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Upgraded for 2006, the Nissan 350Z remains the flag carrier for the rejuvenated Nissan lineup. Like the original Datsun 240Z, it's fast, it's fun, it's pure sports car. And, again like the original Z, it's affordable, or at least attainable.
The most fundamental change for 2006 is the expanded installation of the more powerful V6 previously reserved for the Track model and last year's 35th Anniversary Edition to all models with the manual transmission. Other functional upgrades include larger wheels, more responsive power steering, better brakes, improved lighting and added audio features.
Carried over are all those features that make the 350Z such a performance bargain: carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, anti-lock disc brakes vented front and rear with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Add the convenience features that come standard, such as automatic temperature control and a premium stereo even in the base Z, and the price is compelling.
Available as a coupe or roadster, the 350Z delivers racecar handling, rear-wheel drive, and thrilling acceleration performance. The suspension keeps the tires glued to the road through fast chicanes. Bounce over the curbs on a road racing circuit and the Z will hold its line. Styling details like the controversial industrial-design door handles ensure this car will never be called bland.
Nissan says the 350Z was designed to be a sports car an enthusiast can live with every day. While its firm ride, abrupt throttle response, and awkward cup holders don't make it a great place to drink coffee, eat doughnuts, and make phone calls on the way to work, it is a comfortable car with usable cargo space, and getting in and out isn't impossibly awkward. Order a version with the excellent five-speed automatic, and you'll have a commuter for the daily stop-and-go that will still leave a grin on your face after a quick run down a favorite racer road.
Bottom line: The Nissan 350Z more than delivers on the promise of its stellar looks. It's a real sports car with serious GT performance. The Roadster adds wind-in-your hair freedom.
Turning the key and hearing the engine roar to life is the first indication that the Nissan 350Z is no poser. Turning onto a winding road proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Sharp steering, terrific handling, and excellent grip make it a real driver's car. This car is very fast with brilliant acceleration. The Roadster's additional weight, a result of the platform strengthening to increase rigidity, no doubt adds a tick or two to the 0-60 measurement but isn't noticed in everyday driving.
Mounted longitudinally and driving the rear wheels is Nissan's excellent VQ V6 engine. It's smooth and has a distinctive sound, the sound of a big sports car engine. It generates lots of torque at low rpm, pulling smoothly from about 2000 rpm. Maximum torque of 260 pound-feet comes at 4800 rpm, tapering off as 300 horsepower is reached at 6400 rpm; equivalent figures with the automatic transmission are 274 pound-feet at 4800 rpm and 287 hp at 6200 rpm. The engine is still pulling smoothly as the rev limiter steps in at 7000 rpm with the manual and 6600 rpm with the automatic, but this engine is more about low-rpm torque than high-revving horsepower. Nissan's Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System helps the V6 produce a nice, linear band of torque. Drive-by-wire technology reduces mechanical weight and complexity.
The short-throw shifter feels good, and it's effective. The six-speed gearbox shifts quickly and deliberately. It feels perfectly synchronized, making shifting easy and enjoyable. Clutch pedal effort has enough heft to remind the driver that this is a serious sports car. With the Roadster's top down, the exhaust tone is music to the driver's ears, rising and falling melodiously and crisply as the gears are worked through the turns on a twisty road. What isn't music to the ears in the Roadster is the ever-present road noise, even with the top up; we're not as sure about wind noise because, if there were any, it was masked by the hiss of tires on pavement and the hustle and bustle of nearby cars. Conversations in almost normal tones with the top up had to be ratcheted up several notches with the top down.
The automatic transmission works great, really smooth and responsive, and it didn't leave us feeling like we were missing out by not having the manual. With manual mode selected, the automatic holds lower gears right up to the rev limiter, upshifting only when the driver desires. Downshifts are electronically managed to ensure an overly rambunctious pilot doesn't over-rev the sweet V6. The delicious exhaust tone is wasted on Roadsters fitted with the automatic, though, when it wanders almost aimlessly up and down the scale as the engine slips seamlessly from gear to gear.
Handling feels taut and well controlled in both hatchback and Roadster, and the latter experiences very little of the dreaded cowl shake common in lesser conversion convertibles. These cars really stick through fast sweepers, allowing the driver to keep the throttle down. The steering is sharp and accurate, and the Z changes directions brilliantly in transient maneuvers, without excessive understeer turning in or sloppy oversteer coming out. Cornering is flat, without much body lean. The tires generate lots of grip, even when driving in a rebellious manner. It's hard to imagine using up all that grip, save for a competitive event or an emergency maneuver. This car doesn't beat you up, but the ride gets jouncy on bumpy roads most noticeably when cruising slowly, whether fitted with 18-inch or 19-inch wheels, although more so with the latter. But we expect a firm ride with a sports car like this.
Buffeting at highway speeds with the top down was much less than expected, thanks to the tempered glass deflector mounted between the rollbars behind the seats and to racy body panels tapering back from each of the seat positions. Anti-flap seatbelt retainers further reduce the perceived bu
The Nissan 350Z is the car for drivers who want serious sports car performance in a GT body without shelling out the big bucks. Its rear-wheel-drive chassis is rigid, and its suspension is taut for excellent handling. The V6 delivers lots of torque for strong acceleration performance. Whether you opt for the six-speed manual gearbox or the five-speed automatic, there are no dogs in the lineup. The interior is the weakest link, but you can get comfortable with a little time spent living with it.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.