Nissan 350Z Coupe & Roadster

words - Joe Kenwright
More muscle gives 350Z a new lease of life against stiffened competition

Local Launch
Tasmania

What we liked
>> Design and structural integrity
>> Vice-free handling, improved ride
>> Benchmark engine

Not so much
>> Roadster's tight headroom, poor rear vision
>> Styling starting to date
>>No VDC on Touring models

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
>> Engine, drivetrain and chassis: 4.0/5.0
>> Packaging and practicality: 2.5/5.0
>> Safety: 3.5/5.0
>> Behind the wheel: 4.5/5.0
>> X-factor: 4.0/5.0


OVERVIEW
The reborn 350Z released locally in February 2003 has been success for Nissan Australia. Selling in 95 countries and with 160,000 sales globally, Australia is the fifth biggest market for the sportscar after the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK. Given Australia's importance, improvements now reach local shores very quickly.

The new VQ35HR engine (HR standing for High Revolution, High Response) covers the main mechanical area that had yet to receive major attention since release. Even if it has arrived late in the model life (and is likely to be the last major change before this series is replaced), it is possibly the single most important mechanical change in the history of the Zed. It nails the muscle sports positioning of the 350 without resorting to forced induction -- hence it raises the bar while preserving the model's sophistication and superb linear response.

Although on-paper specifications change very little, the new engine features 80 per cent all-new components. Those with a historical bent might identify remarkable parallels between this new 350Z engine and Porsche's MY84 Carrera 3.2 upgrade which was also 80 per cent new. The new 350Z engine is so good that it now warrants comparison with some of the latest Porsche engines in delivery and smoothness.

The 350Z is one of the biggest selling sportscars in Australia. The latest changes are intended to keep the 350Z at the front of the pack, especially when it marks the first time that 350Z auto and manual models share the same full-strength powerplant since 2003.

The profile of the 350Z buyer highlights why this upgrade is so important. Over 62 per cent of 350Z buyers specify manual transmission, one of the highest in the business. The split between the manual-only Track specification and the manual/auto Touring models is 40:60. In fact, there were so few buyers for the auto Track version that it has been dropped.

The coupe outsells the roadster in a ratio of 68:32. For a 'canvas'-top design, roadster sales remain quite high and are expected to grow with the next model which Nissan says will offer a folding hard coupe roof. The roadster has a strong female buyer base.

The more brutal power delivery and responsive rear-drive chassis as welcome as both are, have implications for such a broad buyer base. 

The sales pattern of the 350Z highlights the fickleness of the sportscar market. Following the 2003 launch as a coupe only, the 350Z sold 1662 cars in its first year as pent-up demand sparked a buying spree. The arrival of the roadster maintained sales at a steady 951 in 2004 before they slid to 643 in 2005 and 533 in 2006, despite the arrival of the MY06 update.

Already, 2007 sales are on track to exceed the 2006 figure as the overall sports segment grows by 10.8 per cent over 2006.

Although Nissan's official launch for the upgrade is May 2007, stocks came on-line in mid-April to generate 43 sales of the new model before its official launch. Despite the extensive engine changes, prices have not changed.

The 350Z's replacement is due in late 2008/early 2009 and while this is expected to be the last major change before then, Nissan will almost certainly introduce special editions to keep the model on the boil until the very end. It is worth noting that the final upgrades of icon sports models tend to achieve collector status in later years.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
The big change is the same high performance engine, now standard across automatic and manual models, for a meaner, more consistent sportscar pedigree no matter which model is chosen.

The new engine delivers 230kW/358Nm compared to 221kW/353Nm for the previous manual and 206kW/363Nm for the previous auto. Along with the stronger low-speed torque and higher rev limit, it has changed the character of the whole range into a more flexible and relaxed city cruiser with instant muscle on demand. The good news is that prices haven't changed and equipment is exactly as for the MYO6 upgrade (see here).

The entry level Zed is the Coupe Touring at $62,990 for the six-speed manual and $64,990 for the five-speed auto. The main features Nissan lists for this model include: five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels, front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, traction control, leather trim, electrically-adjustable and heated front seats, single-zone climate control, six-CD 240-watt Bose audio with steering wheel controls, Xenon headlights and cruise control.

