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New Car Test - Nissan 350Z Track

Not the car you've read about.

by Julian Edgar

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If you believe that a sports car of today should be rear-wheel drive and have two-doors, a booming engine note, hard seats and an equally hard ride, quick throttle response, a close-ratio gearbox, and attract a heap of kerbside attention, the Nissan 350Z may be for you.

But because we don't believe all those are prerequisites, it's not for us.

It's for drivers who want to feel the experience - even when they're driving slowly. It's for those who want to be racing up and down the gearbox, rushing in steering lock and throttle and brakes, feeling the road through the steering and their seat, sensing the presence of a big engine by the heat coming through the floor and the roar that accompanies each throttle twitch, knowing every moment of every day that what they are driving is a sports car.

For drivers who love to see heads turning, fingers pointing and coffee mugs being put down in startlement.

OTOH, if you'd rather go just as fast - both in a straight line and around corners - and have more room, comfort and quietness, better grip and a vastly better ride, there are other cars that are much more highly recommended. You may not be so intimately involved in the total experience every minute of every drive, but the corollary of that is that for many people, every drive will be more relaxing and enjoyable.

In fact, you can almost picture the scene: a typically Australian bumpy secondary road winding through the country scenery. Cool, crisp and clear, a Sunday morning - just some residual fog in the valleys.

The 350Z driver is grinning widely - and sweating. Down through the gearbox, hard on the brakes, wind-on that heavy lock, watch the steering kicking back over those rougher bits, feel the bumps on the inner edge of bitumen as they pound you through the seat, then push back on the throttle, hear that engine revving out, shove the gearlever through to third...

Behind him, an HSV GTO driver is also smiling - and wondering why the insides of the 350Z windows are getting covered in sweat. The driver of the GTO (or it could also be a Clubsport R8, a car priced the same as a 350Z) will be having an immensely enjoyable drive, feeling the subtleties of steering lock and suspension compliance and brake bite as he negotiates the same road.

The HSV will be keeping up.... and the driver will be doing it easy. No sweat, just the relishing of a challenging road being driven fast. In the 350Z? It will be demanding and difficult work.

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This writer needs to state clearly that a car which has such stiff suspension that its rough bitumen grip is quite bad, that has very poor space utilisation, and that requires simply so much driver effort when going fast, well, he thinks that many of those are characteristics of the sports machines of yesterday, not today. You could almost say that the way a Porsche Boxster drives - on all surfaces - is perhaps 30 years ahead in automotive philosophy. And the same can be said of a Mazda MX5 Miata...

Or as someone commented in a newsgroup after driving the 350Z, "for similar money a new grey import [Mitsubishi Lancer] Evo VIII is more my cup of tea". The latter car embodies the sophistication and abilities of a very high performance car of this century, rather than being predicated on what was historically regarded as the requirements of a sports car.

The 350Z feels good only in isolation: start comparing the handling and the performance to other cars and suddenly it's a one-trick pony. But this writer is also well aware that that is not a viewpoint that embraces all car enthusiasts.

So that's why we approached someone we thought perfectly fitted the potential buyer category for the 350Z. A 34-year-old architect, he's a man who works with style and design every day. Paul's also a car nut who has owned everything from a Holden Commodore Maloo ute to a Subaru Impreza WRX to a Mercedes SL500. His current cars include a new Audi S3 (a car that costs the same as the test 350Z), a Porsche Boxster S, and a Porsche 911 twin turbo. Both the Porsches are modified.

If anyone would delight in the 350Z's hard-core driving philosophy, we thought it would be him.

This is what he had to say after an extensive three days of driving.

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"The car causes me turmoil. There is so much about it I absolutely love, but there is so much about it that I detest. It's such a paradox.

"The styling is not to my genre - this curvaceous-with-sharp-edge twenty-first century styling. I don't like it but I can live with it. It attracts a lot of attention; a lot of people do like it.

"The driving position - I love the driving position. The car feels narrow, the cabin feels small, the centre console's at the right height, the gearlever's in the right place, the steering wheel's in the right place. To sit in it, you feel like you are driving a sports car.

"Love it!

"It's been designed for me - good reach, good height.

"And it goes like a tram. If you had told me that it has a V8 in front, I would have believed you. The torque, the response, the in-gear acceleration - brilliant! I think that the low gearing contributes a lot to that but for everyday use - running around town and out on the highway - it's good.

"But the story goes all downhill from there...

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"The engine is so powerful, so torquey - and with the right gearing to match that torque - yet the sheer noise, vibration and harshness that you get from the front of the car is horrific. A sports car needs a little bit of noise - this is over and beyond that, stupidly so. The whole time that you are holding the gearstick it vibrates. From what I know of this engine it's supposed to be a silky, smooth sweet engine. So what in the driveline is causing this harshness? Is it the gearbox, is it the tailshaft? Something is chronically wrong. Put the car in neutral and gradually increase the revs and the harshness is there.

