Sometimes… clearly… evolution can go wrong. The animal kingdom can present a number of candidates to prove this theory, but for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the Datsun Z-car. The original stunned the automotive world with its Jaguar/Ferrari-esque looks, stirring performance and affordable price. But its decline started almost as soon as it arrived at dealerships.
Subsequent offerings grew heavier with luxury and safety equipment to satisfy the big American market, eventually leading to a product that had neither the aesthetic nor driving appeal of the original. Thankfully, the degeneration of the Z became a matter of concern also to the folks at Nissan headquarters in Japan, and about ten years ago it was decided to hit the reset button, wipe the slate clean, and reinvent this iconic machine.
The result is the Nissan 350Z, a car which visually bears little resemblance to any Z-car of the past and instead seeks to establish an identity of its own. The lines are a very handsome mix of curved and edgy, the wheel arches are muscular and there are some stunning details, too.
For example, the upright door handles echo the look of the vertical gills at the front. The profile is particularly striking, with an elongated rear section and sloping roofline lending the car a kind of “slingshot” appearance. 18-inch wheels and a pair of large exhaust outlets round off what is a very masculine design, and one that promises serious performance. This is clearly no boulevard cruiser.
And if there was ever any doubt about that, the very driver-focused cabin will soon dispel it. As is to be expected from a dedicated two-seater, the driving position is deep-set and the stubby transmission lever mounted slightly high-up. The instrumentation is very comprehensive, including a row of three additional gauges on top of the facia. The three main dials are mounted in a pod located directly on the steering column, and adjust up and down with the steering. Sadly, there is no reach adjustment, one of a few minor flaws in the cabin.
Open the large tailgate and the first thing you’ll notice is a very substantial strut brace that not only limits space but also impacts visibility to the rear. The luggage area is not really separated from the cabin in the traditional sense, so take care under hard braking. At least there is a lidded compartment behind the passenger seat and a lidded storage box in the facia.
With a price tag approaching R400 000, the Nissan 350Z is certainly not cheap, but besides the class-leading power figures Nissan has been generous with the specification – a powerful Bose sound system, cruise control, climate control, electric windows, Xenon headlamps with washer jets, partial electric adjustment for the seats and no fewer than six airbags are standard.
Powering the new Z is a 3.5-litre V6 engine that delivers 206 kW and a meaty 363 Nm of torque. Power goes the rear wheels via a limited slip differential, and Nissan’s VDC electronic stability system is also standard fitment. The latter can be switched out, but only skilled drivers should attempt this as this Nissan can be quite a handful… The rear tyres are slightly wider than those at the front, and this, along with the vehicle’s low centre of gravity and width, give the 350Z dizzyingly high levels of grip. In fact, you’d have to be going really fast to prompt the VDC system into action.
Without the safety net of VDC, however, fast reactions will be needed when the Z eventually does decide to let go. The steering is very fast and the low-speed ride very firm, resulting in a car that feels as if it is “straining at the leash”. This hyper-active character seriously impacts the Z’s appeal as a daily driver. But… the 350Z was not designed to be a rival for a 3 Series Coupe. This is a car aimed at driving enthusiasts.
For such owners the Z offers arguably the most entertainment value this side of a Porsche. While it is not the only rear-wheel drive performance car at this price point, it is the only one with enough power to really maximise the potential for gung-ho tail-out action so loved by fans of old-school muscle cars. And yet to pigeonhole the 350Z as a purveyor of lurid slides, only, would also be wrong.
Driven intelligently, with the driver focusing on corner entry speeds, apexes and steering inputs, this Nissan is one of the fastest (and sharpest) point-to-pointers out there. Driven this way, the engine really impresses with its mid-range grunt and sonorous exhaust note, while the transmission feels unburstable and provides slick, fast shifts.
This is not a poseur’s car. If you’re looking for something that’ll look cool while stuck in traffic on the way to work, don’t even bother. The 350Z is for true enthusiasts only and provides thrills by the bucket load across a wide range of driving scenarios. In spirit it is more hardcore than the 240Z, but some of the original’s purity has certainly been reclaimed.
One senses that, had the Z-car’s development path not been directed by American market forces, natural evolution would have taken it to a car similar to the Nissan 350Z. Talk about reinvention!
We don’t like:
No reach adjustment for steering wheel
Lack of proper luggage area
Engine: 3.5-litre, V6, petrol
Power: 206 kW @ 6 200 rpm
Torque: 363 Nm @ 4 800 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 250 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6.7 seconds
Fuel economy: 13.14 litres/100 km
Unique styling still turns heads and the 1.8-litre turbo engine punches above its power outputs. Beautifully made interior and all-wheel drive grip are further plusses. But the TT is not as engaging as a driver’s tool as the Nissan.
Based on the Mercedes-Benz SLK, but somehow manages to feel cheaper than the Nissan. V6 engine is down on power and dynamically it could do with further refinement and extra sharpness.
A truly unique offering, being the only rotary engine car on sale in South Africa today. The screaming powerplant delivers excellent power but is even thirstier than the Nissan’s V6! Adds suicide rear doors for extra practicality… and weirdness.