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We drive the Nissan 350Z flat out!

2003-07-26 10:51

John Oxley

Wheels24 was in Europe to have a look at the new Japanese supercar as part of a group of journalists from around Europe (and including a few from Africa) prior to the car's introduction in October in Europe, and early next year in SA.

Although the car has been around in America for about a year - long enough to become the most popular sports car in the US - that version is "soft" by European and South African standards, its suspension aimed more for comfort than out-and-out driving pleasure.

As a result for Europe and Africa it has been stiffened up and more aerodynamic aids added to ensure its stays "on the island" during hard driving

And I can tell you it shows.

This is one of the most forgiving fast cars I have driven for a long while, relying not on electronic aids or complex four-wheel-drive to give it superb grip and handling, but on mechanical balance and solid construction.

It is a car which sits flat and solidly on the road even under the hardest cornering, while a 47/53 front-rear weight distribution ensures that handling remains neutral.

Secondary roads

I drove it hard on the autobahn, but even harder and faster on the secondary roads around Nuremberg and tight and twisty rural roads in Bavaria.

The car is endowed with very crisp turn-in, due in part to the almost ideal weight distribution, and also to the forged aluminium suspension, featuring a Nissan patent multi-link front, plus a multi-link rear which sees track rods and a split damper and spring setup.

The last car I drove that handled like this one was the legendary Mazda RX7, my own car modified to 150 kW and with wider wheels and tyres.

The Nissan feels the same, but with much more grunt from the 3.5-litre quad cam V6 engine, with Continuously Variable Valve Timing to ensure a flat torque curve, and a power output that sees 208 kW (at 6 200 r/min) and 363 Nm at 4 800 r/min.

The 350Z, the fifth generation of Nissan's famous Z-Car, leaps from standstill to 100 km/h in 5.9 seconds. Not the fastest car on the block, but certainly the fastest sports car this side of R380 000, which is the target price for its launch early next year.

What's more, the Nissan comes lavishly equipped, with climate controlled aircon, electric windows, 6-disc in-dash CD with surround sound plus a radio and cassette player, remote electric locking - the list is long, with the only options wider forged alloy wheels.

The standard wheels themselves are big and bold, 18 inches shod with 225/45R18 91W Bridgestone Potenzas specially made for the car, and even wider 245/45R18 96W rubber at the back.

And those brakes!

Yes, they're great stoppers, and so they should be, being Italian Brembos with four-pot calipers at the front, all ventilated, and measuring 324 mm and 322 mm front/rear.

More to the point, the trademark bright red calipers are bold and outspoken through the spoked alloy wheels, drawing admiration whenever the car is parked.

In fact, admiration is a strong point here, for the 350Z, like its predecessors, attracts attention for its balanced styling, incorporating much of the look of the original 240Z of 1969, plus features of the great 300 ZX twin turbo, its immediate predecessor.

Attention to detail

In fact, no attention to detail has been spared on this car, for its whole raison d'être is to show Nissan is back with a vengeance as a world motoring force, once more able to produce cars which are both appealing and profitable, well engineered and well styled.

Nissan Japan is in fact one of the most profitable companies in the world these days, being debt-free and able to support its own research and development in conjunction with its majority shareholder Renault.

The same applies in South Africa, where loss-leading models have been discarded in favour of a tighter but more moneymaking mix. The result is a small vehicle lineup, but it's one which will grow in coming years, the 350Z joining as iconic flagship to indicate that the company is serious about its business in South Africa.

Other cars will follow, not least of them being the Nissan Micra, as its name implies a small car.

But I digress. Back to the 350Z.

It's packed with advanced mechanical feartures, some of them derived from Nissan's racing experience. Such as a viscous limited slip differential at the back. And a carbon fibre reinforced plastic prop shaft, for lightness and extra strength.

Inside the car Nissan has opted for a classical mix of black leather and brushed aluminium, with the speedo, revcounter and water temperature/fuel gauge in a hooded binnacle attached to the height adjustable steering column.

That way, no matter what height you choose to suit your own dimensions, the instruments are always in line of sight.

So, too, for that matter, are the oil pressure gauge and the voltmeter, plus the trip computer (average speed, outside temperature, distance to empty, average fuel consumption, elapsed journey time, stopwatch, trip odometer, digital clock and up-shift indicator setting), all angled towards the driver in three separate dials almost in the centre of the dash.

The sporty steering wheel has three spokes, again in classic style, and a thick black leather rim, and it also contains satellite controls for the cruise control and audio system.

The gearbox is a brand new manual unit featuring six forward gears plus reverse, and it has the right combination of positiveness and precision. You don't flick it to change, you thrust it solidly into position.

Tight ratios

Not the best on the market, but it's quick enough once you get used to it (bearing in mind these were all left-hand -drive cars) and the ratios are tight enough to get the best out of that punchy engine.

One of the things Nissan has done especially right is to ensure the engine has a sporting sound, and that it has in abundance.

The Nissan engineers describe it as a "yowl" but my own description would be more akin to an initially drowsy roar that rises in intensity, like a lion suddenly awoken from a deep sleep and then agitated into mighty action by the sight of an aggressor.

Another area Nissan has concentrated on is accessibility. Thus we see a big hatchback, but with space spoiled somewhat in the luggage compartment by a mighty cross-brace that keeps the body rigid, and splits the load area in two.

Nevertheless, Nissan claims two sets of golf clubs can be carried, and even puts a sticker in the luggage box to show you how to do it.

In contrast to most sports cars around there's lots of stowage space, not least of these being a mighty locking compartment behind the passenger seat capable of taking a laptop computer in its case (hurrah).

Despite the stiffer suspension comfort is still a big issue, with the seats tight-hugging in corners and well supportive under the thighs.

And the seats are different, the driver's, which has electrically-operated fore-aft and backrest rake, designed to prevent the driver being thrown around, while the passengers, with electric fore-aft but manual backrest operation, more comfy for those longer journeys.


The view through the rear window is limited, making reversing in tight spaces somewhat awkward. And the seat heater switches are awkwardly placed on the between-seats stowage box where they are easy to accidentally switch on with your elbows.

Oh, and after fantastic service from Swiss International Airways on our six-leg overseas trip, to be messed around (once more) by unhelpful South African Airways ground staff on our final stint home to Cape Town.


Cutting parts prices

2003-07-21 18:07

Inside Wheels24

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