"It feels like an old car. That amount of noise, that amount of vibration - it truly feels like an old car. A ten year old car that has really had a hard life. Unacceptable in a new car. Unacceptable from Nissan - they are capable of better, we know that.

"My next biggest dislike is the interior. That is an interior from a forty thousand dollar car, not a sixty-five thousand dollar car. The dashboard is very cheap, the doors are very cheap, the seats look great - they have leather on them - but I was never quite comfortable. The driving position is good but the seat itself is uncomfortable. I changed positions constantly and by the end of one day was well on the way to having a lower back ache.

"Its next failing - and this is a major one - is handling. On a smooth road highway or for a quick whip around the block - fantastic.

"For Mum or Dad, great.

"But you push it a little bit harder and you have - bang! - sudden understeer. And it is sudden. The Stability Control grabs it very quickly. But if pressed a little harder it will want to break into snap oversteer. The Stability Control again grabs it - but to me, it grabs it way too early for a sports car.

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"For a sports car with very, very rough-riding suspension, it's wrong. You can have a good handling car and it needn't have a rough ride. This has an extremely rough ride and doesn't have the handling to justify it.

"It was only last night and today that I was brave enough to turn off the stability control. Last night in the wet I caught a major lose. It went understeer - lots of understeer - then snap oversteer. Today in the dry I spent most of the day with the stability control off. This snap oversteer is an issue. Coming down the usual route that I take home, at stupidly low speed - 40 km/h - it snapped around on me. This is the sort of speed that I would take any car - brisk, with let's say just a touch of aggressive driving.

"It doesn't grip!

"Smooth roads, smooth curves... with a salesperson next to you, in a new tight car, something you're not pushing to eight-tenths, it feels great. But for a car with suspension that is that rough, it's wrong - it doesn't handle.

"It took me a while to get my head around an accurate description of how it handles. It handles like a utility. Like a V8 ute: big, initial turn-in understeer and that snap oversteer. Whether it's speed-induced or power-induced. Driving along smooth roads, through gentle switchbacks, the back-end is too rigid, too hard. You can feel it wanting to walk: the back end bounces.

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"Carrying loads? Well, it's not a patch on the Boxster. The Boxster has two boots, one very deep and wide, the other even wider but quite shallow. Between the two you can carry everything and anything. The 350Z has a boot that is extremely shallow. It has the body brace through the middle of it restricting any form of box carrying. You might be able to wedge a set of golf clubs under it or over it or around it somehow. Even compared to the 911 - whose design origin dates back to '63 - in some ways the boot space in the 911 is more versatile. It's deeper - not as large, but certainly more practical.

"The cheapness of the interior of the 350Z...the floor on top of the spare tyre is the same plastic that they use for real estate agent signs! The [boot] floor mat slides - you can't put anything there, even a diary. At the first gentle intersection, at the first gentle sweeper, it will whistle across the car, it will whistle back, it will whistle into the cabin with you. I got to the point of [feeling] aggression for not being able to carry anything. I see that there are hooks there for a net - is the net standard? [None was provided.] Without a net the boot is useless. I had my passenger carrying my goods around her feet - but we gave that idea away and moved the passenger seat forward, wedging the goods down between the seats.

"We have a friend who is choosing between a [Holden] Monaro and a 350Z. I said to him: I prefer the 350Z's body size, I prefer its cabin size, I prefer its driving position. Its acceleration is fantastic, it's zippy, it's agile. Buy the Monaro. He was stunned, and asked 'why?' I said it comes down to one thing: coarseness. It is a coarse car.

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"I truly believe that Nissan engineers spent a lot of development time on a very high speed, banked circuit. Smooth, constant-radius corners. It loves those: it devours them without a hint of stability control. But get it out into the real world with good highways, almost good highways, average highways - it's not competent, it's too rough.

"It's heartbreaking. I want to like this car, I truly do. The image I can handle - the sheer amount of attention it gets I can handle. The driving position, the feel of the steering, the accuracy of the placement - I love. But it's just so coarse and so cheap in its execution.

"It's so close and yet the deficiencies are so major."

Why you would:

  • Good smooth road handling
  • Excellent performance
  • Attracts lots of attention
  • Good equipment level, including six airbags

Why you wouldn't:

  • Loud and coarse
  • Very poor ride on all but good surfaces
  • Handling on poor roads is bad
  • Very poor luggage and oddments spaces

The Nissan 350Z was supplied for this test by Nissan Australia.

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