What's it about
Japanese manufacturing - from consumer electronics to transport solutions, the quality and breadth of manufacturing from the land of the rising sun is redoubtable.
Electronics and family sedans don't rouse the emotions enough to have you setting your alarm clock for 05:00 to hit a Sunday breakfast run though.
Yet in 1969 Datsun launched the 240Z and suddenly the world knew Japanese car designers were not mere white-coated technocrats.
A svelte design, sharp handling, robust performance and good build quality made the 240Z an instant and endearing classic, spawning a long line of Z-cars, culminating with the 2007 version of the Nissan 350Z.
Wheels24 recently tested the convertible and coupe versions of the 350Z back-to-back, and ultimately had to answer the utterly unfair question: which one is better?
Fundamentally, the original Z-car's philosophy has remained true and 350Z today retains its front-engined, rear-wheel drive configuration with big power and demanding handling. It's simple, effective engineering.
And it's rather striking too. Thanks to a sporty shape and a new aggressive power bulge on the latest 350Z models, the cars have immense road presence.
Aesthetically, the convertible looks better with its canvas top folded down. It looks slightly ungainly with the roof up, especially with the bootline having a stretched-out look.
Clearly the coupe was the original design and the canvas roof looks precisely like what it is: an add-on.
In comparison the coupe is perfectly balanced. Symmetrical, with the rear-three quarter view perhaps being the most striking, even the twin exhaust pipes signal this Nissan's intention to brook no arguments.
On the inside
In terms of ergonomics the 350Z doesn't disappoint.
One is impressed with its low-slung driving position and a neat instrumentation layout - especially the recessed dials, which are easily legible. Switchgear is straightforward to operate too.
But overall it is all just a bit underwhelming compared to the visual drama of the exterior styling.
Nothing special grabs your attention, and although perceivable quality is good (I managed to dislodge the fuel-flap button on the coupe though) is it just not a tactile pleasure to touch anything in the cabin.
Our black coupe test unit had an attractive tan-leather trim which offset some of the standard all-black cabin's sobriety.
The lurid orange dials are just plain ugly though, and are too reminiscent of 80's pseudo-sportscars which were allowed to escape Japan. Also, you cannot help but notice the steering wheel looks awfully familiar to a Nissan Navara's?
But you do get some decent storage space - especially on the coupe derivative.
Although both models do not have gloveboxes - it's terribly entertaining asking a passenger to open the 'glovebox' and search for something - the myriad of clever storage spaces behind the seats make up for it.
Despite its rear strut brace running an arch practically across the loadbay, the coupe proved its worth by accommodating my camera equipment, a suitcase and one person's entire term boarding school wardrobe on an impromptu school run.
Of the two, the coupe could definitely ease into the grand touring role, whilst the convertible has only enough luggage capacity for a naughty weekend getaway at best. boarding school.
Both feature a booming Bose sound system that is acoustically brilliant but quizzically plays tapes instead of MP3s...
Under the skin
It is under the skin where the real Z-car's genetics are hidden.
Powering both models is the same 3.5 V6 and the 2007 models produce incrementally more power (230kW versus 216kW) and torque (358Nm versus 350Nm) thanks primarily to improved breathing with revised intake and exhaust systems.
Technically, the smaller valves combined with a twin symmetric air intake and straight intake ports have reduced valve inertia and improved throttle response at low speeds. At the other end of the scale the symmetrical intake and exhaust systems have brushed aside the rev-counter red-paint to a higher 7 500 r/min mark.
Driving through a clunky, mechanical six-speed manual gearbox it is a superb drivetrain.
The heavy duty clutch and gearbox action is desperately tiring ambling along in traffic, yet when the road opens up it is superlative. However, at any low speed, a quick dab on the throttle yields seatback-squashing acceleration.
You can shift up during full-bore throttle actions with short-arm jab violence and the short-throw shifter just meshes into the next gear with alacrity. The power is relentless too, setting the shift-light at a sane 7 300 r/min on a challenging stretch of road. You will be gobsmacked at the ease and regularity with which you light it again and again?
Let me give you some idea of just how tractable this drivetrain is.
I spent some mornings driving to work using just over half the useable range of the tachometer, shifting up religiously at 4 000 r/min, and even some spirited junior hot hatches were dispatched with disdainful ease.
Overtaking is always just a short shift down, and you find yourself driving these Z-cars at full-bore habitually, edged on by the most ridiculously melodious V6 soundtrack, a sky-high rev ceiling and very keen gearbox.
Acoustically, although the coupe has keen in-cabin tone, the convertible, top down, througha tunnel, is simply a religious experience.
As rewarding as the drivetrain is, the Z-cars have very demanding handling characteristics.
Firmly sprung, with 18-inch mags, they retain a sense of wonderfully tactile feel through the weighty steering, especially when traveling at speed on smooth road surfaces.
These are cars which do not like bumpy back roads. I had some truly spine-tingling moments amplified by serious heart palpitations as the Z-cars demonstrated a dogged determination to track the direction of road surface ruts, not my steering inputs.
The convertible is worse here, obviously lacking the structural rigidity of the coupe. In both models the rear-wheel drive configuration, big power and a mischievous habit of switching off the vehicle stability control can yield hugely entertaining oversteer antics.
Slow-in, fast-out, second gear corners are recommended. The high speed lift-off oversteer characteristics are frighteningly real.
Overall the handling is a challenge and forces you to drive maturely at speed. If you want to drive like a petulant teenager the Z-cars, especially the convertible, will not indulge a lack of steering finesse or throttle dexterity.
Go in slow, be off the brakes at the turn-in point, in the right gear, and as the steering weighs up and you pour on that linear V6-power the Z-cars are superb. Top-down the convertible has better visibility and you can really do some hairline apex clipping.
High speed stability and braking is first class too.
The 350Z is supposed to be a no-compromise sportscar. Essentially both the coupe and convertible Z-cars are superb modern evolutions of their illustrious Z-car ancestors.
Rewarding to drive, with an inspiring drivetrain, demanding yet gratifying handling and uniquely muscular Japanese design aesthetics, they are simply top notch.
And although the badge means you might be obliged to return the odd Nissan Micra owners' wave, it is a thoroughbred, in design and application.
Which one is better though?
With the drop-top the engine noise combined with the chassis, tracking true in variable radius sweeps was magical. However, with the top up you feel the magic vanishing.
In comparison, the coupe provides unmatchable, safe overtaking urge, and blitzes with confidence through sweeping mountain passes. It is a cosseting grand-tourer packed with confidence.
And that is why it wins. The coupe is the purer car here. On those choice summer days, on the right roads the convertible is awfully entertaining, but the coupe is more focused and never leaves you in doubt.
It is also without peer in the sub-R500 000 sports car market.