Thursday 26th March 2009


NISSAN 370Z

Nissan's new 370Z is lighter and smaller than the 350Z, but does it retain the Z-car magic? Chris Rosamond gets his hands on the keys to the Zee.



We used to like the way the old 350Z looked. Low, wide, aggressive, and crammed with evocative design details that spoke to the heart and heritage of Nissan’s Z-car lineage. Then last year Nissan took the wraps off its replacement, the 370Z.


Suddenly the old Z looked challenged in ways we’d never really thought about, its drama and potency subtly reduced by a few well-aimed strokes of the 370Z designer’s pen.

It’s as though, in the pursuit of ultimate ‘Zee’-ness, somebody stuck a vacuum cleaner up one of the 350’s tailpipes and sucked out unnecessary volume from an already lean design. The new shape is tauter, meaner and more obviously aggressive, as if the 370Z’s skin has been stretched tighter over a newly muscular frame – the visual drama further accentuated by 55mm of extra rear track and a useful 10mm chopped out of the wheelbase to improve agility. In fact, we couldn’t help thinking the promise of increased torsional stiffness from redesigned body architecture, reduced weight, upgraded suspension and additional power - coupled with the exotic athleticism of Nissan’s new design - was in danger of making the hugely likeable 350Z appear a little naïve and unfocused.

So we’ve been itching to get behind the wheel of the new model ever since its US debut last Autumn and grabbed an offer to try a Euro-spec car at Nissan’s launch event outside Paris this week – as well as a chance to chat about the car with Steve Robbins, senior vehicle evaluation engineer at Nissan Europe’s Cranfield Technical Centre.


Steve is a proper petrolhead who, as a youth, picked up the basics of car control in the industrial estates and car parks of his North Eastern hometown. Those early experiences clearly paid off, as he now gets to drive hot Nissans around the Nurburgring for a living.

‘The first thing drivers of the 350 should notice about the 370Z is the improved steering feel,’ he says. ‘We’re confident the set-up is as good as any rival in terms of letting you feel what the wheels are doing right up to the limit of grip. It’s not the same type of feel as in a mid-engine sportscar, but the amount of actual feedback is just as good.’


Steve also rates the improved power delivery from the latest version of Nissan’s VQ series engine. With more than a third of its parts brand new, this 3.7 litre unit makes an encouraging 331PS at 7500rpm (and up to 336NM with a respectably flat torque curve) which it transmits through either a seven-speed auto’ or six-speed manual gearbox via a carbon fibre propshaft to a rear axle featuring an upgraded viscous LSD. The result of the 18PS power upgrade is a 5.3secs 0-60mph time (6.1secs for the auto’) and an overall performance package that Nissan hopes will put
the cat amongst far pricier pigeons
like - you guessed it - the Porsche Cayman.

The auto’ gearbox is a new option for the UK, while the manual features a unique Synchro Rev Control feature which may well turn out to be one of the 370Z’s best features.

The revised V6 also features Nissan’s new VVEL (Variable Valve Event and Lift) system – which with just 13 moving parts and electronic valve actuation provides valve response times up to 32 percent quicker than conventional valve spring systems.

‘VVEL allows the inlet valves to be used in part as a throttle control, improving engine responsiveness,’ says Steve. ‘On top of that, the engine is stronger in the lower to mid-revs range, with a torque curve that’s much flatter for more usable power.’


Duly primed, it’s our turn to get behind the wheel.

The door opens low and wide, presenting an inviting interior that turns out to be plenty roomy enough, even for this hulking six and a half footer. We’ve been offered the auto’ version first, but the roomy footwell is immediately noticeable on both auto’ and manual versions, as are the comfy but well-bolstered seats and excellent headroom. (You sit closer to the ground than in the 350, but the roof height is the same.) The view over the shapely bonnet is good, although thick A-pillars reduce peripheral vision a little, and a glance over the shoulder reveals the rakishly upswept rear side glass does nothing for visibility as the thick B-pillar sits right behind your ear.

No matter, once adjusted the interior and door mirrors provide a clear all round view, so it’s time to hit the start button.

The dashboard comes to life as the engine burbles into action – the needles on the centrally mounted tacho and adjacent speedometer performing an initial sweep as if limbering up for the workout ahead. Initially ignoring the wheel-mounted paddle-shifters, we go fully auto’ for the first few miles with the selector in ‘D’ – and it quickly becomes clear that even in this its least sporting mode the 370Z is eager to please.


