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Click for pictures“With passionate
  performance to match
  its smouldering looks,
  the 350Z is a truly
  addictive drive!”

ONCE UPON A TIME a powerful and inscrutable Japanese motor company built a fabulously covetable sports car for the American market. It was designed in America, for Americans.
But unlike some
'made for the US of A' cars, this one was a real humdinger — a two-door, two-seater, 155mph sports coupé
that looked fantastic and drove even better than it looked.

Fortunately, like all good fairy tales, there is a happy ending. Because the powerful Japanese motor boss took pity on a race of people who would really appreciate his wonderful driving machine and allowed the 350Z (as it was called) to be sold in the UK.

Even more stunning in real life than in pictures, the 350Z's compact, no-compromise styling projects subtlety and aggression at one and the same time. Short front and rear overhangs define its 'wheel-at-each-corner' look. Prominent design cues add memorable touches, such as rectangular headlamps featuring stacked projector Xenon lamps and aluminium finish door handles mounted vertically along the trailing door edges.

Needless to say, that the small but significant adaptations made to fine tune the car for the European market — in particular a revised, more sophisticated suspension and enhanced ride comfort — have now been applied to US and Japanese as well as UK cars.

Flanking the bold rectangular grille are thin shark-like 'gill-slits' housing running lights, echoed by the vertical orange indicator strips on the outer edge of the headlamp units. 18-inch ultra-lightweight forged alloy 6-spoke Rays rims, wearing meaty Bridgestone Potenzas, fill out bulging wheel arches that — together with the broad nose — underscore the performance potential of the wide-tracked 'Z'.

The bonnet is long and slopes dramatically up to the sharply-arched, almost triangular, roofline. At the rear, two fat exhaust pipes add a dramatic highlight along with the long, slim, triangular tail-lights that sit either side of the sharply sloping hatchback with its extended lip spoiler.

Lessons learnt on the race track with Nissan's R390 Le Mans racer and competition versions of the Skyline GT-R have helped ensure the 350Z has class leading levels of performance, handling and road holding. Drive one and you'll soon see that it's not just hype: the 350Z steers, handles and drives exactly as a real sports car should.

At the heart of the rear-wheel drive Z is a potent front-mid mounted 3.5-litre twin-cam, 24-valve V6. Sited behind the front axle, it provides the optimum static 53:47 per cent front-to-rear weight distribution and a low centre of gravity. On the move, however, weight distribution changes. As a driver brakes approaching a corner, the extra weight over the front wheels helps provide better traction for sharper turn-in. Then, as the driver accelerates out of the apex, the weight distribution transfers towards the rear, helping to create a 50:50 balance when it is needed most.

Developing a sweet and gutsy 276bhp and 268lb ft of torque, the eager V6 dishes up a progressive stream of power from low revs all the way round the clock. Whatever gear you're in, prodding the drive-by-wire accelerator sends the car surging to the 6,600 rev limit on a wave of torque accompanied by a deep visceral growl from the engine.

Acceleration is rapid, with a sub-6-second zero to 62mph time, while the top speed of 155mph is delivered with an ease that can seriously jeopardise ownership of your driving licence. And it's not just the eager power that goads you into driving harder, but what Nissan engineers have dubbed the 350Z's 'flat-ride sports' driving experience.

Keen drivers will love the way the Z immediately makes you feel at ease and in control. Visibility is excellent and the low seating position close to the ground and almost over the rear axle gives the driver a 'seat-of-the-pants' indication of what the chassis is doing on the move. Aided by near neutral weight distribution, its rear-wheel drive set-up delivers well-balanced handling that's both tidy and flat. Precise, firmly-weighted speed-sensitive steering — 2.7 turns lock-to-lock and a 11.2-metre turning circle — makes it easy to place, inspiring confidence from the very first moment you drive off. There's huge grip from the very wide rubber (225/45 front and 245/45 rear) yet it never compromises the steering, allowing you to dart seamlessly through bends with roll-free accuracy.

Given that its lightweight forged aluminium multi-link independent suspension has clearly been set-up for maximum handling responsive- ness — as attested by the substantial bracing bars connecting the suspension towers both at the front and the rear — the 350Z's ride is supple and surprisingly comfortable. The substantial rear bracing strut, finished in black and silver and wearing a stylised 'Z' emblem, bridges the full width of the luggage compartment and is visible through the hatchback.

Dab the cross-drilled brake pedal and the superb race-proven Brembo brakes — their special gold-coloured 'autographed' callipers clearly visible through the spoked wheels — pull you up confidently, whatever your road speed. Naturally, the all-disc brakes (with four-piston front callipers and two-piston callipers at the rear) feature the latest-generation ABS. The switchable Electronic Stability Programme incorporates Traction Control and additional safety features such as Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and Brake Assist.

Both driver and passenger will appreciate the deeply sculpted low-set body-hugging seats. Our test GT Pack spec car had the 'Alezan Orange' interior, which features leather seats with perforated leather on the seat facings, handbrake and gear lever and also on the lower third of the steering wheel. Admittedly, on paper it does sound rather brazen, but when you actually see the mellow orange the effect is striking. Not only do the sports seats provide excellent location, they are also extremely comfy in everyday use.

The 350Z's cockpit is clearly dedicated to the sports car experience.
A battery of instruments and dials slant towards the driver, whose seat differs considerably from the passenger's. Both have been optimised to do different jobs.

