Lifestyle

Z as in Zoom


350z_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

The Nissan 350Z Grand Touring coupe is sporty, affordable, and a blast to drive. Why isn't it selling better?

Slide Show

The other evening I took a Nissan 350Z out on a test drive to see the latest tourist attraction in my neighborhood: a bridge that was washed out during the recent floods while a pickup truck was crossing it. The driver survived, despite having been swept out of the cab by the rushing water, but the truck was still hanging in the Lackawaxen River. Three people stood looking at me with alarm as I pulled up. "We heard your sporty little car coming and we were afraid you didn't know the bridge was out," a woman shouted from across the river.

I was surprised they could hear the Nissan's (NSANY) engine from so far away, but I shouldn't have been. The 350Z has a cult following, and one of the many reasons is the car's unique exhaust note. At idle, it sounds like the yowl of a feral cat warning off a potential rival. During rapid acceleration, it starts to sound like a hungry jungle animal badly in need of a feeding.

The car I tested, the 350Z Grand Touring coupe, which is new as of the 2006 model year, is a sort of grown-up version of the 350Z. The claim to fame of this rear-wheel-drive, two-seater sports car has always been to offer great performance and handling at a relatively low price—but it was always short on creature comforts. Like the new Corvette with a six-speed automatic (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/6/06, "The No Sweat 'Vette"), the Grand Touring version of the 350Z is designed to be more comfortable during daily driving.

HIGH-TECH BEAUTY.

Grand Touring is the most expensive version of the 350Z. With an automatic transmission, it starts at $37,455 for the coupe and $41,605 for the convertible (subtract $1,000 if you go with the stick shift). At that price the car comes with some interior leather; power windows, doors, and heated seats; Xenon headlights; heated power side mirrors; front and rear spoilers; 18-inch front and 19-inch rear forged-alloy wheels; upgraded Brembo brakes; and traction and stability control. Major options include the navigation system at $1,800; side curtain and head airbags for $620; and Sirius or XM satellite radio for $350.

For your money, you're getting a beautiful head-turner of a sports car, with a sharply sloping roofline and a four-star J.D. Power quality rating. To my eye, the 350Z's lines are reminiscent of a Porsche 911's—at half the price. It's also crammed with high technology, including a 287-hp aluminum engine with continuously variable valve timing, an electronic drive-by-wire throttle, and a lightweight carbon-fiber composite driveshaft.

The 350Z continues to sell well. Even while Nissan's overall North American car and truck sales fell during the first half of this year, 350Z sales rose 3.5% to 15,089. Nissan says only about 42% of buyers take the coupe with an automatic, which is surprisingly low considering that 70% of those who buy the ragtop 350Z Roadster order an automatic transmission.

CORPORATE TRANSITION.

However, the car isn't flying off the lots the way a genuinely hot model does. The average 350Z spends 58 days on a dealer's lot before selling, about average for the industry, while it takes 78 days for the typical Grand Touring model to sell, according to the Power Information Network. By contrast, the average BMW Z4 only spends 23 days on the lot before selling, the Power Information Network says.

This is a transition year for Nissan in the U.S. Aside from rumors that its French parent company may do a major deal with troubled General Motors (GM), Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn replaced most of Nissan's top U.S. management effective July 1. The company is also in the midst of moving its U.S. headquarters from Southern California to a location near Nashville.

The aim of the changes is to boost Nissan's momentum in the U.S. market, but I suspect the turmoil is hurting the company in the short term.

BEHIND THE WHEEL.

Slide into a Z's cockpit-style interior and you know you're in a genuine sports car. The upholstery in my test car was all in a flat black that resembled carbon fiber. Dials in front of you give the tachometer and speedometer readings, while three smaller gauges mounted in the middle of the dash are swiveled toward the driver and give odometer and other less important readouts. There's a stopwatch in the onboard computer, and the racing-style seats are designed to be tilted back.

The cabin is beautiful at night. The off-black material lining the interior fades into the darkness, so all you see are the luminescent amber and cadmium-red needles and numerals on the dials. The graphics on the navigation system, which are in bold video-game colors, add to the appeal.

