncing, but the amplitude is much less (and so much less likely to induce nausea) than before.
The highly-optioned tested 2011 370Z Touring lists for $42,775 after some recent price increases. Without the nav, illuminated door sills, and $580 in high-performance brake pads, (but with the Touring’s standard leather and BOSE audio) it would be $40,055. A similarly equipped 426-horsepower Camaro SS lists for about $3,500 less. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool widens the gap to about $4,400. You’ll save even more with a Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which is about $10,500 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $11,500 less afterwards.
And the related G37? About $2,800 more before the feature adjustment, but about $900 LESS afterwards. You’re not paying extra for the premium brand in this case—or even the rear seats. Looking to Germany, only Porsche still offers a two-seat hardtop sports car, and a similarly-equipped Cayman over $30,000 more. A BMW 135i lists for almost exactly the same price as the Z. After adjusting for feature differences, the BMW lists for about $2,500 less.
The Nissan 370Z is much nicer inside and much easier to live with than the 350Z my old man briefly owned. He’d drive this one more and hold onto it longer. But the Z’s still not easy to live with. On a track or an especially challenging road, the Z might prove a delight. On most public roads, though, the car continues to feel muscle-bound and out of its element. Either of Mazda’s sports cars feel much more agile, but are far less powerful. The Germans go about their business with much less noise and much more finesse, but none offer a two-seat coupe for a remotely similar price. Prefer a little more luxury and a lot less noise? Then the related Infiniti G37 Coupe could be the way to go. Or, if you’re willing to trade features and refinement for a lower price, Hyundai’s Genesis Coupe. If, on the other hand, you’ve been seeking the extroverted macho functionality-be-damned flavor of a Camaro, but in a more compact package, then the 370Z definitely delivers.
Nissan provided the test vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car pricing and reliability data.
Photos courtesy Michael Karesh