- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

The era of indifference in the automotive world seems a long time ago. It began late in the 1970s and continued through most of the 1980s. The manufacturers, it seemed, had run out of ideas — good ones anyway. Detroit was cranking out cookie-cutter cars. The Germans were making cars for the engineers, and the Japanese, for the most part, were producing fuel-efficient compacts.

Yawn.

Today, however, those same makers are on a new-vehicle spree. Beginning in 2003 and continuing through 2004, expect some truly awesome automotive hardware. Everything from the every-man’s-car Chevrolet Malibu to Ford’s street interpretation of its 1960s LeMan’s racing series GT40.

The imports are in the hunt as well. Two fun-to-drive import entries have arrived in U.S. showrooms. Volkswagen has added yet another variation to its New Beetle lineup: the New Beetle convertible. A fresh approach to an old theme, the New Beetle is a one of the growing batch of retro vehicles and the convertible edition is a natural extension of that effort. Nissan has also jumped into the retro fray with its all-new 350Z. One of the most anticipated new vehicle releases of 2003, the Z masterfully continues the Z-car heritage at an amazingly affordable price.

After two years of robust sales, the New Beetle’s numbers began to slide. From 80,000 sales in 2000, the coupe dipped to fewer than 60,000 sales in 2002. This isn’t terribly alarming because preproduction projections were for about 55,000 units annually, but a little shot in the arm couldn’t hurt. The 2003 New Beetle convertible is that and more. Fun to look at and a blast to drive, this compact drop top garners thumbs-up signals and waves wherever it goes.

Currently it is available with only one engine. It’s a 2.0-liter four-banger producing 115 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of peak torque. In its transition from the coupe to the convertible, it has been modified a bit with twin balance shafts for smoother performance. Torque is also slightly improved over the coupe. The corporate 1.8-liter turbo will be made available later in the model year and should improve performance dramatically. Either a five-speed manual or a six-speed driver-shiftable automatic links engine to wheels. Fuel economy is decent with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway in convertibles with the automatic transmission.

The top is power operated and there is a one-button all-window-down feature. When lowered, the top hangs off the back as it did with the original Beetle convertible. The soft boot used to cover the lowered top is a real hassle to install and takes up far too much trunk space when not in use. Raised, the top fits snugly to the windshield header.

While the convertible top doesn’t provide the noise insulation of the hardtop, it is well-constructed and does a reasonable job of deadening road noise. The base GL with manual transmission retails for $20,450, while the top-of-the-line GLX with automatic carries a sticker of $26,725 before the $575 destination charge.

Nissan hasn’t built a Z since the 300ZX faded away in 1996. Over-engineered, over-priced and nearly impossible to insure, the last Z collapsed under its own weight. The new Z rolled into showrooms with a gutsy normally aspirated six-cylinder and a ridiculously affordable price tag. A convertible version is coming and also benefits from a bargain-basement price..

Forget a turbo; one isn’t even offered. However, the 287-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 is sufficient to crack the six-second 0-to-60 mph barrier. It’s the only powerplant available despite the five versions in the 350Z stable. It develops 274 foot-pounds of peak torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels via either a close-ratio six-speed manual or a five-speed manumatic. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard on all versions as are dual exhaust, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, and power windows and door locks.

The cockpit features sport seats with side bolsters generous enough to hold one upright even in the sharpest curves. A tidy gauge package puts the tachometer directly in the driver’s sightline, with the speedometer located just to its right. The six-speaker audio system controls are high up in the center of the dashboard. There is plenty of room for the two occupants, but storage space is stingy. Rear cargo room is sufficient for a couple of small suitcases.

Dynamic in its performance, the 350Z drives even better than its svelte exterior looks. Whether it’s straight-line acceleration or twisty handling that turns you on, the 350Z will not disappoint. With its entry-level version carrying a base price of $26,809 and its highly contented, top-of-the-line Track edition priced at a remarkably reasonable $34,619 including delivery, Nissan should have no problem selling as many Zs as it can build.

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