- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Much has been made of Nissan’s return from the dead. Has any car company ever been so near extermination and bounced back to the heights of success Nissan currently is enjoying? Chrysler experienced a fairly dramatic comeback in the early 1980s; but while Chrysler may have fallen as low as Nissan, it sure didn’t rebound as high. To understand Nissan’s revival is to merely look at its 350Z. Here is an automobile epitomizing the heart and soul of Nissan.

The Z is the car that put Nissan on the American consumers’ radar when launched in 1969 as the 1970 240Z. After several ever-improving iterations and more than two decades of solid sales, the Z disappeared in 1996. Collapsing under the weight of its mushrooming price, the Z went the way of the Toyota Supra and Mazda’s RX-7. All three had abandoned their original target buyer (20-something guys) in exchange for more mature and affluent customers that simply never materialized.

The Z was gone and Nissan was struggling. Like Nissan, though, the Z was down, but not completely out. Almost immediately a movement began deep inside Nissan to revive the Z. A concept was created and introduced at the 2001 North American International Automobile Show in Detroit. Rolling into showrooms the following year, the 350Z was a throwback to the original Z, not only in its basic shape, but in its fun-to-drive verve and remarkably affordable price.

The hardtop 350Z translates flawlessly into the roadster. With flowing lines and a sleekness that would make an aerospace engineer weepy, the hardtop is nothing less than art in motion. Top lowered, the roadster is every bit as dashing. Even with the soft top raised, the roadster is appealing. While there are convertibles out there that look like they were penned by the Picasso Studio of Design, the 350Z is easy on the eye.

Drivability is everything in a sports car and the Z has drivability oozing from every seam. A low center of gravity and nearly perfect weight distribution (53/47 front-to-rear) conspire to insure outstanding balance. Handling triumphs over ride in the tuning of the fully independent suspension, but comfort isn’t compromised. It corners with confidence-inspiring authority. The steering has just the right amount of feel and feedback, and the four-wheel disc brakes with antilock grab with gusto and determination. This is the sort of car that will inspire you to make up reasons to leave the house and rejoice when a detour takes you out of your way. Car and driver will bond, and taking on a series of switchbacks will turn into a Zen experience every time.

Does the Z stir passion? Oh my, yes.

While the previous-generation Z had twin turbos, there is no such version of the 350Z. And guess what? No one will miss it. The current Z uses the much-utilized 3.5-liter V-6 found in a gaggle of Infinitis and other Nissans. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a smooth-running powerplant generating 287 horsepower and 274 foot-pounds of torque — plenty to make a car of the 350Z’s weight slingshot away from the line. For most enthusiasts, maximizing the Z’s fun-to-drive quotient requires the standard six-speed manual transmission. An ice-covered sidewalk isn’t as slick as this shifter. A five-speed manumatic transmission can be substituted for the manual. It gets the job done and doesn’t diminish performance, but just isn’t as much fun. The automatic does reduce fuel economy slightly, getting 19 miles per gallon in town to the manual’s 20. The highway number is 26 mpg for both, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Born and bred for two persons, the 350Z doesn’t muddy the water with a milk-stool-size backseat. The passenger area is roomy enough with plenty of legroom. A stylized dashboard sweeps around both sides of the cabin, the lines of which mesh seamlessly into the door panels. Filling the hand, the plump, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel harbors the buttons for the cruise control. Cascading from the dashboard and forming the center console, the center stack contains controls for the audio system followed by the three large round knobs that monitor the climate control. Sculpted bucket seats engulf their occupants, keeping them upright in the turns. Simple to operate, the convertible top automatically drops away with the push of a button. One drawback is the stingy trunk.

Offered in two (Enthusiast and Touring) trim levels, the 350Z Roadster isn’t quite the bargain the hardtop version can be. While the lowest priced hardtop is the $27,060 base, the Roadster’s lowest sticker is the $34,610 Enthusiast with manual transmission. At the top of the drop-top food chain is the automatic-equipped Touring at $38,110. All Roadsters have traction control, brake assist, tire-pressure monitor, power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors, CD player, remote keyless entry, trip computer, 17-inch alloy wheels, power seats and xenon headlights. The Touring adds heated leather seats, a Bose audio system with six-disc CD changer and side-impact air bags.

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