The driver's seat is a road-going version of a racing seat, and the pronounced 'wings' on the backrest hold the driver in place during spirited driving, while a raised bolster in the middle of the seat cushion helps give extra under-thigh support for more precise operation of the pedals. Below the shoulder area, however, the backrest has been cut away to prevent interference with the driver's arms when cornering
or changing gear. The wider backed passenger seat, on the other hand, is geared more towards cruising comfort. A thoughtful touch is the way the seat belts are 'held' ready to use so you don't have to struggle behind the seat every time you get in.

A swooping central console runs from dashboard to the rear bulkhead and houses the audio and air-conditioning controls, two storage boxes, the short-throw gear lever and the handbrake. Head, shoulder, leg and knee room are all generous and another nice touch is the soft padded areas at key points where knees and elbows would otherwise come
into contact with the console.

The main instrument binnacle — containing a trio of instruments with the rev counter given prominence in the centre, flanked by the speedometer and a combination fuel/temp dial — is attached to the steering column and moves with the steering wheel when it's adjusted for height and reach. So finding the perfect driving position in a 350Z
is hardly rocket science! Finally, sitting at eye level on top of the centre console are three individually-hooded instruments, all angled towards the driver, for volts, oil pressure and the trip computer display.

The trip display shows instant and average speed, miles-per-gallon, journey time and range. It has a stop watch and an adjustment facility for the gear shift-up indicator, allowing the driver to choose the optimum revs for changing up a gear. Like on a race-car, the upshift warning light flashes within 500rpm of the driver-specified rpm setting, then stays on once you've reached it.

More attention to detail is evident in the brushed aluminium drilled finish pedals. Not only are they perfectly positioned for heel-and-toeing,
but the 'holes' on all three pedals and the clutch foot rest have rubber inserts for better grip.

Proof that everything in the cabin comes together so well is the fact that all major controls can be committed to memory after just one short drive. Orange on black graphics are easy to read. The sporty three-spoke wheel, with its built-in audio and cruise control switches, is as satisfying to use as it is to look at. So, too, is the short-throw gearlever: the stubby, palm-filling, leather-skinned gearknob snicks through the close-ratio six-speed 'H' gate with a delightfully mechanical action that can have you changing up and down for the sheer hell of it.

The 350Z also has a practical side, borne out by a 'secret' lockable storage box behind the shamelessly selfish front seats large enough to take an attaché case. There's also a purpose-designed sunglasses holder. And the wide opening tailgate makes easy work of loading two sets of golf clubs bags or a large suitcase and two smaller bags in the flat load area. A small tonneau covers the rear of the boot area.

Standard kit is generous and includes automatic climate control air-conditioning, Xenon headlights with power wash, one-touch electric foldaway door mirrors, power windows, trip computer, an in-dash
six-CD changer, two-stage twin front airbags supplemented by side and curtain airbags and an Electronic Stability Programme. GT Pack models add cruise control, heated and powered leather seats, and a 240-watt premium Bose six-CD audio system — tailored specifically for the 350Z — with a 10-inch woofer mounted right behind the driver.

The ultra-slim woofer is just one of seven speakers to be found in the 350Z's cabin. There are 1.5-inch tweeters in each A-pillar; 6.5-inch speakers in each door; and two 6.5-inch speakers mounted in the rear for extra depth. A six-channel digital amplifier is also mounted in the rear, providing customised equalisation and signal processing to each individual speaker for clear, more natural sounding music.

Bose engineers designed the bespoke system, which continuously analyses the noise levels in the car. Wind and road noise, and even the sound of rain on the windscreen, are all monitored and fed through signal processing equipment so the system can then adjust the musical output for maximum quality. Nifty or what?

The relaxed sixth gear makes the 350Z an effortless motorway cruiser — 70mph at 2,250rpm in top, with its well-suppressed wind and road noise. Its real strength, though, is that it feels equally at home hard-charging the back roads.

At 80 litres, the 350Z's fuel tank is the largest in the class. And with a touring figure of 32.5mpg, is good for 550 miles between refills. During a week of particularly enthusiastic mixed driving our test Z averaged a regular 24mpg overall.

Optional equipment includes ultrasonic rear parking (£325), Nissan's excellent 3-D effect Birdview DVD satellite navigation system (£1,650), a hands-free telephone kit (£145), unique Azelan Orange leather trim and Rays engineered ultra-lightweight forged alloy wheels — which shave four kilos per corner off the car's unsprung weight.

Everyone who went out in the car came back wanting more. Overall the 350Z is one of the most competitively priced, 155mph, two-seater sports cars around. At £27,000, it's a steal. So much so that this year's initial allocation of 1,400 350Zs sold out in just five months. But the good news is that the factory is going to step up production and another 800 units will be available in the UK in 2004.

Confirming the 350Z's well-merited appeal are the awards it has received in the last twelve months: 'Car of the Year' (Top Gear); 'Car of the Year' (Boys Toys); 'Car of the Year' (as voted by the readers of Auto Express); 'Sporting Car of the Year' (The Association of Scottish Motoring Writers). And it has just taken top honours in the 'Performance Car' category at the 2004 British Insurance Security Awards. So although buying a Z might be easier, trying to steal one definitely won't!

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Nissan 350Z GT | £27,000
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 5.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 24mpg | Power: 276bhp | Torque: 268lb ft
Visit Nissan's website Click to go there now

-------------------------------------------------------------------- Nissan 350Z GT