There is an old saying in car racing that if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’. If the 2009 370Z is any indication, Nissan has been doing a lot of the second, so you can do a little bit of the first.
The latest Z starts by bucking auto industry convention, coming in smaller and lighter than the car it replaces, the 6-year old 350Z. It does this through the extensive use of aluminum and composite materials for the body and various structural components, even shedding a few pounds from the stereo system.
Nissan did have the good sense to make the 370Z wider, ostensibly for better handling, but also creating one of the finest looking booties in the business. The muscular haunches look ready to burst, and are a good indication of what’s under the hood.
Click here for PHOTOS of the 370Z
In spite of the diet that the rest of the car went on, Nissan boosted the power of the 370Z with an updated version of the company’s glorious V6. Now measuring 3.7 liters in displacement, it spins out 332 horsepower, up from 306 hp. More important, the thrust is doled out more evenly across the engine’s rev range. A good portion of the 270 pound-feet of torque is served up down low, but the motor can still scream to a 7,500 rpm redline accompanied by a deep and raspy exhaust note that could front AC/DC.
The 370Z gets a drive-by-wire throttle that is as responsive as a trombone slide, making it easy to make beautiful music, if you happen to be in a marching band. Befitting the progeny of a legendary line of sports cars, the accelerator and other pedals are placed perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifting of the quick, short-throw 6-speed manual transmission. Ironically, it is a detail you can live without, because the Z has an option that makes this ancient skill of footwork completely irrelevant.
Appropriately called SynchroRev Match, the unique system automatically blips the throttle as you shift into a lower gear, matching revs perfectly without causing any shock or shudder in the drivetrain. A skilled driver could do it as well, perhaps, but no better, and not every single time. During lap after lap of the road course at Raceway Park in New Jersey I tried to find its weakness, but to no avail. Even fourth to first shifts under extreme braking were handled without a fuss.
SynchroRev Match comes bundled with a Sport package that adds $3,000 to the base price of $29,930 and includes bigger brakes, a limited-slip differential, lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels with assymetrical spokes, and spoilers that grace the car with slipperier aerodynamics than the base model. Diehards will scoff at the idea of such a feature being included as part of an enthusiast-oriented package like this, and for them there is a button that turns the system off. Trust me, if they happen to turn it on by accident they may never press it again.
The feature is no gimmick, and is a much simpler and cheaper solution to making a manual transmission more user friendly than many of the fully-automated gearboxes out there today, including the dual-clutch unit on Nissan's technological wonder, the GT-R. I'm sure there are thousands of engineers and shade tree mechanics around the world kicking themselves for not patenting the idea first.
In some ways, though, it is a little out of place on a car that is otherwise as pure as the 370Z. The one I tested was a relative stripper, with a satellite-free stereo that was in desperate need of better reception, no navigation system, and manually-adjusted cloth seats that held me in place just fine as I was spinning wildly off the track, hoping the grass would stop me before I hit the wall.
It did. All four times.
An upscale Touring model is available with leather upholstery, Bluetooth, and Nissan's excellent hard drive navigation system for an extra five grand or so, but the Sport is the one to get if you want to enjoy what the 370Z is best at, embarrassing the world's greatest roads. If luxury is your thing, you can go for the similar, but more sophisticated Infiniti G37, and leave the 370Zs for the people who will put them to good use.
Regardless of who or what is controlling the gas pedal, the 370Z responds like it is balanced on the head of a pin. I didn't have a tape measure handy, so I'm not sure if the driver’s seat is set perfectly in the center of the car, but it sure feels like it. Steering and throttle inputs have such a direct effect on the chassis that you need to know exactly what you want from it before you ask, because you will get it.
That said, the 370Z is by no means a slot car with unyielding grip. You can easily drive it beyond its limits, either sliding the tail out, or plowing straight through a curve by applying too much power, or not enough. The steering is so quick it practically beats you into the turns. Get it all right, and the payback is a perfect line, or a smooth drift through the apex, if you're out to have some juvenile fun rather than set the fastest lap time.
The output of the engine may look a little light compared to some of the monster motors on the road these days, but in a coupe that weighs 3,232 pounds it's plenty. Zero to 60 mph takes about 5 seconds, and the quarter mile passes in 13.5 ticks. If that is not enough for you, a more extreme Nismo-branded model is available that puts 350 hp on the table for $39,130.
Although the interior of the 370Z is a vast improvement over the 350Z, full of soft-touch plastics and patches of leather in just the right places, there are a few nits to pick.
First, visibility to the rear is so bad that it brings to mind a 1980's Italian exotic. The blind spots are bigger than what little glass is there, and the shallow slope of the hatchback offers up a mail slot-sized aperture that doesn't even fill half of the rearview mirror. With the seat in an upright driving position I was able to see just one car length behind me, the entire horizon cut off from view. Large side mirrors help, but the situation is not great if someone named Smokey happens to be the second car back. On the flip side, a low hood and thin window pillars provide a panoramic view of the road ahead.
There is also very little room under the hatchback, less than 7 cubic feet, though it is wide and flat and one big suitcase will slip between the wheel wells. But you might want to think about stuffing in more than that just to stifle some of the noise that is amplified by the echo chamber back there on all surfaces other than freshly laid asphalt. If you see a particularly fast paving machine at work, pull up behind it and revel in the pristine blacktop, because the tradeoff is that the acoustics let in nearly equal amounts of sound from both the exhaust and the engine, a rare double treat.
Hopefully it will keep you from nodding off. When you rest your noggin on the headrest, a lever effect causes the center of the seatback to tap you in the small of your back. It's not a problem if you aren't a lazy driver, but good luck wearing a helmet on track day without it becoming a distraction.
Then again, for a taste of this car at the limit, I’d consider riding on a bed of nails.
Base Price: $29,930
As Tested: $33,740
Type: Front engine, rear drive, 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Powerplant: 3.7L V6
Transmission: 6-speed manual
MPG: 18 city/26 hwy
What do you think of the 370Z?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.