2003 Nissan 350Z Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
July 3, 2002

WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. – When does a horsepower begin to whop? Somewhere on the loopy, traffic-infested back roads of near upstate New York -- where Bill Clinton’s a local at the Dunk and Dine -- the eternal Zen question of sportscars arose and fell with a few turns of a steering wheel.

Somewhere in the ex-presidential existential maw, it occurred to me that, in Nissan’s view, every car should have the potential to whop. It’s certainly the case with the new 350Z, which sports a whopping 287 horsepower, hence the cliché. Sure, it’s yet another iteration of the V-6 engine that’s decorated many a new Nissan from the Altima to the Maxima. Don’t quote us on it, but we’re pretty sure this powerplant was also used to power President Bush’s win in Florida.

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 The 350Z is starkly different from the old Nissan vehicles still plodding around behind that gem of an engine. Wrapped in a loving two-door, two-seat body and set upon the sophisticated FM platform shared with Infiniti’s G35 sedan, the 350Z gives enthusiasts reason to believe that not every vehicle need be a truck, sport-ute, or watered-down crossover. It is the laser target that enthusiasts want to see aimed at their foreheads.

Long time brewing

The last Z – the 300ZX, an all-time favorite among enthusiasts and brake shops – drifted off into euthanasia in 1996, as much a victim of its own excess (price mostly, but weight too) as the struggle to right the listing Nissan ship. It wasn’t until the past three years that Renault’s Carlos Ghosn helped right the company’s finances with a major injection of capital and cost-cutting bravado.

2003 Nissan 350Z

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2003 Nissan 350Z

2003 Nissan 350Z

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Nissan says the 350Z is one of the first vehicles to rise from the alliance with the French automaker, but there are some very familiar pieces underneath. We’re talking about the engine here, the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine that’s found in the Maxima and  Altima sedans from Nissan, the G35 sedan from Infiniti and its coming coupe model, and in slightly smaller displacement versions, in the Frontier and Xterra trucks. There’s a vast economy of scale at work here, but each model wears its own horsepower designation. In the 350Z, it’s 287 hp (remember the days when Japanese carmakers refused to quote more than 280 hp?) and 274 lb-ft of torque – authoritative numbers for a vehicle that weighs about 3200 lb in average trim.

The V-6 is paired with either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual shifter. The automatic is of the sport-shift variety, and can generally be slapped around in the +/- gate to shift the Z into an appropriate gear. Of course we’d buy the six-speed manual – not only is it cheaper and more appropriate, it’s also slicker than the automatic, with a clutch uptake easy enough to lend itself to teach someone you trust on driving a manual-gearbox vehicle.

Off the record, Nissan folk report enthusiast magazines turning in zero to 60 mph times of 5.5 seconds. Our short buzz by the Vassar College campus and West Point didn’t throw any contrarian pieces into that puzzle. (What did puzzle us is the whole idea of a cross-river college mixer: would the Army guys even know any Adrienne Rich poetry? Would the Vassar gals be able to field-strip an M240B?)

Left in suspense

The platform takes equal billing in the 350Z’s instant must-have status. The FM chassis, first dished out in Infiniti G35 form, is by Nissan’s insistence, as close to a racecar as they get. Engineered for very little body roll and aero lift at high speed, the underpinnings of the Z are mounted with all sorts of drool-inducing hardware, like a multi-link suspension made of aluminum, four-wheel vented disc brakes with anti-lock control (Brembos are optional), and a variety pack of computerized safety/performance devices like Brake Assist, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Traction Control and optionally, Vehicle Dynamic Control.

Those of you who like your muscled vehicles shorn of all modern conveniences might want to check out a Dodge Viper. The rest of us can relish the Z’s natural steering, the exceptional braking performance and the utterly stable feel of winding the Z into a tightly drawn corner and pulling away under power, with zero fuss and zero puckering. Seventeen-inch 235/50 rear tires can do neat things, but when bolted onto a chassis as dynamically capable as the Z’s, they can inspire you to want to go back to driving school and sharpen up your technique.

