Price: $38,470

Major equipment: Touring Trim, Sport Package, Sirius Satellite Radio

In the fleet: 12/01/2009 – 12/08/2009

Approximate mileage driven: 650

 

As often happens when we receive a sporty press car here at Speed:Sport:Life, winter paid a visit during my time with Nissan’s latest Z-car. No matter. When snow and slush threatened to spoil a weekend plan filled with back roads bombing and general hooning, I simply adapted. Instead of back roads, I spent some time in a back lot, as you can see above. With the stability control disabled and a fresh layer of slushy accumulation in front of me, I set about making snow art. I call it “Snowrifto Blues.” No wheels or curbs were harmed in the production of this entry.

 

B. Hurd: The Z makes a heck of a first impression. When you first sit down, it’s instantly recognizable as a Z-car. From the dash-mounted gauges above the radio to the instrument cluster that moves when the wheel is adjusted, everything was just as I expected from my time in the old 3.5L cars. What struck me though was the unmistakable improvement in material quality.  The pleather-wrapped dash cubby door doesn’t feel like it will fall off if used more than once, the tactile quality of all of the surfaces has improved exponentially, and the seats are fantastic. There are even some of those much-ballyhooed “little things” here and there that really make you feel like Nissan maybe listened to what early 350Z adopters had to say. For example, the center dash stack is flanked by two foam-filled and pleather-wrapped cushions to keep your thigh from going numb on long road trips—a nice touch.

But there are negatives in the familiarity as well. The car has significant exterior presence, but inside you’re constantly reminded of its impracticality. The storage space under the rear hatch has improved, but not so much that it’s actually useful. I managed to get my helmet, a small compressor and a backpack back there, but the fit was fairly cozy. A carry-on travel bag or duffle would be a reasonable fit, but anything with more volume than a couple of golf bags is a deal breaker.

Cabin storage isn’t much better. The glove compartment doesn’t even look like it could swallow the owner’s manual and the storage cubbies behind the seats run out of capacity somewhere around a case of Sam Adams each. Even a bag of groceries would be a tight squeeze, especially if you’re tall. And you may have noticed on a window sticker that the Z has four cup holders. Don’t try and find them in a press photo of the interior though, as you’ll be stumped after three. One is clearly visible right where you’d expect it, the other two are tucked into the door panels, as has become commonplace in recent years, however they have about the diameter and clearance to accept a 10oz Red Bull can. The fourth is hidden in the center console storage cubby, and will share real estate with your elbow if you plan on using your right arm, say perhaps to shift gears. So really, the Z has one cup holder and some extra storage for empties. Speed:Sport:Life Pro Tip: Only bring along passengers with whom you don’t mind sharing a drink.

The curious placement of useful accessories doesn’t end there. The lone 12v power outlet sits under the dash about six inches in front of your passenger’s left knee. This was not only difficult to locate, but quite a reach for the mobile power cable for my mp3 player. With the passenger ejected and the empty seat moved as far forward as possible, I was able to position the Zune such that it wouldn’t plunge into the footwell under light braking. To be fair, this will never be an issue if (unlike me) you always have your music player charged and ready, but even when untethered from its electrical mojo, there wasn’t really a convenient place to put it, especially if I had somebody riding shotgun.

And you’ll want that mp3 player, too, if for no other reason than to bypass the annoyance that is the factory radio. Our tester came equipped with the BOSE system, and while sound quality was on the better end of passable for a stock unit, the head unit interface was beyond dated. This may not be true of navigation-equipped models, but in our case Nissan insisted on employing multiple buttons where a single knob would work better. Tuning regular radio stations with +/- buttons is painful enough, but trying to scroll through satellite channels with the same is downright miserable. Fortunately, the wheel controls are fairly robust and intuitive, so you’re fine once you make your listening selection. But the awkward glance to the head unit every time a station turned sour just left me wanting.

