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First Drive

A Car With Zip and Zoom

Nissan's new Z pays homage to its predecessors without being a carbon copy

July 03, 2002|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Nissan killed the Z in 1996, there was relatively little grieving. What had started life in 1969 as an affordable basic sports car--the 240Z--had been morphed into a bloated and expensive luxo-boat of a sports coupe, the 300ZX.

With the average selling price of the 300ZX hovering around $40,000, the traditional Z consumer--younger drivers in the middle of their career climbs and saddled with new houses, new families and other obligations that kept a lid on disposable incomes--could no longer afford to buy one.

But though the Z went away, Z fever never did. There are Z clubs galore, and it seems that every other aging boomer you meet these days either owned one or had a best friend who owned one and let him or her drive it.

That nostalgia, and the pent-up demand, bodes well for Nissan as it prepares to unleash a new sports car, the 350Z.

It is a Z that pays homage to but doesn't copy its predecessors, a sports car that comes with plenty of power, striking looks and lots of people space (luggage space is another matter) at a price that, by today's standards, is downright affordable.

It starts at $26,809 (including Nissan's $540 delivery charge) for the five-speed manual base model and tops out at $34,619 for the six-speed manual Track model with oversize Brembo disc brakes. The only options are a navigation system for $1,999 and a side air bag and side-curtain air-bag system for $569.

All trim levels use the same 287-horsepower engine, and for those who don't think 287 ponies is sufficient, Z product line planner John Stramotas smiles and says that "there is a great life-cycle plan for [constantly upgrading] this car."

Nissan held the press introduction last month in the Santa Monica Mountains. The fleet was limited to a few pre-production models that had their share of pre-production faults--most noteworthy were a set of auxiliary gauges that were difficult to read when hit by direct sunlight and some flimsy plastic bits, including a hard-to-close flip-up storage compartment cover on the dash. But the suspensions and power trains were just fine, thank you.

The 350Z, so named for the 3.5-liter V-6 it shares with other new Nissans, including the Altima, the Maxima and the Infiniti G35, is all a sports car should be.

Maximum horsepower is reached at 6,200 rpm (redline is 6,600 rpm) with 274 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.

Power is transmitted to the rear wheels through a lightweight plastic drive shaft reinforced with carbon fiber.

The six-speed manual transmission is a close-ratio model with a shift pattern so short you can work from first through sixth almost on wrist action alone; the automatic has a shift-it-yourself mode programmed to stay in the gear you choose until you shift or hit the rev limiter--no automatic upshifting.

I drove base, track and touring models with manual and automatic transmissions--and can say that in all versions, the new Z is a blast to drive, a huge improvement over Zs that came before it and a worthy competitor in the sports car segment. A Z roadster is coming in February.

Steering is tight, linear and almost too responsive, the suspension--even in touring models--keeps you glued to the road and lets you navigate curves at speeds you might not otherwise dare. Suspension tuning lets you feel the road but isn't so bumpy you want to pull over every few miles for relief.

Torque kicks in early enough to make mountain driving, at speed or simply cruising, a pleasure rather than a chore no matter which transmission is in play.

Seats, in textured black cloth, or charcoal, light gray or burnt-orange leather are well-bolstered and comfortable while still grippy enough to keep you in place on the twistiest hairpins.

There's no glovebox in the dash--air bags take up that space--and only one, awkwardly placed cup holder that slides out of the passenger-side dash fascia about where a tall rider's knee is guaranteed to snap it off.

But there are two cup holders in a small center console tray, and a pair of small covered cubbies in the panel that separates the passenger compartment from the cargo area and holds most of the stereo speakers. That same divider hides a locking compartment large enough for most briefcases and purses.

The cargo area is bisected by a rear strut stiffener that displays the "Z" emblem through the rear hatch window. The stiffener is not removable and limits the height of packages that can be loaded on board. But there's enough room back there for luggage for two for a weekend outing, or for a dozen standard paper bags filled with groceries.

As to the market: Nissan says it is relying not on demographics but on "psychographics," as it believes this car will appeal to a certain kind of driver across all age, ethnic and income groups.

We tested the theory Friday by taking a pre-production model a few places we figured might show how much interest exists.

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