Nissan is calling the 370Z an all-new car, and it's hard to argue with that. The wheelbase of this sixth-generation car is almost four inches shorter than the previous-generation 350Z, and all of the sheet metal is new. Overall, the 2009 Nissan 370Z is 2.7 inches shorter and 1.3 inches wider, and although the styling has something plainly in common with the previous (2008) model, almost every plane and contour is subtly or distinctly different.
As a gesture of respect to the designers of the first Z-car, the base line of the rear quarter window sweeps up just as it did on the original 1970 Datsun 240Z. In more modern vein, the front and rear light shapes are hooked (or barbed) for improved visual effect, and are quite unlike the symmetrical shapes found on the preceding model.
At the rear, the new lights combine with more-rounded contours to produce an elegant effect not unlike that of a Porsche. Altogether, we think the appearance is more subtle and mature than the somewhat squat aspects of the outgoing model.
There's still ample space in the seats for two occupants to travel in comfort, but the interior ambiance is now much improved by the new design and the choice of far more suitable textures.
Now enlarged to 3.7-liters, the V6 engine has plenty of power and a high operating speed. It's hooked to a six-speed manual with Nissan's interesting new SynchroRev system that matches revs for you on downshifts as long as the system is switched on at a button alongside the gear position indicator. The seven-speed automatic transmission does something very similar, blipping the throttle to match revs when you tug the paddle for a downshift.
By keeping the model variations to a minimum, but splitting the available options essentially between manual and automatic, basic and Touring, Nissan has broadened the appeal of its iconic Z-car in a meaningful way.
Now shorter and wider than before, the Nissan 370Z exhibits crisper contours and tighter surface tension on the panels. Front overhang is perhaps still a little long, but it is in the best interests of efficient aerodynamics and, besides, styling that emphasizes the rear-wheel-drive nature of the beast is an important part of the car's image.
Nissan chose to retain the vertical metallic exterior door handle, which is not our favorite feature because it's difficult to grasp, and to echo the rear quarter-window look first seen on the original 240Z. We think that little nod to history has been skillfully adapted. Attractive Z-badged turn signal markers fill the void between the front wheels and the front-door shut line, while vertical bars in the grille opening up front make the car look a little like a feeding manta ray.
The surface of the bodywork is comparatively devoid of bling. Nissan's hamburger logo graces the front end, and a shiny 370Z badge decorates the rump, but it's otherwise tastefully simple.
The Sport model gets Rays wheels with five artfully faceted split spokes, and look terrific peeking from the 370Z's muscular wheel wells. We've only seen the base car's wheels sitting apart from the car, but they don't look bad either.
At the rear, the dual exhaust outlets are tidily integrated with the rear fascia, and so is the rear spoiler when fitted as part of the Sport option. But we think more could have been made of the tail with a diffuser-like lower edge. See what you think.
Although it's not immediately obvious, one of the most telling aspects of the car's body is that the doors, rear hatch and hood are all made from aluminum, obviously in the quest for lower weight. Although the hood of the previous Z was aluminum, it used steel supports. Not in this one. Despite the added strength in the body, Nissan claims a 90-pound weight reduction.
The interior is hugely improved in this sixth generation Z-car, with much richer-looking materials and a design that escapes the low-rent effect of the old 350Z. A high-tech looking steering wheel (shared with the Maxima) is a bold centerpiece in the dash, a large Z gleaming in its center boss. The wheel was skimmed to produce differing thicknesses around its circumference, and tightly clad in solid and perforated leather at the appropriate segments. Buttons stud the beefy spokes for close-at-hand control of the stereo and cruise control.
The instrument panel still moves with the adjustable steering column, and still has a passing resemblance to a motorcycle gauge cluster, but the gauges are large and clear, with a 9000-rpm tachometer sitting dead center. A 180-mph speedometer is set off to the right, and a rather unusual aluminum circle at left contains two rows of LEDs for temperature and fuel level indication.