Fortunately, the Bluetooth interface was dead simple and very intuitive. I was actually surprised to find that my phone was compatible with the Z’s software as most other new cars I’ve tried to pair it with have failed, and not only did it work, but I was up and running within seconds. The driver’s seat in our tester had power-adjustable slide and seatback tilt with manually-adjustable seat cushion height and angle. All settings have a near-infinite range of adjustment and finding a comfortable position was a breeze, even when I had to adjust on-the-fly to compensate for a helmet. The seats themselves are comfortable, and the faux suede inserts and leather bolsters in our tester showed almost no appreciable wear at 15 thousand miles. For a car in fleet duty, it hid its age incredibly well.

A quick flick of the gear selector before starting the car really sets the tone for the rest of the drive. The action is firm and direct, but the shifter has some serious heft. It’s an almost industrial feeling—very bulky and purposeful, but not rough or unfinished. The clutch effort is similar; the pedal is stiffly-sprung and the overall travel is short. As I eased into gear, I found the clutch has a very narrow engagement zone. Fortunately, there is some good feedback within that mail-slot-like window, so quick though it may be, it’s not entirely unforgiving. The trick to driving the Z smoothly is to shift slowly in normal driving, and lightning fast when you’re hammering it. Too quick of a shift at normal speeds will result in a choppy engagement, and with SyncroRev enabled, the car will never punish you for shifting too slowly.

Nissan has taken a lot of flack for the VQ37’s lack of refinement, especially in its Infiniti models, but the criticism is largely unfounded here. The engine’s character matches the car’s. Smooth and sleek on first glance, but just rough enough around the edges to remind you that it’s a sports car, not a grand tourer. There’s no drone from the exhaust whatsoever, and the engine noise only penetrates the cabin when you really hammer it. I found myself slowly winding the car out in first gear from time to time just to listen to the engine. Admittedly, I’m a big fan of a sporty V6, and this one just pushes all the right buttons. Another S:S:L contributor called it raucous, and that’s really the best word for it. It barks. It howls. It spits and gurgles and does all the other things you expect from a sports car. It doesn’t sound like a Porsche flat six, but then it shouldn’t. And boy does it pull.

If anything, engine and exhaust noise are too muffled, and enough so that you hear just about everything that passes under the vehicle through the rear wheel wells. It’s an odd juxtaposition. With so little noise coming from the front, it’s strange to hear so much from the rear, especially when the noises from the front are so much more enjoyable. Adding to the refinement is the suspension tuning. Nissan really nailed the balance between handling and ride comfort. Even though the wheelbase shrunk compared to the 350Z’s, the chassis just soaks up the road. It’s firm but not at all punishing, and there’s zero detectable body roll below about 8/10ths. On the track, you get just a hint of weight transition at turn-in, but the car settles instantly and tracks predictably. And lest we forget, it’ll put a massive grin on your face if you have a low-traction environment in which to play with the stability control disabled. The Z will maintain sideways motion in rain or snow with an ease I’ve never experienced before. Big, slushy-rooster-tail-inducing drifts can practically be done one-handed by a novice, and I know this because I am one.

Unfortunately, the precise handling diverts attention to one of the Z’s biggest flaws. I wouldn’t be any kind of proper “journalist” if I didn’t harp on a new car for poor steering feedback, but in this case it’s warranted. The effort is spot-on, the progressive weighting of the power steering is perfect, and there’s never a moment when you feel like the wheel’s just flopping about, but it all feels very artificial. There’s an isolation to it that is present in the clutch and shifter as well. It’s as if you’re manipulating everything through thick rubber gloves. You can see the results and you can feel that something is going on at the other end, but you don’t get the whole picture, and that’s a shame because a handful of the Z’s competitors shine in that respect.

But these issues are minor. I only had a week with the Z but I felt like it was mine. It fit my personality and my driving style better than just about anything else I’ve had the pleasure of driving. This is a robust and willing machine that turns heads and fast laps. An RX-8 or a Miata (or a used Porsche) may be a better driver’s car for the same money (or less, in the MX-5’s case), but the Z is still immensely satisfying.

 

What we liked:
– Suspension tuning
– Power delivery
– SyncroRev
– Interior
– Easy Bluetooth syncing
– Engine noise

What we didn’t:
– Steering feedback
– Sometimes balky shifter
– Abrupt clutch engagement
– Some ergonomic issues
– Cargo space
– Road noise

               

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Byron Hurd

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