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Nissan 350Z Roadster GT

Click to view picture galleryNissan’s 350Z hasnt established
  a special place in the hearts of
  performance car buyers right across
  Europe simply because of it
s stand-
  out looks — but also because it
s a
 
focused, lithe and bullish sportscar
...

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST to buy a 'proper' sports car that is, a true, no-compromise two-seater drop-top sports car with rear-wheel drive and a potent front-mounted engine. A car with dramatic styling and that serves up equally exciting performance. One car company, Nissan, has not only calculated the exact amount £31,300 but has already built the car for you: the 350Z Roadster GT.

So what, exactly, are you getting for £31,300? Judging by the photographs — dramatic, head-turning looks. You also get bags of performance from a gutsy 309bhp 3.5-litre V6 engine and an engaging flat-riding chassis that together offers keen drivers looking for maximum performance-per-pound excellent value and an addictively enjoyable driving experience.

Nissan has deliberately kept the model line-up simple and just two body styles are on offer — Coupé or Roadster — and two trim levels: standard off-the-peg 350Z or specced-up 350Z GT which adds cruise control, heated and powered leather seats and a 240W Bose radio/cassette with six-CD in-dash changer, 7 Bose speakers including a 25cm subwoofer behind the driver's seat and AudioPilot™ noise compensation technology. Prices are £27,300 and £28,800 respectively for the 350Z Coupé and 350Z Roadster; and £29,800 and £31,300 respectively for the Coupé GT and Roadster GT. All have the same 309bhp V6 under the bonnet and all come with a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox.

Get up close and the urge to spend time admiring the authentic sports car looks gives way to the urge to pull on the large, aluminium finish vertical door handle on the trailing edge of the Roadster's wide door and drop down into the invitingly-contoured bucket seat. The driver's seat is deeply sculpted to hold you firmly in place under all conditions, while the passenger seat is wider, with the emphasis on cruising comfort. First impressions match the external cues: even before you fire up the engine there's absolutely no doubt that this is a driver-focussed car.

The three-spoke leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel is tactile — the rim nicely hard and pleasing to hold and with logical thumb cut-outs. The stubby gearlever — also meticulously trimmed in perforated leather — is close to hand. Remote audio controls are mounted on the right-hand spoke; cruise control switches on the left.

Extra dials — showing volts, oil pressure and trip computer — are arrayed in a horizontal line along the top of the centre stack, each mounted in its own individual teardrop-shaped cowl, their faces angled directly towards the driver. The trip computer displays information concerning the selected rpm change-up band, average mpg, external temperature, current mph (especially useful) and range. Directly ahead of you is a three-instrument binnacle that moves in sync with the height-adjustable steering column to ensure the driver always has the best possible view of the major instruments, whatever the chosen seating position.

Pride of place in the centre goes to the rev-counter, redlined at 7,500rpm. Flanking it to the right is the speedometer and, to the left, two smaller gauges for fuel and coolant temperature. Graphics are orange on black with red needles. Inset into the rev-counter is a small red light — a driver-programmable shift-up indicator which flashes red as you reach the optimum safe engine speed in any gear and designed to leave you free to focus on the road without ever having to worry about over-revving the engine when making maximum use of the performance.

Fore/aft and backrest angle adjustments are electric and there's also manual seat height adjustment — drivers of average build up to just under six foot tall will have no trouble setting a first class driving position and will feel an integral part of the 'Z'. Despite the steering wheel not being adjustable for reach, a comfortable and secure driving position is easily achieved. The shapely leather-upholstered seats (with perforated centre panels) proved to be both very supportive and comfortable over long distances. And even though they don't look that heavily bolstered, they still provided good location and kept the driver and front passenger in place during spirited driving en route to the New Forest.