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Look sharp

The Z’s silhouette has morphed from the unabashed retro concept that debuted in Detroit at the 1999 auto show, into a hybrid that could be linked thematically with everything from the last 300ZX to Audi’s TT. The proportions are familiar, but it’s the side rear windows that link it emphatically to Nissan’s own classic Zs. The headlamps are clawed into the hood, the front air intake’s as deep as that on a Porsche Turbo, and from the rear it’s drawn to a conclusion that couldn’t be more succinct if Hemingway penned it. The B-pillar and the big metallic door handles, set vertically, are typical of the Z’s somewhat anarchic combination of slashing modernism and happy mimicry of its own past. Non-art guys and gals can just take it that we like it. Like, a lot.

2003 Nissan 350Z

2003 Nissan 350Z

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Inside the bathtub-y cabin, the door panels rise high and the seats sit low. The feeling of depth is relieved mostly by the wedge of the console and a decently tall windshield. Big knobs control the essential A/C and audio functions, and manual-shift cars get a lever topped by a nifty insert of metallic trim. Toss in a set of orange-marked gauges that follow the tilt steering column through its range of motion, and the Z’s cockpit can be an exciting, argument-filled place for a driver and their favorite art director.

In the back, there’s a massive brace spanning the cargo area – a Z-logoed satin plastic piece that looks ready to be scarred by the first bag of Home Depot crap you shove into the hatch. If you’re a little more careful with your cars, Nissan will be selling some fitted luggage that just might hold a rubber mallet and some quarter-round molding, but they probably just wish you’d buy an Xterra instead.

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If it’s safety you’re wondering about, the Z has everything you’ll need. Along with the electronic Borg bits described a bit further back, the Z also carries dual front airbags as is the law of the land. Sidebags are a relatively inexpensive option.

Just get to the point

The few critical points we can levy against the Z can also be tagged on its platform-mate, the G35. With the sport suspension and 18-inch wheels, the ride can get close to objectionable on rough roads; like the MINI Cooper, the ride/handling compromise on the base vehicle is definitely more to the liking of daily drivers. The second bitch is shared with the 2003 Lincoln Navigator, which also has a door covering its audio system. Both doors are pretty (Lincoln’s has a satiny sheen, Nissan’s a metallic perforation) but are nearly impossible to press back into place without a two-finger tug – as inelegant a solution in a $27,000 sportscar as it is in a $50,000 sport-ute.

The Z comes in five basic configurations, ratcheting up the pricing ladder from a seemingly outrageous $26,269 (plus $540 in transportation charges) to $34,079. The base car comes with a bevy of equipment, including power locks/mirrors/windows, a leather steering wheel, automatic climate control and a 160-watt AM/FM/CD stereo. From that base you can opt for the Enthusiast model, which with either transmission gets traction control, a limited-slip differential, xenon headlamps and aluminum pedals, or you can opt for the Performance model which tosses in VDC and tire-pressure monitors and 18-inch wheels on top of that. The Touring model is the model most likely to succeed the 280ZX as the boulevardier: it gets a 240-watt sound system with a CD changer and power leather seats (and with the manual gearbox, the limited-slip diff, too). A Track model tops out the price range and ladles on all the hi-po equipment including the Brembo brakes, VDC and the limited-slip differential.

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Performance and Track models are manual only; a $1999 DVD nav system and the $569 side airbags are stand-alone options on any 350Z.

Before you rush out to buy, realize that there’s a 350Z roadster coming – and it’s coming a lot sooner than you or I once thought. A February 2003 debut is in the plans for the Z roadster, though Nissan is loathe to release more details other than the fact that it won’t be a T-topped car, but a true convertible.

2003 Nissan 350Z

2003 Nissan 350Z

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When the 300ZX deserted us in 1996, wearing a pricetag more than $40,000 and fading along with the RX-7 and Supra competition, it seemed inevitable that inexpensive sportscars – real, rear-driven sportscars – would be spoken of in the past tense. Since then the Boxster, Z3, S2000 and a few others have made their point at a higher price point. The 350Z’s all the more reason to have faith in cars that exist only to be driven -- and driven quickly at that.

2003 Nissan 350Z
Price: $26,269-$34,079
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 287 hp/274 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length x width x height: 169.6 x 71.5 x 51.9 in
Weight: 3188 lb – 3247 lb
Fuel economy (EPA):N/A
Safety equipment: Front driver and passenger airbags; anti-lock brakes
Standard equipment: leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel; power windows, mirrors and locks; remote keyless entry; cruise control; AM/FM/CD audio system; automatic climate control
Three years/36,000 miles

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