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New Car Review: 2004 Nissan 350Z Track

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PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


The Nissan 350Z is no longer brand new, but if my recent week with a top-of-the-performance-line ``Track'' model is any indication, its newness has not worn off at all. And, judging from the many admiring looks it received, I'm not the only one to feel this way.

Nissan has a winner, and it shows in the sales charts. The 350Z is now the best-selling car in the sport-performance segment, with every indication of following its illustrious forebear, the 1970 240Z, to classic status. Changes to the 350Z coupe for its second year are minor. All examples are now prewired to accept satellite radio. There are knee pads on the sides of the transmission tunnel, the better to brace your legs against in spirited driving. And the cover over the optional navigation system is now power-operated. More obvious is the new convertible, but that's another story for another day.

Although it builds on more than thirty years of heritage, and is the closest in that line to the original 240Z in intent, the newest ``Z'' is anything but an exercise in nostalgia. Based on the ``FM'' platform also used for the latest generation of Nissan's legendary Skyline, it is a thoroughly modern sports car with all of the amenities and features expected in such a vehicle.

Referring to the 2004 350Z coupe in the singular is misleading - there are six coupe models in five trim levels. All have a 287-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine. A six-speed manual transmission standard in most, with a five-speed automatic standard in the ``Touring'' model. The base 350Z is well-equipped, in the high-value mold of the old 240. But it is a considerably more advanced car. Other models build on comfort and convenience, performance, or both. Options are limited to a DVD-based navigation system and side and side-curtain air bags.

The ``Track'' model tops the line, with subtle aerodynamic enhancements, massive Brembo(r) brakes, and lightweight 18-inch forged alloy wheels. It's seriously quick, with excellent handling and controllability, yet it is also comfortably capable of long-distance and everyday use. Some sports cars are best thought of as weekend toys; the Nissan 350Z is not one of those.

APPEARANCE: Thirty-four years ago, the 240Z succeeded not only because of its performance and value, but because of its looks. Its styling combined themes from the sports and racing cars of its day in a distinctive and instantly-recognizable way. The newest Z follows suit. There is no superfluous fat, only lean muscle. Bulging fender flares and short overhangs give it the lean look of a competition car, with only the essentials. It has the classic front-engined sports car proportions, with a long hood, triangular fastback cabin, and short rear deck. Intense scrutiny reveals many influences, including previous Zs, but like the original, today's 350Z is distinctive. Visible aerodynamic enhancements to the Track model consist of a small flexible chin spoiler and a small rear spoiler. Most of the drag reduction is due to underbody panels than clean up the airflow under the car.

COMFORT: It may be the performance leader, but there is no lack of comfort and civility in the 350Z Track model. It doesn't have the leather upholstery of the Touring model, but the textured cloth covering the bolstered sport seats grips your body better in spirited driving. And the cockpit is designed with performance driving in mind, with excellent instrument and control positions. The instrument cluster is mounted on the steering column and tilts with steering wheel adjustment, for improved visibility. The steering wheel rim is thick and leather-covered, for a good grip. The shift knob is perfectly placed, and the positive, short-throw shift linkage makes shifting a joy. Full-sized adults fit easily, and there is more storage and luggage space than expected. Although there is no glove box, a lockable, briefcase-sized compartment behind the passenger seat more than takes its place, and there is another smaller compartment for registration papers and such as well. The rear hatch makes access to the luggage area easy, and much of that area is hidden from outside view. Allegedly, two golf bags can fit, but I suspect they better be small bags.

SAFETY: The 350Z's ``Zone Body'' construction incorporates front and rear crush zones and a central safety structure. Dual stage front airbags are standard, with side-impact and side-curtain bags available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The 350Z's long-wheelbase, wide-track stance does more than give it a sporty appearance and useful interior space. The FM chassis is strong and rigid, for safety and to provide a precise base for its fully-independent strut-type suspension. Spring and shock rates are very firm, but balanced and not harsh, and the steering is quick and not over-assisted. Response to steering inputs is near-telepathic, and grip is tremendous on a dry road. When it's wet, icy, or otherwise inclement, take it easy.

Despite the firm suspension and ultra-low-profile tires, ride comfort is quite good for a sports car. There is more road noise than in a luxury car, but that's part of the sports package - it lets the driver know about the road surface as much as by feedback through the seat and steering. Control effort is higher than in a luxury car, again, appropriately for its performance potential.

The Track model's greatest difference from other Zs is in the braking department - all models have antilock and vented rotors on all four corners, but those on the Track are larger and thicker for better heat dissipation and less fade in hard use. The standard two-piston front, single-piston rear calipers are replaced by heavy-duty Brembos - four-piston in front and twin-piston in the rear. Stopping is not a problem.

PERFORMANCE: Nissan's VQ35DE 3.5-liter V6 is found under the Z's hood in the highest state of tune of any version currently in production. If its 287 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 274 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm aren't quite supercar figures, they're hardly weak. Acceleration is very good, with 60mph available in around five and a half seconds, and it's accompanied by fine six-cylinder music. Great throttle response and smooth power at all speeds, combined with a good choice of ratios in the six-speed gearbox and excellent shift linkage make the 350Z a pleasure to drive. It's dialed in right from the factory.

CONCLUSIONS: Nissan's 350Z is a blast from the future, not from the past.

SPECIFICATIONS 2004 Nissan 350Z Track

Base Price $ 34,180 Price
As Tested $ 36,920
Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 with continuously-variable valve timing
Engine Size 3.5 liters / x 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 3,225 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 11.2 Fuel Capacity n/a gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires F: P225/45 WR18 R: P245/45 WR18 Bridgestone Potenza RE040
Brakes, front/rear vented disc with 4-caliper pistons / vented disc with 2-caliper pistons, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear independent strut on all four wheels, integrated front and rear strut tower braces standard
Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 26 / 22 0 to 60 mph 5.4 sec

Aluminum kick plate $ 90
Side and side curtain air bags $ 570
Navigation system $2,000