Coupé models invariably necessitate a twist and stretch exercise to belt up but a well-considered touch in the 350Z are seat belts mounted on 'servers' that keep them close to the occupant's shoulder and within easy reach. Cabin safety includes front and side airbags, active head restraints and roll hoops behind the headrests. It's a liveable cabin, too, with a number of useful storage cubbies, although there is no glovebox. If you don't specify the optional (and excellent) Birdview SatNav (£1,200) you get a handy lidded cubby where the screen should go. You'll also find a discreet slide-out drawer in the fascia that's ideal for coins.

Below this is the 240W Bose hi-fi (with a 6-CD in-dash changer and a ten-inch subwoofer behind the driver's seat ) and the rotary controls for the climate control air conditioning that's more than up to keeping you cool — even with the top down. Power windows are also standard, with one-touch up/down for the driver and one-shot down for the passenger. Heated, electric, folding mirrors are also standard, as too is an overhead sunglasses holder. Moving back past the gear lever, there's a smallish storage box with a sliding lid alongside the traditional handbrake and behind that, in the central tunnel, another lidded compartment.

Apart from the token door pockets, there are three practical lockers in the rear bulkhead behind the passenger's backrest: two small parcel boxes and a large, lockable storage box capable of holding a briefcase. While you can store coats and the like in the narrow gap between the seatbacks and the rear bulkhead, doing so does muffle the subwoofer. Obviously, none of these rear storage areas can be accessed whilst on the move because the passenger's seatback needs to be moved forwards for loading or unloading.

Which is a good time to mention the boot. Bearing in mind that the soft top has to go somewhere when it completely disappears beneath the rear deck, the Roadster's shallow boot still provides 130 litres of storage. And while it's not a regular shape, we still managed to pack in two people's luggage (two medium-size squashy bags) and all the essentials for a three-day self-catering weekend break in one of the comfortable lodges at Sandy Balls in the New Forest — and shut the bootlid easily!

The space in the upturned space-saver under the boot floor also came in handy — thankfully we didn't get a puncture. We didn't try, but according to the handbook it is possible to store a full-size golf bag in the boot — what you might call a 'whole' in one.

But driving to the golf club or weekend breaks with the kitchen sink along for the ride are not exactly the prime reasons people buy themselves a 350Z Roadster. It looks great, goes like a rocket and is great fun to drive.

With 309bhp under your right foot you'd be surprised if the 350Z didn't turn in a slick 0-62mph time — it gets there in 6.1 seconds. It will also, if you let it, race on past that all the way to an electronically limited 155mph. But where it really scores is in the 'grunt' department — engine torque.

Maximum torque of 264lb ft is available at 4,800rpm but — and this is what makes the 350Z such an exciting and impressive player mid-range and through the gears — ninety per cent of this is available from a lowly 2,000rpm. And it's not just the power but the glory, too — step hard on the accelerator and you can switch off the Bose and instead enjoy listening to the front/mid-mounted 3.5-litre V6's aural signature and the wonderfully sonorous roar from the two large-bore tailpipes that accompanies serious acceleration.

The short-throw gear lever's action is precise; and yet it is at the same time and in a trackday kind of way, satisfyingly deliberate. Not a problem — it just adds to the impression that behind the engine is a tough gearbox — one that's more than up to the task of dishing out 264lb ft of torque to the rear wheels. While the drilled alloy pedals look good, you do need to get the clutch and revs balanced right when working your way though the 'box. Sixth is fairly long-legged but pick-up is still crisp, even when lazily cruising the motorway.

In a nutshell, this is a car you need to be physically involved with. The driver is an integral part of the machine; not just a body that sits back and steers. But what you put into the 350Z, you get back with interest. The bigger the driver investment; the bigger the payback!

Nissan has done a good job with the required extra strengthening to the Roadster's chassis — it feels almost as solid as one of its coupé-bodied sisters. And the extra 88kg serves another purpose by making the stiffly sprung convertible feel reassuringly settled on the road. With almost perfect (53:47) front-to-rear weight distribution, a low centre of gravity, multi-link independent suspension all-round and the traditional rear-wheel drive configuration, handling is hugely involving. And if you really want to revel in the 'Z experience' — for example, on track days — you can disengage the ESP system.