The Coupe Track adds Vehicle Dynamic Control (Nissan's ESP), front spoiler, rear under diffuser, rear spoiler, Brembo brakes and optional Burnt Orange seats with certain external colours. It comes only as a manual for $67,990. The gold calipers and bigger discs of the Brembos are a splendid sight through the sculptured five-spoke alloys.

There are only two Roadster versions. Although both shadow the relevant Coupe specification, both lose the curtain airbags for obvious reasons. The Roadster Touring comes only as an auto at $73,990 while the Roadster Track (which also loses the Coupe Track's spoilers), costs the same. Both can be optioned with the Burnt Orange seats in certain colours.

What is missing is of greater interest. Drivers will notice a large centre dash bin where a satnav display screen would normally sit, only Nissan is unable to source a suitable unit for Australia. This in turn blocks access to MP3 compatibility which is part of the 350Z's DVD and satnav package offered in the USA and Europe.

The model's age is also showing with the absence of dual-zone climate control, a feature more critical in this very tight cabin environment where there is no room to escape someone else's heating and ventilation requirements.

Because the global mix doesn't allow VDC on entry models, it can't even be ordered as an option at Touring level.

Nissan offers some great options for the Zed including a full Bilstein sports suspension kit, several rear spoiler styles for the Coupe and 18-inch alloys. New colours over the 2006 model include a three layer Solar Orange with subtle green highlights, Carbon Silver and San Marino Blue.


MECHANICAL
The 80 per cent new VQ35HR engine starts with a new block that is now 8.4mm higher. Nissan engineers explain that this is due to longer conrods -- a measure to reduce friction (due in part to side loads on the cylinder bores) and vibration at higher revs. [Ed: note this does not translate into a longer stroke -- rather, the eye-to-eye length of the conrod is longer.]

A re-engineered crankshaft with low-friction coatings and beefier journals and crank pins also add to this freer-revving smoothness.

The new dual path intake system features symmetrical straight air inlets which also contribute to the engine's extra height and dictates a new bonnet pressing with a powerbulge that recalls the original Datsun 240Z.

A more extensive and re-programmed variable valve timing system exploits the better breathing which in turn dictates a new exhaust system with a handsome big bore common length extractor-style system that lowers back pressure and feeds into two big outlets. It generates a deep growl, most unusual and endearing in these heavily restricted times.

The compression ratio has been boosted from 10.3 to 10.6:1, which is always good for extra crispness, throttle response and top-end grunt. The engine needs 98 RON Premium ULP to deliver its best.

To make sure the engine can handle the extra stresses, there is a ladder frame at the base of the block (similar to the 'girdles' of racing engines), to keep the whole lot square and rigid under high revs and loads. The bore and ladder frame is shared with the beefier 4.0-litre version of the same engine and dictates a larger sump. The engine has been lowered by 15mm in the chassis to keep the centre of gravity low and to negate the extra height in engine components.

The powerplant also features improved coolant flow for longer life and rapid warm-up and long-life Iridium-tipped spark plugs that last 100,000km but cost around $30 each when replacement is due.

Together these improvements boost the engine redline to 7500rpm -- 500 higher than before. In reality, the improvements are much more dramatic than a 500rpm lift in revs would suggest. The old engine started to get harsh and breathless well before its 7000rpm redline while the new one simply goes ballistic beyond 6000 without any sense of running out of revs or smoothness until it is electronically restrained. Coupled with the fact that the torque comes in with a wallop at much lower revs then peaks at 4800rpm, it is a sportscar engine from paradise.

Fuel economy is reasonable with a combined 11.7lt/100 km from the manual Coupe, 11.8 for the auto Coupe, 12.0 for the manual Roadster and 12.1 for the auto Roadster. With the 80 litre tank, it should just be possible to complete a relaxed Melbourne-Sydney cruise without a refill, in the Coupe at least. 

