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2006 Nissan 350Z Track Coupe Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Nissan

2006 Nissan 350Z Track Coupe

Nissan is not resting on its laurels. The latest version of the its 350Z was a star debutant for the 2003 model year, and of all generations, the closest to the original 240Z in purposeful design and performance for the dollar value. But three years is a long time in today's fast-paced automotive world, and so for 2006 the 350Z has gotten its first makeover.

Good news, there. Nissan has not diminished its flagship sports car's abilities in favor of added luxury or other softness. Just the opposite, in fact - all manual-gearbox models now have 300-horsepower tunings of the namesake 3.5-liter V6 under their hoods. Automatics continue with, appropriately, slightly less horsepower - 287 - and more torque. Wheel and brake sizes have increased on most models, all the better for cornering and stopping behavior. There have been the usual minor interior and exterior styling revisions, and a new speed-sensitive power-steering system improves steering response.

As before, both coupe and convertible models are offered, and there is a new ``Grand Touring'' trim level for both coupe and convertible body styles that combines the larger wheels and tires, Brembo brakes, and underbody modifications from the Track model with the power leather seats, upgraded audio, and available navigation and satellite radio systems of the Touring version. Consider it a more broadly-focused Track model, with more comforts and luxuries. Like the Touring, and unlike the Track, the Grand Touring is available with either the six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmissions.

Of course the 350Z coupe I ended up with for the past week was not the new Grand Touring model but the Track. I've experienced Nissan's newly-improved navigation system and premium sound system with satellite radio in other models, most recently a Maxima, and found them to be very good. But the Z's true character, and heritage, are best exemplified by the Track model. It has all you want for sports car performance, and nothing that isn't necessary. That means 300 horsepower from the engine to the rear wheels through a slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox, a viscous limited-slip differential, and RAYS¨ forged alloy wheels with sticky high-performance tires, traction control and vehicle dynamic control systems to keep things in line, and large, strong Brembo brakes to stop quickly and repeatedly.

In style and substance, the 350Z is all muscle, no fat. It's an impressive car not only for its abilities on the road, but for its comfort and value as well. Some sports cars are best-suited for weekend use only; the Z is fully capable of everyday use, at least as long as snow is not involved.

APPEARANCE: All too often mid-cycle ``freshenings'' mean the addition of gratuitous flash and filigree, and the pointless addition of fat. Nissan is to be congratulated for leaving the Z alone in all important aspects, while improving details and function. Careful scrutiny of the 2006 model is required to see the revised grille - two horizontal slats and an indentation in the lower crossbar - and front bumper. While the headlight shape is unchanged, the lights themselves are now bi-xenon units, and LEDs replace conventional bulbs in the taillights. Both lighting changes are for the better, improving the car's ability to see and be seen.

COMFORT: An emphasis on performance does not mean any lack of comfort and civility in a 350Z. The Track model may lack leather upholstery, but the cloth it has grips better in spirited driving. And the cockpit is definitely 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. Two golf bags can be persuaded to fit with some effort. Among the interior improvements this year are small cupholders in the door armrests.

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. The Track model also has traction control and the Vehicle Dynamic Control system.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The 350Z's relatively long wheelbase and wide track does more than merely improve interior space. The FM chassis is strong and rigid, for safety and to provide a precise base for its fully-independent strut-type suspension. Integral strut tower braces front and rear further improve chassis rigidity. Spring and shock rates are very firm, but balanced and not harsh. Steering and brake efforts are higher than in a family sedan, and appropriately so. The steering now features speed-sensitive variable assistance - a good deal as the Track's monster 245/40 WR18 front, 265/40WR19 rear tires would create quite an upper body workout otherwise. These are considerably larger than the tires on last year's Track model, and contribute to improved traction for excellent acceleration, cornering, and braking ability. All Zs have four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes, but the Track and Grand Touring models get upgraded Brembos, which grip larger discs with four-piston front and twin-piston rear calipers. The Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tires grip very well on dry pavement, and are relatively stable (for high-performance dry tires) in the wet.

PERFORMANCE: The Track model got a 300-horsepower version of Nissan's 3.5-liter VQ35DE engine last year, and now it's found under the hoods of all manual-transmission models. It's tuned more for horsepower than torque, and revs higher, making it a good match to the Z's fine six-speed manual gearbox. Those 300 horses are produced at 6400 rpm, only 600 short of the 7000-rpm redline. Torque is down marginally, from 274 lb-ft at 4800 rpm to 260 at the same engine speed. The engine is smooth, and it likes to rev. It also makes wonderful music while doing so.

CONCLUSIONS: The best-ever Z just keeps getting better.


2006 Nissan 350Z Track Coupe

Base Price			$ 34,350
Price As Tested			$ 35,665
Engine Type			aluminum alloy dual overhead cam
				 24-valve V6 
				  with variable valve timing
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower			300 @ 6400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			260 @ 4800 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		104.3 in. / 169.8 in.
Curb Weight			3400 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		11.3
Fuel Capacity			20.0 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
				F: 245/40 WR18  R: 265/40WR19
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc, 4-piston calipers /
				 vented disc, 2-piston calipers
Suspension, front/rear		independent multi-link strut all around
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 25 / 20
0 to 60 mph				5.3  sec

Carpeted floor mats			$  90
Side & curtain air bags			$ 620
Destination charge			$ 605