The speed-dependent power steering is well-weighted and precise and delivers usable feedback — making it easy to control the Roadster, which can be flung through corners with confidence. Grip from the Bridgestone Potenzas wrapped around the six-spoke Rays alloy wheels (225/45 front; 245/45 rear) further enhances the 350Z's sure-footed feel. The Brembo brakes — the Italian company's signature callipers are clearly visible through the spokes of the wheels — are powerful and are easily moderated through the firm but progressive brake pedal.

For the record, the ultra-lightweight forged alloy wheels shave four kilos per corner off the unsprung weight of the 350Z, further optimising the chassis dynamics. The anti-lock brakes are backed up with Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and there's an electronic stability program with traction control.

Despite the sporting-bias of the ride and a mechanical soundtrack that red-blooded drivers will prefer to anything playing on the CD/radio, the 350Z is a surprisingly easy car in which to cover long distances. Our outward-bound trip from Kent to the New Forest was done in lashing, torrential rain on waterlogged motorways that turned an easy two-hour run into a three-hour Wim Wenders road movie. Even in those conditions, the journey was no hardship.

For the return leg the sun came out to play and it was pleasant enough for the top to stay down for the entire journey. The downside was the near-endless nose-to-tail traffic caused by the shutting down of the M3/M25 interchange. As usual, the authorities failed to clearly inform motorists what was happening until it was too late; so instead of turning off and cutting across country (and the chance for some quality time with the 350Z!) we, like thousands of other motorists that day, were forced to drive miles out of our way to find an alternative route home.

Hmmm... Perhaps there were benefits, after all!

Because potential irritation of this situation was smoothly erased by the fact that we were enjoying our topless drive in the 350Z so much. Even the other drivers managed a smile at the sight of the topless, gleaming white 350Z complete with blonde in the passenger seat. Do you really think I like this job?!

One very important point worth noting is the awkward positioning of the hazard warning switch at the base of the centre stack, where it's effectively hemmed in by the gear lever. Due to the erratic traffic and irritated drivers on our journey back home we needed it three times and, sited where it is, it meant the driver taking his eyes off the road to locate it and angle his finger around the gear knob at the very moment that maximum observation is called for. Probably a niggle at first and one that you could get used to after a few weeks with your 350Z.

When in place there's about an inch-and-a-half clear headroom beneath the folding canvas roof — look up and you'll see that the hood is not lined. And while powered, the 350Z's soft-top is not fully automatic either. Dropping the top requires first manually releasing the header rail catch (watching your fingernails!) after which going from fully closed to fully open takes around 20 seconds. The open/close switch for the roof is sited in an out of the way spot on the driver's side of the lower fascia.

Still, it's well worth the trouble. Because when the top's down and folded away under the rear cover with its moulded-in twin-fairings, this Roadster really does look the 'biZness'. Fortunately the clear glass wind deflector between the rollover hoops keeps the cabin free of turbulence, even with the side windows down at fast-moving motorway speeds. So you can talk and have fun all the while.

If you can moderate your desire to 'fast-forward' the scenery at every opportunity — you really ought to think of your licence — then fuel bills won't be a problem. Officially the 350Z will return 16.6, 23.5 and 30.7mpg on the urban, combined and extra-urban cycles. We averaged 24.6mpg — and that was including all those traffic problems.

A focused, lithe and bullish sports car that stands out for its styling and that's won numerous awards from Europe's top specialist magazines — and more than 40 awards globally — the 'Z' has established a special place in the hearts of performance car buyers right across Europe. Isn't it about time you started dating? — MotorBar

350Z Roadster GT
| £31,300
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 24.6mpg | Power: 309bhp | Torque: 264lb ft
CO2 288g/km | Insurance group 19