I was worried. In fact, I was doubly concerned. Firstly, Nissan has been messing with its 350Z, and because the Z is one of my all-time favorite cars this is something that makes me very uneasy. And secondly, this means that the 350Z is now halfway through its life cycle, so its replacement is now only three years away. Like each subsequent BMW M3 and Mazda Miata, I just know the next one's not going to be as good as the original. I mean, how can it be? This one is almost perfect.
Well, in one respect my concerns are unfounded. Nissan hasn't mucked about with the Z-car too much, either mechanically or visually, and the changes they have made have been subtle and tasteful. If you squint really hard you'll spot the standard bi-xenon headlamps and tweaked front bumper, while the rear light cluster is now festooned with little LEDs. Other than some new wheels, that's it in terms of styling tweaks.
Inside, Nissan has listed to its customers and installed cupholders in the doors, padded the armrests a little better, put a bit of snazz in HVAC controls and added audio controls to the once-naked left-hand steering-wheel spoke of all versions but the base model. The plastics feel a little ritzier, too, but all the basics remain as before so you still have that perfect driving position with its incredible pedal, steering, and gear-lever placement, as well as the wonderful view of the world you can only find inside that rakish shape.
My heart did skip a beat when I heard they had fiddled with the steering, but it turns out they've just dialed in a bit more assistance at low speeds, which is understandable, I suppose. Once up and running, though, you'd never know the difference - the turn in is still scalpel-sharp, the weight is still there and the feedback seems as pure as ever. The meaty gearchange is also unchanged, as is that amazing exhaust rasp, but Nissan has decided to fit bigger brake rotors on non-Brembo and Brembo-equipped models - and more brakes is never a bad thing. Indeed, the old brakes needed quite a shove to spur them into action and even then they never shed speed the way you'd like for such a fast, yet husky, car. If there were one area where the current 350Z needed improvement it would be the brakes, and that's been fixed. All the other bits that makes that chassis as balanced and as playful as it is remains unchanged. Truly, this is a day to give thanks.
Entry-level buyers will be glad to hear that all 2006 models are to be fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels as standard, but for those with more cash to spend, the Track and Grand Touring models will be equipped with some staggeringly pretty 18-inch front/19-inch rear RAYS alloys. The Track and GT models also boast bigger and badder Brembo brakes (four-piston front, two-piston rear) while the GT also gets front and rear spoilers and stability control as standard, as well as the availability of an automatic transmission.
Speaking of which, automatic 350Zs will the have the same 287-hp, 274-lb-ft, 3.5-liter V-6 as before, but they've added rev-matching to the downshift to smooth out man-made gearchanges. Even so, it's still slow to respond to prods of the lever and it seems to change gears when it wants anyways, which means it's fine for posers ambling around town but not really suited to the 350Z's white-knuckle character. Models equipped with the six-speed manual, on the other hand, have been tweaked to produce 300 hp and 260 lb-ft and have a slightly higher redline than the automatic, but because they're a little heavier than before they're no faster. Its 0-60 time remains about 5.6 seconds for the manual (6.0 seconds for the automatic), with a top speed hovering around the 150-mph mark for both. The only other changes for 2006 are new shades of sliver, red, and black, not that anyone will notice.
So let's recap. More power. Better brakes. Nicer interior. Sexier wheels. And yet the fundamentals remain unchanged. What was I worried about? Along with the Mitsubishi Evo and MINI Cooper S, the Z brings top-class dynamics, blistering speed, and undiluted driving pleasure to the masses, while sounding and looking better than most of the exotics I've had the privilege to drive. When you factor in the fact it only costs $27,450, it doesn't have a snooty badge and you can service it cheaply at any local dealership, you begin to understand why I, as a driving enthusiast on a budget, consider the Nissan 350Z as close to perfect as anyone can reasonably expect. So get out there and enjoy it while it lasts, folks. Cars like this don't come along very often and sooner than you think, it'll be gone.
2006 Nissan 350Z Coupe
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 300 hp/260 lb-ft (manual); 287 hp/274 lb-ft (auto)
Transmission: Six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 169.8 in x 71.5 in x 52.1 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Weight: 3339 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/highway): 19/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags; anti-lock brakes with EBD and Brake Assist; tire pressure monitor
Major standard features: Power windows, mirrors, and locks; bi-xenon headlights; 18-inch alloy wheels; AM/FM/CD player; air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles