Z-ing Is Believing

Nissan's 350Z blends power, style and comfort with a nice price.

TO Z OR NOT TO Z? If that is the question, the answer is a resounding yes. While Nissan's new 350Z sports coupe — the fifth generation of the fabled "Z-car" — might be outgunned in one characteristic or another by one of its competitors, it boasts a blend of attributes that its two-seater sports car competitors have a hard time matching.

Specifically, the 350Z is far more comfortable to occupy than, say, the Honda S2000, which has hot performance aplenty but all the comfort of a middle seat on a puddle-jumping commuter plane. Also, the 350Z packs virtually the same punch as a Porsche Boxster but for many thousands of dollars less.

And the Z's styling is both fresh and familiar — offering a contemporary rendition of the original 1970 Datsun 240Z, thus evoking nostalgic vibes similar to those conjured up by Volkswagen's new Beetle or Ford's new Thunderbird. Like the Beetle and the 'Bird, the Z car went out of production for a while before being reborn.

The previous version, the 300ZX Turbo (the only one in the line with a turbocharged engine) was last produced six years ago. When Nissan stopped making the car, the base price had soared to a lofty $37,000 that too few buyers were willing to pay. Nissan got the message; the new Z's base price is some $10,000 less.

To be sure, the 350Z has a few flaws and presents some pitfalls to be avoided. Tops among the latter is the optional five-speed automatic transmission. Putting an automatic on this machine is like telling Tiger Woods to swing his driver with one arm tied behind his back, which would rob even him of performance.

In contrast to the automatic, however, the 350Z's six-speed manual transmission is pure heaven — offering short, smooth shifting that unleashes the 287 horses that lurk beneath the hood. This hefty horsepower comes from a 3.5-liter, 24-valve, dual-overhead-cam V-6 that zips from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. This engine comes in all five flavors of the 350Z: the base car, the Enthusiast, the Touring, the Performance and the Track. The differences among the versions lie in the accessories.

The Performance version, for example, offers 18-inch wheels and tires, versus the 17-inchers on the base model, and a vehicle dynamic control system that enhances stability at high speeds. The 350Z Track gets lightweight forged-aluminum 18-inch wheels, a rear spoiler and an upscale Brembo brake system (though the regular brakes feel plenty secure and effective).

In any version, the 350Z provides considerable muscle for the moolah. The price of the base car is $26,809 (all prices include destination charge), with the upscale versions topping out around $10,000 higher than that, depending on what's included. The 350Z Touring that I used to cruise through the Catskill Mountains in New York on a recent weekend carried a sticker price of $35,718, including $1,999 for the optional DVD navigation system in the dashboard. Honda's S2000 can be had for about the same amount, but the Porsche Boxster runs north of $47,000.

Both the S2000 and the Boxster are a little slower from a standing start than the 350Z. The real speed demon in this category is the BMW M3 coupe, which boasts 333 horsepower and blasts from zero to 60 in less than 5 seconds, but costs more than $45,000.

In truth, the 350Z's smooth and powerful acceleration doesn't thrust you hard against the back of your seat the way the M3 coupe can do. Nissan could have, and should have, made the Z faster by making the car somewhat lighter; at 3,188 pounds, the 350Z is about 1,000 pounds heavier than the original. Of course, the engine on the original 240Z packed only 150 hp, little more than your average subcompact has today. The 350Z's engineers apparently prized a stiff chassis even at the price of some extra poundage, which is exactly what they produced.

The bottom line is that the 350Z's acceleration certainly is satisfying, if not exactly exhilarating. Fuel economy is very good for a car with this much oomph: 20 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway.

The 350Z, like the Boxster, the S2000 and the M3 coupe, has the rear-wheel-drive layout that driving enthusiasts expect. The car is built on Nissan's new FM (for "front midship") platform, which results in a front/rear weight distribution of 53/47 percent; this provides an even balance that helps make the car's handling nimble and responsive. Cornering is hugely fun in this car, thanks to that stiff chassis and to the manual transmission, which gives you ample leeway to downshift and accelerate while coming out of a curve on a mountain road.

Speaking of which, the 350Z displayed its strengths nicely on my ride through the Catskills. Downshifting from sixth gear into fifth allowed the car to climb up the steepest highway mountain grades without breaking a sweat. Hills? What hills?

The lateral support offered by the seats is absolutely outstanding — likely the best I have encountered. Indeed, the 350Z is amazingly comfortable for driver and passenger alike, even on trips that cover many miles and last many hours. This level of comfort is unusual for cars in this class.

The 350Z's comfort stems partly from its proportions. The car is nearly 3 inches wider, more than an inch taller and more than 7 inches longer than Honda's S2000. The extra space is there because Nissan wanted a sports car that "owners could live with and look forward to driving every day," as the Z's marketing material states. In other words, Nissan made some tradeoffs to make the Z more user-friendly, even at the cost of some performance. For the most part, this gambit works.

The 350Z's interior is efficiently designed and well proportioned, with an uncluttered, attractive dashboard and nicely textured plastic surfaces. The gauges are simple and easy to read. I especially liked the tire-pressure monitoring system, which adds a sports-car touch. Having the glove box situated behind the passenger seat makes access a little awkward, but how often do you reach for the glove box while driving anyway?

Some complaints: The lateral bar that stretches across the rear storage space no doubt adds some rigidity to the car's body, but it cuts down on the room available for your luggage or gear. More annoying, I found, was the noise of the passenger's seat-belt buckle banging against the inside door panel. If you're riding with a passenger, the seat belt will be buckled and the problem will disappear. Otherwise, you should buckle the passenger's belt yourself.

The plusses outweigh these quibbles by a long shot. The 350Z's styling is eye-catching enough to draw lots of admiring stares and waves. The dual exhaust emits a sound that is authoritative and throaty, stopping just shy of being obnoxious.

Standard features include automatic climate control, power door locks and windows, remote keyless entry, a six-speaker audio system with AM-FM radio and a CD player, remote-control door mirrors, an electric rear-window defroster and a rear-window wiper. The halogen headlights are sleek and attractive.

Available optional equipment, besides the must-avoid automatic transmission, includes the in-dash navigation system and side-impact airbags for both body and head; the latter cost $569. Nissan's sales goals for the 350Z are modest: 30,000 cars over the next 12 months. The limited supply means that wannabe buyers have been lining up at dealerships, so don't expect any discounts.

By next summer Nissan will extend the 350Z lineup with a convertible, for those who want speed and comfort with the wind blowing through their hair.