Naturally, the three auxiliary gauges that have always graced the Z-car's dash top are there, providing the time, oil temperature and battery state of charge. The seats in the new 370Z are larger and more supportive than before, and are of slightly different design right to left. Fittingly, the driver gets more aggressive bolsters than does the passenger.
The inconvenient shock-tower support bar that seriously compromised luggage space in the old car went the way of the shortened midsection, and there is now a cross-car bar directly behind the front seats, where it performs more of a locating role than an obstructive one. Rear luggage space is quite decent now, and the rear hatch provides unimpeded access. The big rear B-pillars produce distinct blind spots, but can be worked around quite well by positioning the large outside mirrors to compensate.
On automatic-transmission equipped cars, alloy shift paddles sprout from the steering column, their rear faces coated with a matt texture for positive finger actuation. In cars with the navigation system, the screen is tidily integrated into the center console, the usual Nissan ATM-like keyboard neatly incorporated at its base.
Along with the improved aesthetics comes rational layout and control function. Operating the stereo system is straightforward, and learning the navigation functions did not require any reference to the manual. The standard four-speaker stereo produces pretty good quality sound, so we expect exceptional performance from the 240-watt Bose unit found in the Touring model, with its six speakers and dual subwoofers though we haven't listened to it.
Access to the car, as with many sport coupes, is a little more difficult than with your average SUV, but the doors open fully and the sills are not unduly wide. For those inclined toward sportier cars, the new interior now compares favorably with cars costing a lot more.
The previous 350Z was fun to drive, but this new 370Z is a revelation. Where the 350Z was somewhat truck-like and crude in certain circumstances, this one is much better integrated. One can better appreciate a cohesive sense of control from the wheel, the pedals and the levers. The control relationships just seem better networked, all on the same page.
With the shortened body came increases in torsional rigidity at both ends of the car, and this solidity concentrates the feeling of agreement from all parts of the chassis. It now feels agile rather than brutal, supple rather than rigid, and it is easier to drive as a result.
We only had the Sport model to try out at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Nevada, and the car took to the course as if to the manor born. Since the 370Z uses a much-modified version of Nissan's FM platform, we expected some of the tail-happiness we've seen in cars using that chassis. But while we could occasionally provoke a spot of tail-wagging by adding too much power at corner exits, or by turning hard on a trailing throttle, the transition was progressive and easy to read.
For those not practiced at the art of double-clutching and heel-and-toeing, Nissan's SynchroRev system helps out enormously by blipping the throttle on downshifts to match engine speed with rear-axle speed for smooth synchronization.
Unlike true double-clutching, SynchroRev does not first select neutral then rev the engine to the required speed, so the synchronizers are still called upon to help out. You can feel the sensation through the shift lever as the synchros clutch in, and the purists among us would still prefer to do our own legwork. But there's no denying that it's a brilliant idea for most people, and even for purists on occasion.
Nissan's VVEL variable-valve timing systems has endowed the 370Z with a very broad torque spread, so forays to the 7500-rpm redline are not often needed. But when you do venture there, the famous high-rpm hullabaloo and clutch growl we know so well from the VQ-engine series turns back up. But it's hardly there at all at lower engine speeds, and that's another sign of the car's improved manners.
With steering that is weighted just about perfectly for a sportscar, the 370Z steers with great precision, turns in decisively, and will tighten the line even at high lateral-g loadings. There's simply more grip than you first think. And the big brakes as fitted to Sport models work as well as advertised.
Apart from some tire roar on rough surface textures, the ride is surprisingly calm and quiet on the public road for such a close-focused sportscar. The 370Z will undoubtedly make a fine grand tourer, particularly with the standard 18-inch wheels and tires.
Improving technology lends a broad operating range to the new Nissan 370Z in every aspect, making it a usable everyday commuter as well as a fun track day car, but the Sport package is nonetheless aimed directly at enthusiasts. As is the unmistakable visual signature. Here's a car that really looks like it's doing 100 mph while parked. Yet its civilized character and affordable price will likely attract one-car singles for all-around motoring activities.
Barry Winfield filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the 370Z Sport at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Nevada.