Say hello to the 2003 Nissan 350Z, and the rebirth of the legendary Z-car. Now, you can forgive us for thinking that when the 300ZX was cancelled in 1996, that the Z-car was gone for good. At that point, Z-car stood more for luxury touring than sports car excitement. But this car draws its inspiration from the 1970 Datsun 240Z. Probably the first sports car that was exhilarating to drive, easy to own, and didn’t spend half its life in the repair shop. So what about the 350Z? Is the legend secure?
Well, let’s take a hard and fast look, and see if the 2003 Nissan 350Z has what it takes to live up to the formidable reputation of the original Z-car.
When the 240Z arrived 32 years ago, it was styling that first drew us to it. Here was a Japanese sports car that wasn’t peculiar. It was slick, and more eye-catching than Europe’s best. The new Z, with its 21st century aerodynamics, isn’t quite the pure looker that its ancestor was, but it’s still handsome, if a lot more serious.
Where the old Z looked slim and light, the new Z stands solid, as if to say, ‘‘I can take on any road you can throw at me.’’ And indeed, the 350Z is built for hard driving, with a super-stiff rear-drive platform, and a long 104.3-inch wheelbase. That platform is shared with the excellent Infiniti G35, and powered by the same 3.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6 that in Z tune spurts out 287 horsepower and 274 pound-feet of torque. Those ponies gallop through either a 5-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual.
Our top-drawer Track Edition test car appropriately comes with the 6-speed, and we found the shifter action to be light and crisp, with just the right throw length. Which when properly engaged, allowed the 350Z to sprint to 60 in only 5.7 seconds. The 1/4 mile ran out in a quick 14.4 seconds at 99 miles-per-hour. It lacks some of the low-down grunt of later twin-turbo Zs, but makes up for it with a smooth delivery and robust midrange punch.
The original Z was also known for how it handled the asphalt, so where better to take our Track 350Z than the challenging corners of the completely rebuilt and beautifully maintained Virginia International Raceway near Danville. All Z’s come with front and rear multi-link suspension, heavy with lightweight forged aluminum components. Add to that 18-inch forged alloy wheels and brakes from Brembo, and our Track model had the extra hardware needed to tackle VIR.
Being the first car writers to track test the new Z, we were delighted to confirm that the new 350 follows right in the tire tracks of the original with sharp and nimble handling that belies its 3,225 pound weight. The front end will push a bit as corners tighten up, but a touch of throttle induces a gentle, predictable rear end drift. Nissan’s Vehicle Dynamic Control, traction control, and a limited slip differential all work together to keep the Z in the groove. It’s an extremely well balanced and quite forgiving package. Not quite neutral, but darn close. Nissan mounted the engine fully behind the front axle for a near perfect 53% front/47% rear weight distribution.
Braking was also excellent, thanks to the healthy power and feel from the fully vented discs and ABS aided calipers. Stability in all conditions was top notch, whether in our standard 60 mile-per-hour test, which averaged 119 feet, or from triple digit track speeds.
But whether you choose the standard, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring or our Track model, you will find yourself in a cockpit with a sterile, all-business look. It’s a far cry from the classic British sports car style of the 240Z, but it’s much roomier, with more efficient controls, and a much wider range of amenities, including main gauges that move up and down with the adjustable steering wheel.
A hidden storage space behind the passenger seat substitutes for a normal dash glove box. Open the big rear hatch, and you’ll find that luggage space has been compromised for the sake of body stiffness and handling. A thick strut bar makes for a tight 6.8 cubic feet of cargo space.
Pricing for the 2003 Nissan 350Z starts at a bargain $26,809 for the very well equipped Standard model, and tops out at 34,619 for our Track model, with five more variations in between. In other words, a Z for every taste.
,p>With the arrival of the new 350Z, Nissan’s legendary Z-car has gone back to its roots with a vengeance. The legend is not only secure, it’s accessible, affordable, and more exciting than ever before. And that’s ‘‘Z’‘-truth!
Engine: 3.5-Liter Dohc V6
Torque: 274 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.4 Seconds @ 99 MPH
60-0 MPH: 119 Feet
Motorweek's Mileage Loop: 26.1 MPG Mixed City/highway