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2003 Nissan 350Z

We drive an early prototype and learn Nissan's new Z is on the right track.

Jul 16, 2002
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Nissan's new Z car has to be fast. And it has to be cheap. If it isn't, Nissan might as well fold up its tents and head on home. The cheap part is a done deal. We've seen the pricing. This car will start around $27,500.

It's the fast part we're worried about. We've driven an early prototype, and honestly, it wasn't that fast. Nissan says this car, which will be called the 350Z when it debuts in August, will be the highest performance Z-car ever. That means a 0-60 mph time of six seconds or less. But the mule we lapped around the road course at Nissan's Tochigi proving ground could not pull this kind of number. True, we left our radar gun back at the office, but our internal clock says Nissan's engineers still have some work to do on the car's VQ35 V6 powerplant--a fact they readily admit.

The car we drove is a very early example with incorrect wheels and front fascia, but it was close enough for us to make a few critical observations about the car's performance.

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Standing out most is the steering, as the engine and suspension in the mule will undergo serious changes before production. Steering was well weighted, relatively quick and returned precise feedback through the wheel, allowing the driver to place the car well and focus on the many other facets of driving quickly. Hiroshi Nagaoka, the man in charge of dynamics on the Z and the upcoming Infiniti G35 (which shares the new Z's suspension) attributes the steering feel to the front suspension's two-piece lower control arm. The new design allows for stiffer bushings in the Z's steering rack without compromising NVH or driveability. It also gave designers further flexibility in shaping the new Z's exterior by permitting less front overhang and less distance between the top of the wheelwell and the hoodline.

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Critical to the car's performance will be the multi-link forged aluminum suspension bits and rear crossmember, which chassis engineers claim saves about 44 lbs overall. Uncommon on a car in this price range, Nissan has managed to cross-platform the exotic suspension bits with enough other cars so it can amortize development and production costs to give enthusiasts a true performance-car suspension for only slightly more than an economy car price.

Also apparent from the test drive was the car's weight. The new Z will be lighter than the previous-generation Z32, but it's still no featherweight. Many decisions which can affect the car's final curb weight still remain; preliminary estimates have the car at about 3,190 lbs, or about 300 lbs lighter than the Z32 twin turbo. The pork was obvious in the test drive, but it's nothing that can't be cured with some good, old-fashioned horsepower.

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The mule we drove made about 250 hp, according to S. Yukawa, chief product specialist on the Z. He promised, in production trim, the VQ will make at least 280 hp. Given the car's current weight, a minimum of 290 hp is necessary if Nissan is to meet its goal of 11 lbs per horsepower. Considering the engine already makes 240 hp in the Altima and 255 hp in the Maxima, finding another 30 to 40 hp isn't an unrealistic expectation. If Nissan manages to squeeze 300 hp from the engine, it'll still only be producing about 85 hp per liter--minimal by Honda standards.

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Several changes will be made to bump power in the Z version of the engine. Since the Z's engine is longitudinal, it will receive a new intake manifold. Engineers wouldn't say whether or not the new manifold will be a two-stage design, but it's likely. They admitted the Z engine will get variable cam timing on both the intake and exhaust cams--the Maxima and Altima have this feature only on the intake side. Also likely is a change in the cam spec from that of the Altima and Maxima, but the 6500-rpm redline will remain. Two catalytic converters (one on each side) will be placed immediately after the exhaust manifold collectors in each downpipe.

Nissan has settled on the dual exhaust exits in the rear fascia. Separated by more than a foot, the exhaust tips are an improvement from the center-exit design shown on the car at last year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The exhaust note on the mule was a deep sound worthy of the engine's displacement, but the exhaust is yet to be finalized. It's too early to say if the aggressive bellow we heard will make it to production.

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Farther down the drivetrain resides Nissan's new six-speed rear-drive transmission or five-speed manually shiftable automatic coupled to a rear-end housing with a viscous limited-slip differential. Traction control and Vehicle Dynamics Control will also be available.

Inside the car, two things stand out. Most significant is the center-mounted tachometer. Why more manufacturers don't do this is beyond us, but it's a feature that makes a vital difference when driving hard. Also interesting is the gauge cluster, which is integrated into the steering column to move as one piece.

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Also in the works is a convertible version. Hardcore performance nuts will stick with the hardtop, as removing the roof and adding the necessary bracing to make a convertible rigid often compromises a performance car. It's unclear at this point whether the convertible will debut with the hardtop in August.

Nissan plans to build 5,000 Z cars a month with 2,000 to 3,000 headed to the U.S. market, which is targeted as the volume leader worldwide. There are no plans at this point for a stripper version, but plans for a performance model are being laid out. Details are still sketchy, but several changes have been confirmed. The performance model should get Brembo brakes at all four corners, as well as 18-inch wheels and Michelin 225/45ZR-18 tires in front and 245/45ZR-18 out back. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard. We suspect significant changes to spring rates and shock valving as well, but engineers were reluctant to reveal all the details as of our press time.

One thing's for sure: Delivering $50,000 worth of performance for under $30,000 is the kind of value that made the original Z a huge success. Right now, it's just what Nissan needs.



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