Where the previous Roadster felt more of a boulevard package compared to the harder-edged Coupe, the Roadster is the big winner with the new engine and is now much more convincing as an open sportscar.

Finding the right tyre for a premium sportscar on Australian roads is never easy. Previous 350Z tyres could be a little harsh and the wear patterns could generate noise and vibration. The 2007 change in tyre specification and further tweaks have moved the bar in refinement on Australian roads almost as far as the more extensive MY06 chassis upgrade did.

The new tyre is the Bridgestone Potenza RE050A, with a 225/45R18 91W fitted at the front and a wider 245/45R18 96W at the rear. If it sounds familiar, it's because it is fitted to various Commodore performance models.

There is a temporary use 155/80R17 space saver spare -- better than nothing while leaving space for a modicum of luggage.


PACKAGING
Power bulge aside, the latest 350Z hasn't undergone any other visible or packaging changes. There are some 'plasticky' aspects to the dash and controls that are now starting to date. The new bonnet adds necessary detail to a front that is also starting to look a little bland.

In terms of practicality, space inside the cabin and luggage area is very tight -- especially in the Roadster where a tall driver's scalp will sit above the windscreen.

The different profile of the Roadster explains why the Track model's spoilers are deleted. Indeed, the Roadster's rear boot lid height, the thickness of the rear section of the hood and the tiny rear window are on the limit of common sense in today's traffic and forces the Roadster driver to be constantly vigilant.

Add the low seating position and a rear camera wouldn't be wasted in the Roadster. The optional parking sensors are a must have. Check out this Achille's heel if your Roadster is to be an inner-city daily driver.  

From a sportscar perspective, the 350Z is still a very effective exercise in terms of packaging a large capacity front engine, rear-drive design with luxury and safety equipment and mainstream crash protection. There is room for a spare wheel, even if it is a space saver, and any boot space is an achievement when there is serious body bracing including strut braces front and rear.

The Cd for the Track coupe is an effective 0.29 and for a bulbous soft top, the Roadster's 0.34 is not bad either. A wheelbase of 2650mm against a length of 4315mm shows how tight the packaging is.

A turning circle of 10.8 metres is excellent for anything that has this much rubber under the front wheel arches. The Coupe's weight of 1480kg is reasonable but the extra 100kg of reinforcement in the Roadster is enough for a noticeable impact on the performance and handling.

Refer to the launch report of the MY06 upgrade for a full description of the cabin equipment (see above link).


SAFETY
The main safety change for the 2007 upgrade is the larger head restraints with an active function that brings them forward in the event of a rear impact.

The extremely rigid passenger cell and the long list of standard safety features are reassuring. However, the 350Z's almost ideal 53:47 front to rear weight distribution and big increase in instantly accessible grunt must force a reappraisal of the safety feature mix in the range.

Previously, the relatively soft auto engine, especially in the heavier Roadster, had to be deliberately provoked before it came close to challenging the outstanding chassis and grip, even in the wet. This was an important safety margin when many buyers are lured out of their front-drive hatches and all-wheel drive models by the 350Z's looks.

Out of the four 350Z purchases I have monitored, only one buyer had any real comprehension of the implications of the swap to rear drive with this level of performance. The 350Z is so competent that it feels slow at high speeds, adding to the potentially misplaced sense of security.

The current 350Z range only offers VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control) on the manual Track versions of the Coupe and Roadster -- incongruously, the models most likely to be purchased by those least likely to need VDC.

The 350Z now has closer-to-supercar performance in a highly responsive chassis that can be hard to catch once grip is lost. The Touring specification with auto has the same power and if anything, it seems to feed the extra grunt of the new engine with more immediacy to the rear wheels than the manual, and a careless downshift with the extra grunt in the Coupe Touring manual can now momentarily lock the rear wheels (with resulting drama if this is undertaken mid-corner). Yet none of the Touring models have VDC nor is it offered even as an option.

With a $70,000 350Z purchase, most buyers may have already become reliant on an ESP program in previous cars without knowing it only to step into a car that needs it more than most but doesn't offer it.

