- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

Ever so often, a new car comes along that so captures the public fancy that people are willing to wait in line and pay extra to get one while it's hot. Examples include the 1976 Honda Accord, the 1990 Mazda Miata, the 1998 Volkswagen New Beetle and the 2002 Mini Cooper.
Thirty-three years ago, the phenomenon was the Datsun 240Z, a sports/GT car from Nissan of Japan. The company had produced a sports car before, but the three-passenger Datsun 2000 was something of an odd duck, a roadster with a sideways-facing back seat, and it never caught on.
The 240Z, on the other hand, was an immediate smash hit in 1969. It had sexy good looks, a 2.4-liter six-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower, front disc brakes, a four-speed stick shift and a suggested retail price of $3,526.
Over the years, it morphed into the 260Z, the 280Z, the 280ZX and the 300ZX, even as the company dropped the Datsun identity in favor of the Nissan corporate name. Alas,
the Z-car also became a victim of blooming prices and disenchantment with high-end GT cars, and the 300ZX expired of neglect after the 1996 model year.
But never underestimate the vacillations of the American motoring public. The past few years have seen a resurgence of two-seat sports and GT cars, and more are on the way. Among them: the Audi TT, Honda S2000, Porsche Boxster and the Toyota MR2 Spyder. The Chrysler Crossfire will be a 2004 model.
Not surprisingly, the powers at a resurgent Nissan decided it was time to resurrect the Z-car after a seven-year hiatus. The result is the nifty 2003 350Z, which in a modern context returns the Z to its roots as an affordable sports/grand touring car with outstanding performance.
As its nomenclature indicates, the 350Z now has a 3.5-liter engine, a V-6 with a robust 287 horsepower. Plunk that down into a rear-drive machine that weighs just over 3,300 pounds, and you have all sorts of slingshot potential.
On the six-speed manual model, zero to 60 mph ticks off in under six seconds and the top speed is something you don't even want to think about. It's marginally slower with the five-speed automatic transmission, as on the example tested for this review, but it's still enough to turn heads, including that of the driver.
The suspension system is independent all the way around, and the 18-inch alloy wheels surround strong anti-lock disc brakes and are wrapped with high-performance tires. Yet despite the Z's squat-down handling, it has a surprisingly supple ride that makes for comfortable long-distance cruising.
The comfort is enhanced by the interior, where the leather-wrapped seats have a just-right feel and fit, with plenty of lateral support to hold the torso in tight turns. There's only 50 cubic feet of passenger volume, but for two persons that translates into midsize sedan space.
To keep matters in perspective, the instruments adjust with the steering wheel and, in true sports-car fashion, the main gauge in the middle is the tachometer, with the speedometer off to the right. That makes more sense on a stick-shift model than with the automatic, although the Z's automatic has a manual-shift mode.
Shifts feel mushy in leisurely driving at low throttle inputs. But when you get your foot into it, the automatic transmission snaps crisply through the upshifts. Enthusiasts likely will opt for the six-speed manual gearbox, though a lot of customers likely will feel compatible with the automatic.
But not all is hunky-dory with the 350Z. A body brace runs between the attachment points for the rear shock absorbers, effectively bisecting the luggage area and wiping out a good chunk of cargo space.
The brace also contains the rear stereo speakers, which are heavily biased toward bass sounds and right behind the driver's and passenger's heads, making it difficult to correctly balance all the sound sources.
Nissan also needs to do something about securing the seat belts. When not in use as when the driver is alone, especially on a rough road the passenger belt's hardware whacks noisily away at the plastic covering the B-pillar at the rear of the side window.
There's no conventional glove compartment. Instead, there's a lockable storage area behind the passenger seat.
It's fairly commodious, but awkward to get to.
You have to reach over and fold down the right seat, then contort yourself to reach it. The few shortcomings, however, are likely to be easily overlooked by customers who will be seduced by the Z's chiseled styling, tasteful interior and race-car exhaust sounds. This is a car that sounds and looks the part of an expensive tourer.
Yet like its ancestor, the 240Z, the new 350Z is affordable, though not cheap.
The base model has a suggested sticker price of $26,809. At the high end is the Track model, at $34,619. The test car was a midlevel Touring model, with a sticker price of $32,129. A set of floor mats brought the total to $32,198.

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