With the five-speed automatic transmission, the car is quick but not super-fast. I did some zero-to-60 runs, and whether I did the shifting myself or let the automatic shift on its own, the fastest time I got was the same: 6.3 seconds. That's about the same as the John Cooper Works version of the Mini Cooper (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/06, "Maximum Mini") and slightly faster than a Porsche Cayman with an automatic (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/17/06, "Grand Cayman"), but a lot slower than a Corvette.

The 350Z has a lighter feel than its German and American rivals. The car feels very tight when you throw it into corners, and it takes little effort to flick it into the next lane on the highway. However it doesn't have the very solid feeling of a BMW or Porsche, where you sense the mechanics underneath the car's skin as you steer and shift. The Nissan's ride is rougher than in a sporty luxury sedan, but most owners probably expect that.

NAV SYSTEM FEATURES.

The distinctive characteristic of my 350Z was the smoothness of the automatic. I rarely felt the transmission shift gears in less than full-out driving; it seemed to run out in one long, continuous arc, which I guess is a feature of the continuously variable valve timing. In manual shifting mode the engine seems to hit maximum torque somewhere around 4,500 rpm, and then taper off slightly until acceleration stops at about 6,500 (there's a governor so you can't damage the engine).

The 350Z's navigation system is worth considering, especially if you dream of taking off for a weekend with no fixed destination in mind. The instructions in Nissan's nav system make it hard to get lost, even in unfamiliar areas. The names of the streets are listed, and bold easy-to-see arrows indicate the direction of turns. There's a thermometer-like gauge that counts down the last mile before a turn on the highway, letting you know as each quarter-mile before the turn passes. (There's a similar countdown on the heads-up display of the BMW 650i (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/21/06, "Bimmer Winner").

You also can ask the system where you are at any given moment and get the name of the highway, the direction you're heading, and other pertinent data. You can even get your latitude, longitude, and find out how far above sea level you are. Plus, you can do a search for, say, the 100 nearest restaurants or ATM machines, so you'll never be without food or cash.

OTHER Z STYLES.

Storage space in the passenger compartment, not surprisingly, is fairly limited. There are two cupholders and a CD compartment in the center console. But there's no glove box, which is very annoying. Instead, there are three storage bins on the back wall of the passenger compartment (hardly a handy location when you're driving) for holding papers, purses, and such. Trunk space is a flat, open area behind the seats. There's plenty of room for some small bags, but they're going to be visible if you park, inviting break-ins.

The car has several other negatives. Road and tire noise are almost oppressive at highway speed. Don't expect to hold a normal conversation. Visibility is also pretty poor, especially out the stylized side and narrow rear windows. And the navigation-system control knob is flimsy and often didn't register commands.

The Grand Touring Z is rated to get 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, with premium gasoline recommended. In a stretch of 235 miles of mixed driving, I got 19.3 mpg.

If you want to spend less money on a Z, you have numerous options. There's a base 350Z coupe that starts at $28,255 and comes with a standard manual transmission; power windows, locks, and mirrors; a six-CD, 160-watt sound system; high-intensity headlights; and 18-inch alloy wheels. The next step up is the Enthusiast coupe that starts at $29,955 with a stick shift and $30,955 with an automatic. It comes with additional gear, such as a limited-slip rear differential, traction and cruise control, and an auto-dimming mirror.

VALUE FOR $40,000.

Moving up to the Touring model gets you some of the features on the Grand Touring model, including an upgraded 240-watt Bose sound system and heated and power seats for both driver and passenger. It starts at $33,055 with a stick shift and $33,555 with an automatic.

There also are Enthusiast and Touring versions of the 350Z convertible that start at $35,655 and $38,255, respectively, with a manual transmission. And for the hardcore driving enthusiast, there is also a Track version of the coupe starting at just over $35,000 that has all the performance features and none of the luxury add-ons of the Grand Touring model.

Only a small fraction of buyers choose to pay up for the Grand Touring 350Z, which is a shame. Even my loaded-to-the-gills test car barely topped $40,000, which is an excellent value (it's slightly less than the most basic BMW Z4 coupe). My advice is, spend as much on a Z as you can afford. If you need to stretch the budget a little to get the Grand Touring model, go for it. Whichever version of the car you decide on, though, it's a lot of car for the money.

To see more of the Nissan 350Z click here


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