Regardless of Nissan's global policies and model mix, the latest 350Z should not be offered in Australia without VDC given its wide buyer profile and relatively low price. For what it is worth, I personally would not recommend the purchase of this latest 350Z without the VDC and perhaps also the Brembo brakes of the Track specification.    


COMPETITORS
Rivals for the 350Z continue as with the MY06 model with the exception of Holden's VZ Monaro which has since been withdrawn from production.

However, the improvements delivered by the new engine along with the extra grip, ride refinement and reduced road noise, should now prompt buyers to shop the 350Z against more 'refined' product such as the Porsche Boxster, both new and used.

The 350Z Roadster has always been a tight, responsive package. Now, it has the performance and grip to be considered in the same company as the world's best open sportscars. It really is that good.
 
The extra agility of the lighter Track Coupe with its slick six-speed manual and powerful Brembo brakes makes it one of the most enjoyable cars to drive on today's market regardless of price. It was at least as enjoyable to drive as my own 911.


ON THE ROAD
Nissan launched the 350Z in almost identical conditions on wet Tasmanian roads as the MY06 upgrade. For several of us, it was ideal to make the comparison.

The first and most overwhelming impression is how much difference the latest tyre and suspension specification makes. Where the previous model could still be a little twitchy and at times harsh, the latest 350Z has extra compliance in its initial suspension travel and a more progressive breakaway when you do approach the limits.

Its ability to maintain speed and grip in torrential downpours (providing driver inputs were smooth) was outstanding.

The first test car was a Touring manual and its acceleration through the gearbox was impressive. Its grip and general feel are in another league compared to everyday cars.

Under Australian speed limits it never feels stretched. However, if the road is wet and you provoke it, it now has the grunt to overwhelm the tyres at which point you need to be quick to catch it. The 350Z is not a car for the young or inexperienced driver.

Like the local HSV and FPV models, it now has the sort of performance (0-100km/h in 5.7sec) that warrants a fairly serious advanced driver's course on purchase.

Where the previous model would 'die' for a short time between gear changes, this one just shrugs off such distractions and keeps charging at a relentless rate which makes entering and exiting corners so much fun. Even better is the way the new engine just loves to explore high revs and drops into the fat of the torque curve when the next gear is selected.

It takes on a rich timbre at around 6000rpm and seems to get a second wind at the point where you would give up on the previous model. It comes so close to matching a Porsche flat six in its delivery that the comparison can now be made.

The lack of driveline shunt and vibration is particularly noticeable. It is not often that you encounter a front-engined rear-drive sportscar that can match the powertrain tightness and refinement of a mid or rear-engine design but this one goes close. Coupled with the vice-free geometry of the rear end and the amazing feel that the steering allows, the driver can focus totally on maximising the performance of the brakes and engine.

The idea of a car becoming part of you is not such a cliche in this case when the 350Z so rapidly becomes an extension of the driver. The lithe and compact body plays an important role in this.

The next drive was in an automatic Touring Roadster which didn't seem as tight. Even though the five-speed auto was as smooth and responsive as ever, this example just didn't feel right when it seemed to feed more vibration into the structure. We suspect, the car was not representative. Alignment, tyre balance and other factors need to be perfect in a finely tuned sportscar chassis which may not have been the case here.
 
The manual Track Roadster that followed was entirely different. For the first time, the 350Z Roadster in this Track specification generates the same thrill of driving as the Coupe. Unless you are measuring the differences with a stopwatch, the driving experience in the manual Roadster is every bit as good as the Coupe and probably even better with the roof down.

This could not be said for the previous model. The Brembos just couldn't be fazed in the wicked hills and corners that border Queenstown in Tasmania's wild west.

The 350Z now has the response and the ease of acceleration to require the same levels of concentration as the latest HSV or Porsche ranges. In other words, the 350Z now has real muscle car performance but delivers it with such ease and sophistication that it requires serious concentration to stay ahead of it.

It is exactly what the 350Z needed to be in 2003. If you are ready to step up to the plate, the rewards are awesome. 

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Published : Saturday, 12 May 2007
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