Open gallery Close by Mike Duff 21 October 2022 Share
How we test cars
The automotive world has changed a huge amount in the past two decades, especially when it comes to affordable sports cars.
It’s a shock to realise that it’s now 20 years since the Nissan 350Z was introduced, especially for those of us old enough to have have attended the original media presentation in California. Yet the new Nissan Z, which we’ve also met in the US, is only two generations removed from that car and much more similar than it is different.
The digital dash is crisply rendered and gives you the ability to configure the dials for different information. It’s reminiscent of the functionality Nissan pioneered with the R34 Skyline GT-R’s adjustable display 24 years ago.
Back in 2002, the 350Z felt like a renaissance car for Nissan, an affordable two-seat sports coupé that combined punchy V6 power with rear-wheel drive and a handsome exterior, this styled by a young designer from Leicester called Ajay Panchal. The driving experience lacked high levels of finesse, but the 350Z’s combination of strong performance and fun, tail-happy handling won it fans around the world.
But as times and tastes changed, the Nissan didn’t. The 370Z arrived in 2009, and although it was wider and had a slightly plusher cabin, the basics remained as before: a naturally aspirated V6 up front sending drive to the back. It sold well enough for Nissan to keep making it, and indeed to facelift it and create a hardcore Nismo variant, but never in volumes that would allow any significant investment in a substantial update. It lasted 12 years, with its retirement marking the end of the Z-car line in Europe.
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Not in North America, though, where Nissan has opted to throw the dice one more time. The general fall in coupé sales meant the company wasn’t prepared to stump up for an all-new model, so beneath the Z’s retro bodywork is much of the 370Z’s structure. The closeness of the relationship is borne out by the fact both share an identical wheelbase.
The big change comes under the bonnet, with the arrival of a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6, this sourced from sister brand Infiniti’s Q50 and making an impressively bristly 400bhp but adding about 80kg compared with the old V6. Buyers can choose either a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic gearbox, with the senior Performance trim also adding a limited-slip differential at the back.
The crisp lines of the retro exterior design work well, although the strangely large fuel filler cap at the back is further evidence of the need to bend new metalwork around the 370Z that continues to lurk underneath. Being a child of the 1980s, I really like the Z32 300ZX-style rear lights, too.
But the anachronistic impression persists when you get into the cabin. The Z has plenty of modern touches, including digital instruments and the mandatory touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, but the core architecture seems barely changed from that of the 370Z. That means awkward, hard-to-see rotary heating controls tucked low down and a trio of supplementary analogue dials on the dashtop, turned towards the driver. The seat-adjustment controls are still awkwardly positioned between the seat base and the transmission tunnel. A mechanical handbrake lever and high/off/low rocker switches for the heated seats add to the dated vibe.
Performance has definitely improved, though. The 370Z always had to be worked hard to give its best, whereas the Z’s new turbocharged engine has much more low-down muscle. The 350lb ft torque peak is fully present from just 1500rpm, and although there is some predictable lag at basement revs, enthusiasm builds rapidly and the engine gains a muscular voice as the rev counter heads towards the red. Peak power comes at 6400rpm, but the engine will happily go to its 7100rpm limiter. The shift action for the manual gearbox is light and a little lacking in feel but accurate once the knack is gained, and the Z has a switchable rev-matching function to smooth your downshifts.