2005 Nissan 350 Z Roadster Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Nissan

2005 Nissan 350Z Roadster Touring Edition

``Sports car'' may be a difficult term to define, but Nissan's ``Z Car'' has always been a fine example of the genre ever since the original 240Z made its debut back in 1970. That car not only had first-rate straight-line and cornering abilities, it had the comfort and reliability missing in many competitors of its day, and pristine examples are highly sought after today.

But there are those who define a ``sports car'' as an open two-seat car, with an emphasis on performance. Nissan has an answer for them, or for anyone looking for a quick, comfortable two-seater. It's the 350Z Roadster.

The Z Roadster offers all of the performance and handling of the coupe, and less. Less as in no top. Make that no top when desired, as its power-operated convertible top can be raised or lowered in 20 seconds or so.

Often open-top cars score less than their closed siblings in rigidity, as the top is an important structural piece. Nissan has carefully re-engineered the Z's lower section, with extra cross bars and reinforcement around the door frames and in the cockpit floor. The result? Excellent rigidity, for as near a complete lack of cowl shake as I've seen in a convertible. It's a solid car, and the weight penalty is a minimal 250 lbs.

I'd driven several models of Nissan's 350Z coupe in the years since it debuted, but never the convertible. And all too often I get convertibles in the winter, just in time for rain and cold. This time I lucked out, with a fine summer week in the Z Roadster Touring model.

The Touring is one of three Roadster models, the others being Enthusiast and Grand Touring. The Enthusiast has full amenities including power-operated seats and soft top, a rear wind deflector, xenon headlights, 17-inch wheels and tires, and automatic climate control. Its 287-horsepower namesake 3.5-liter V6 engine drives the rear wheels through a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. The Touring model adds a seven-speaker BoseĻ audio system, leather seats, and standard side airbags. The Grand Touring adds BremboĻ brakes, 18-inch wheels, and Vehicle Dynamic Control, and, as the performance model, is available only with the 6-speed manual transmission.

So Z Roadster model choices are less than those for the coupe, and provide a higher level of luxury. This is logical, as, since the car is heavier, and the top goes down, it's much better as a fast tourer than an ultimate-performance track car. It's not a race car, it's a fine car for a spirited jaunt down the road with the top down on a summer afternoon. 2006 changes: After several years with little change, the 350Z gets freshened styling and more power for 2006. The bumper, headlights, and grille are restyled in front, with LED brake lights at the rear. The standard equipment level has increased, and 18-inch wheels and larger brakes are now standard. Most importantly, all models will get the 300-horsepower engine used in the 2005 Track and 35th Anniversary coupes.

APPEARANCE: Because so much of the Z coupe's shape is derived from its fastback passenger cabin, which is missing from the roadster, the 350Z Roadster has a character of its own. Top down, it's an angular example of minimalism. Its long wheelbase and classic ``long hood, short deck'' proportions, with the seats two-thirds of the way back, are accentuated by its short front and rear overhangs and prominent muscular wheel arches. The vertically-rectangular headlights and horizontally-rectangular air intake make an interesting face. The otherwise flat hood is broken up by two incised lines, and the shoulder line is well-defined by a sharp crease. The short, nearly flat rear deck works well with the long, triangular taillights and sloping, arched rear panel. With the top up, the Z Roadster has a classic cabriolet look, all car, with a tiny passenger cabin.

COMFORT: The cockpits of both the 350Z coupe and roadster are much more similar than other cars available in both body styles. Both have no regular glove box, but boast a large lockable compartment in the bulkhead behind the passenger seat for anything up to a laptop or small camera bag, and a smaller compartment for registration and other paperwork. Both are strictly two-seaters, with good room and first-class comfort and support for both the driver and passenger. Leather is standard in the Touring model. And the roadster is just as focused on driving, with the same great control and instrument layout. Yes, the steering and clutch are heavier than in a sedan, but appropriately so, considering the Z's potential. But the Roadster is a roadster, and the top comes down and goes back up quickly, with only manual latching and the press of a button necessary. A variety of electric and hydraulic gizmos move the metal tonneau up and out of the way, and then back down to cover the top when it's down. Top-up, visibility is not as bad as it might seem from the outside - just use the mirrors. Top-down, there is just enough wind for the convertible experience without an excessive blast. Trunk space is less than in the coupe - ``driver'' is not going to refer to any golf clubs carried.

SAFETY: The 350Z's ``Zone Body'' construction incorporates front and rear crush zones and a central safety structure. The Roadster has built-in rollover bars. Dual stage front airbags are standard, with side-impact standard in the Touring model.

RIDE AND HANDLING: A solid, rigid chassis is a necessity for first-class ride and handling characteristics, and here the Z roadster excels. Yes, it weighs more than the coupe, and so if maximum performance is desired, go for the coupe. Convertibles have their own advantages, and here there no discernible reduction in cornering response, and virtually no cowl shake, even on poor roads. The Z's small size, rigid chassis, and well-tuned aluminum-intensive fully-independent multilink suspension make it a joy to drive, especially on an uncrowded corner-filled back road. The ride is firm, as expected and required, but not too stiff for comfort. The long wheelbase, wide track, and careful attention to aerodynamics help give it good stability at speed on the highway, and it's still plenty nimble when the road gets interesting. A long day in this car is not hard work at all.

PERFORMANCE: Why doesn't the Z Roadster's extra weight matter much? Because the 3.5-liter VQ35DE engine's 287 horsepower (at 6200 rpm) and 274 lb-ft of torque (at 4800 rpm) are enough to mask it for all but the most performance-oriented driver. For the rest of us, the wind-in-the-face driving experience will more than make up for any slight loss of acceleration. Add the wonderfully smooth six-speed gearbox to the aluminum alloy, twincam, 24-valve engine's quick throttle response and even power delivery and discover a true sports car experience. A sedan, no mater how ``sports,'' can never be like this.

CONCLUSIONS: Less is more. Less top, in the form of the Nissan 350Z Roadster, means more driving enjoyment.

SPECIFICATIONS

2005 Nissan 350 Z Roadster Touring

Base Price $ 36,550 Price As Tested $ 39,190 Engine Type aluminum alloy dual overhead cam 24- valve V6 Engine Size 3.5 liters / 212 cu. in. Horsepower 287 @ 6200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 274 @ 4800 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 104.3 in. / 169.4 in. Curb Weight 3,496 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 12.2 Fuel Capacity 20.0 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires Bridgestone Potenza RE040 F: 225/50 WR17 R: 235/50 WR17 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent multilink all around Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 26 / 20 0 to 60 mph est 5.8 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Floor mats $ 80 Navigation system $ 2,000 Destination charge $ 560

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