When Nissan engineers developed the 2003 350Z, the goal was to build a dynamically gifted, affordable sports car. They succeeded, but that meant something had to give, and that something was interior quality. The result was a highly capable sports car with a hollow plastic interior on par with a Barbie Corvette. It was cool, but raw. For 2009, Nissan has redesigned the Z, civilizing the interior, upping power with a larger engine and even improving handling. The Z is now fully realized.
Only the coupe has been redesigned for 2009, and the number of trim levels has been reduced from five to two. Now only base and Touring trims are offered. The convertible remains the same.
Base equipment includes cloth upholstery, automatic climate control, a tilt steering wheel, an 8-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, power windows and locks, keyless entry and starting, a trip computer, automatic xenon headlights, fog lights, and P225/50R18 front and P245/45R18 rear tires on alloy wheels. The Touring trim adds synthetic suede and leather upholstery, heated 4-way power seats with lumbar adjustment, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, and a 6-speaker Bose audio system with two subwoofers, a 6-disc CD changer and XM Satellite Radio. Both trims have a full list of safety features, including dual-stage front airbags, seat- and roof-mounted side-impact airbags, active head restraints, a tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.
The options list is also pared down for 2009, consisting only of a Sport Package and Navigation Package. The Sport Package comes with P255/40R19 front and P275/35R19 rear Bridgestone Potenza tires on forged aluminum wheels, front and rear spoilers, Nissan sport brakes and a limited-slip differential. Manual transmission models also get Nissan’s new SychroRev Match feature (more on that later). The Navigation Package comes with Nissan’s MusicBox hard-drive radio, a navigation system with XM NavTraffic (when XM is ordered) and an iPod interface.
Under the Hood
For 2009 the Nissan Z gets an engine that reflects the name change. Nissan’s V6 engine, internally known as VQ, grows from 3.5 to 3.7 liters, increasing from 306 to 330 horsepower and 268 to 270 lb-ft of torque in the process. Shared with the Infiniti G37 coupe and sedan, the new engine has Nissan’s Variable Valve Event and Lift (VVEL) system, which is a form of variable valve timing for the intake stroke.
The engine is offered with a 6-speed manual transmission or a 7-speed automatic with manual shift capability. Like last year’s 5-speed automatic, this one has downshift rev matching. The manual transmission has the same number of gears as in the 350Z, but, when ordered with the Sport Package, it adds Nissan’s new SynchroRev Match feature, which blips the throttle on downshifts to match the engine revs to the new gear.
The VVEL system and extra gears help raise fuel economy by 1 mpg in the city and 2 mpg on the highway to 18/26 with the automatic transmission. With the manual transmission the ratings are the same, which is up 1 mpg on the highway.
Probably the most noticeable change between this Z and the last is the interior. Where the 350Z had hard, hollow plastics, the 370Z has soft-touch materials assembled with greater care. It makes for a much nicer environment and a more complete car.
The cockpit is very driver-oriented. In true sports car tradition, the instrument panel has the tachometer front and center, with the speedometer offset to the right. This helps during performance driving, when monitoring engine rpm is more important than watching speed. The instrument panel also has a "when to" shift light to further help performance driving, and the panel moves with the tilt steering wheel, so the gauges are never cut off from view. We’re not so impressed with the 16-light fuel and water temperature gauges, though. They look cheap.
The controls on the center stack are set low, but they are easy to reach and operate. When the navigation system is ordered, the dash has a 7-inch display with a control panel to operate the nav system and/or information center. The control panel may seem a bit complicated at first, but the radio and climate controls are separate, so the learning curve is short.
Even in the base trim, the driver’s seat has enough adjustments to provide a comfortable, natural position. The passenger seat, on the other hand, sits too close to the floor, providing little thigh support and thus compromising long-trip comfort. Thickly bolstered seats hold occupants in place during spirited driving.
Storage for small items is minimal. The center console has two cupholders, one in a shallow center bin. Two additional cupholders are found in the doors, and the Z adds a glove box for 2009, but it is quite small. Versions without the nav system get a small dashboard bin that can fit about 10 CD jewel cases.
Space in the rear hatch area increases only slightly from 6.8 to 6.9 cubic feet, but it is much more useful because Nissan has moved the rear structural crossbar lower and farther forward. Previously this support bisected the compartment, disrupting both sight lines and cargo utility. Now it is easier to fit larger boxes. Don’t expect to get more than two small golf bags back there, though.
On the Road
The last Z was a great-handling car and the 2009 model is even better. Structural and dimensional changes make the difference. Almost 3 inches shorter and 1.3 inches wider, the new car has a lower center of gravity, so it is more stable and more nimble than the last model.
Nissan gave journalists the chance to test the Z’s limits on a racetrack, and that’s where the new car’s capabilities became clear. The 370Z possesses tenacious grip. The steering is quick and direct, with a heavy feel through the wheel. The car hugs turns like a slalom skier, rotating willingly and staying very flat. The electronic stability control system (which Nissan calls Vehicle Dynamic Control) is not very intrusive, so drivers can have some fun without interference from the electronic nanny. When the Z goes into a slide with the VDC off, the tires’ large contact patches grip the pavement quickly to get things back under control.
Those who might get time at a racetrack or push the car through canyon road twisties will want to choose the Sport Package for the brakes alone. The base 12-inch-diameter brakes can overheat rather easily when drivers hustle the car through multiple turns. The Sport Package adds Nissan Sport Brakes, 14-inch-diameter up front and 13.8 inches in the rear. That’s an inch larger all around than last year’s Brembos, and they can handle a lot of punishment.
The new 3.7-liter V6 engine gains 24 horsepower but only 2 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing 3.5-liter V6. It provides lots of power — enough to launch the Z from zero to 60 mph in less than five seconds. Track drivers will appreciate the 6-speed manual transmission’s new SynchroRev feature. Blipping the throttle on downshifts prevents the lower gear from grabbing too harshly and upsetting the car’s balance. The new 7-speed automatic transmission is responsive, and it teams with the willing engine to provide immediate passing response. The automatic comes with steering-wheel paddles that make aggressive driving more fun.
Right for You?
Nissan says many Z owners use their cars as their only form of transportation. If you’re single, live in a warm climate and value sportiness over ride quality and utility, then this car can work. However, the 370Z has little rear cargo room, and even less room inside for life’s little trinkets. It’s better as a weekend toy and summer cruiser than a family truckster. But isn’t that what this car is designed for?
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.comand Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.