On the Road Review: Nissan 370Z Roadster

Yes, it is January. Yes, this is a roadster. You can dream a little, can’t you?

This effusive Blue Pearl Nissan 370Z rolled into town in late November, along with two rainstorms, a snow squall and temperatures that struggled to reach 40 degrees. Not ideal drop-top driving conditions, but that doesn’t mean that the Z couldn’t show off its other virtues.

Except for three years at the turn of the 21st century, the Z has been in continuous production since 1970 — the third longest sports car/convertible production run other than Chevrolet’s Corvette and Porsche’s 911-series. So this car is significant not only to auto enthusiasts but to Nissan as well.

Yet, the current car — for all that it does well, and easily — is starting to feel a little, just a little, long in the tooth and ready for an upgrade. But will there be an upgrade? The current 370Z iteration has been with us since 2009 and is slated to end production in 2017 — with little information about a subsequent model to take its place. Nissan abandoned the 300Z in late 1999 due to financial straits, only to have so much enthusiasm for the car — both internally and externally — that the completely new 350Z arose and demonstrated that there was life in the sports car segment and that the Z was still a viable entry worthy of the capital investment.

Today, sports cars sales are stagnant. Only Chevy’s latest Corvette shows much life, with the Kentucky Assembly plant working overtime to meet demand. Mazda’s latest Miata has had modest growth in the showroom so far; the Corvette is outselling it 4-1. Porsche’s Boxster — the car closest to the Z in performance and size — only 2,600 sold in America through October. Audi’s TT had negligible sales — only 753 units through the same period. The Nissan has had modest growth in 2015, up slightly, while other two-seater rivals have struggled mightily against a shifting tide favoring muscle and pony cars such as the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger.

Since 2003, the Z has shared its rear-drive platform with the Infiniti G35/G37 coupe and now the Q60 coupe. Infiniti has plans for a new twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 engine in the 2017 model, a lighter, more powerful and more efficient engine that reflects the times and the rapid escalation of turbo-power throughout the industry. However, no word on whether there will be this engine in the next Z, or even if there will be a next Z. While the GTR holds the Nissan performance crown, that is a large, heavy European-style GT coupe that plainly cost too much ($100,000) for far too many sports car fans who have enjoyed the relative affordability of the Z for generations.

Indeed, the current 2016 Z coupe starts at under $30,000 with a 332-hp 3.7-liter V-6 engine, a price/power combination that makes buying a Subaru BRZ/Scion FR-S look like a poor decision. Opt for the Roadster model as seen here and list pricing starts at $41,000, with our Touring Sport model going for $50,445 with many of the available upgrades — seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters, 7-inch navigation screen, premium Bose audio system, 19-inch RAYS forged wheels, Bi-Xenon headlamps, rear camera and carpeted trunk and floor mats.

Standard items in the Roadster include keyless access and ignition, heated power sport seats — covered in comfortable textile upholstery here — plus mechanical pieces like a viscous limited slip differential to help handle the car’s power, as well as the rev-match feature of the automatic transmission when employing the paddles. There are front and rear stabilizer bars plus a three-point strut tower brace to further support the car’s aggressive handling parameters.

At 3,385 pounds, the current Z is lighter than the previous model but still almost as heavy as the more powerful Corvette and about 300 pounds heavier than the comparably sized Boxster. The all-new Miata looks like a go-kart with a roof compared to these cars, weighing several hundred-pounds less than the Z. That is a huge variance and helps the Miata achieve its nimble, track-style handling with unassisted steering while the Z achieves higher overall handling thresholds, it will make the driver work a little harder.

Buyers probably look more closely at the Z’s price after seeing the Boxster’s starting list of $52,100 for the base model — significantly more money is needed for the spirited Boxster S that performs better. These factors have always made the Z a ‘tweener’ model, working in the market segment above the Miata, below the Corvette and the Boxster, while delivering 95 percent of the performance of the latter. It is a good place to be, but are there enough sales, worldwide, to warrant continued production? Remember some of the brands that appeared during the Z’s revival that are no longer around: Honda S2000, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky.

Nissan Z fans will find the cabin cozy and functional. Roadster trim provides some of the best wind management in the class — second only to the Miata — while the simple controls are convenient dials, knobs and buttons that complement the driver’s intentions. A three-gauge info-cluster rests across the top of the dash — still angled towards the driver — while the seating position places the driver in a good relationship with the wheel and the pedals despite the lack of a telescoping steering wheel.

Mash the go-pedal and the Z leaps forward with enthusiasm, the rear wheels struggling for grip. The 3.7-liter V-6 needs some exhaust tuning to better display its vim and vigor (NISMO trim provides this, as well as 18-additional HP) plus the engine has a coarse edge to its output near redline that belies intentions. Make no mistake; the current Z is fast and provides motoring excitement not found in many rivals. While the seven-speed’s manual manipulation can replicate some of the excitement of a three-pedal car, with rev-match and crisp downshifts fingertips away, there is just something more earnest about a sports car with a true manual transmission.

Turning feel, roadhandling, and braking are nothing like your crossover/sedan/pickup truck. The Z sticks to the road and aces your favorite turns with glee, begging for more action. The brakes are right-now efficient. A tiny low-speed turning radius is part of the chassis’s performance too — something the Corvette lacks.

A trade-off: cabin noise is elevated in the Roadster. Some is tire noise, some is wind noise; I actually think the car is ‘quieter’ with the top down. The openness of the cabin without a top and the different types of noises lend an air of relaxation to the driving experience and make the Z Roadster a much more engaging (and entertaining) car to operate than a coupe with a sunroof. Either way, the Z offers an outstanding Bose audio system that handles both elements.

As the owner of a 350Z roadster, I would wish for less weight in the next Z as well as more power — a fluid, high-revving turbo engine fits the Z’s mission, as Nissan has already built turbo-Zs in the past.

There has to be another Z; Nissan can’t possibly be thinking that the goodwill earned through decades of Z sales can be discarded for some ‘sporty’ crossover or plain-Jane coupe that mimics rivals. Just look at the storm Ford had to weather when it thought it could replace the Mustang years ago with the Probe. Look how that worked out.

The Z’s iconic status as the best, and longest-running Asian sports car, is surely worth creating another stylish edition that can wow the masses and lure a new generation of sports car fans into the fold. Maybe the next Z is a sports-hybrid, maybe it has a small turbo-four, but the Z is a ‘brand’ worth continuing within the greater Nissan brand.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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