The first thing to note as we trickle out of the hotel car park and thread our way towards the Autoroute is a surprisingly supple urban ride, relatively long suspension travel being one of the counter-intuitive benefits the 370Z derives from sharing a rear-drive platform with the considerably less hardcore Infiniti G37 coupe. It’s a quality that impresses later as we get to tackle much faster, more challenging B roads out of town, and one of the factors that makes the 370Z’s performance so enjoyably accessible. The auto’ box shifts smoothly and notably swiftly whether left to its own devices or using the paddles, and although not as exotic as the latest double clutch semi-auto devices, it’s possible to enjoy swapping ratios manually. The seven-speed ’box features a torque converter that spends quite a lot of its time in lock-up mode, improving both responsiveness to throttle inputs and engine braking, as well as increasing efficiency. Nissan claims the ’box swaps cogs faster in manual mode than any rival and, should you care about such things, an auto’ shifted 370Z also delivers marginally better economy
and lower emissions.

Less pleasing is the amount of road noise evident in the cabin at relatively low speeds. With the good-looking (optional) 19ins forged alloys running 245/40 and 275/35 Bridgestone Potenzas at the front and rear respectively, tyre noise was always going to be an issue, but some of the coarser-grained tarmacs we found in France induced road roar that was sufficient to kill conversation at 60mph.


Engine noise is also evident, and although Nissan is justifiably proud of engineering the 370Z to be 32kgs lighter than its predecessor, it’s possible that anyone using the car for commuting purposes might soon wish that a few kgs of sound deadening had been surreptitiously slipped back in. Were the exhaust note a little more sonorous, we might hesitate to suggest such a sacrilegious act, but it seems EC regulations precluded fitment of the sporty sounding pipes the 370Z is blessed with in the US. According to Steve the US-spec exhaust may be offered through Nissan dealers with a ‘circuit use only’ warning, in which case you’ll naturally want to use it on the road.

The key element that has made the leap across the Atlantic is the US 370Z’s so-called ‘Track Spec’ suspension set up, which is standard on all European cars.

Despite the name, the suspension is very well-suited to fast road use, with a combination of supple damping and excellent body control on sharply undulating twisties that inspire full use of the ample reserves of power. We left the Vehicle Dynamic Control system switched on throughout our drive, and reckon the 370Z’s ECU programmers have found a confidence-inspiring balance – banging open the throttle or lifting abruptly in a fast corner will induce a pleasing sense of the rear end stepping out of line, but it’s swiftly and safely gathered up as you launch the car towards the next apex.


The variable-assist electronic power steering also rewards at speed, having been revised with new bushes to increase stiffness and feel, as well as offering sharper responses to inputs from the new three-spoke leather-clad wheel - which has been effectively designed with flattened sides to provide natural resting places for fingers and palms. The result is indeed impressive, with the set-up allowing the driver to point the 370Z accurately at each approaching apex with confidence, enjoying levels of engagement and feedback that belie the car’s platform-generic DNA.

The brakes have been upgraded for the 370Z too, with 14ins front and 13.8ins rear discs providing excellent stopping power. The brake pedal itself has a relatively short travel, yet it remains reassuringly easy to modulate brake effort. In Steve’s words, what this means is ‘you can find the lock-up point without having to feel for it every time you approach a corner when you’re driving at the limit or on the track’.

Yet if the 370Z is a car to enjoy on a cross-country thrash in automatic guise, the manual version moves the experience to a higher plane.


For starters, without a power sapping torque converter the engine responds much faster to the throttle under hard acceleration – Nissan says it knocks 6 tenths off the 0-60 time, and the sensation of instantly attainable speed is apparent when you drop the hammer in pretty much any gear. However 330PS and all that torque requires a meaty gearbox, and although the 370Z’s sporty short-throw gearchange (approx 15 percent less ‘throw’ than Porsche or BMW) has a wide gate in which to operate, it can sometimes result in less than smooth changes.

Enter Synchro Rev Control, a cunning yet seemingly obvious device that eliminates the need for heel and toeing by working out which gear you’re looking for next and blipping the engine revs to exactly the required rate before the cog is engaged.

You can switch it off, but you probably won’t want to. The system has sensors on the clutch and the gear-lever gate, and seems foolproof in its ability to accurately match engine to vehicle speed whether changing up or down the box.


It’s quick, too, with Nissan claiming that even its most experienced test drivers need twice as long to execute ‘heel and toe’ gear changes with the SRC switched off. With SRC-improved shifts possible in just 0.5secs - even when skipping ratios while downshifting towards a corner – the system is a revelation for those of us whose individual heel and toe skills may be less than perfect.

With super-smooth shifting guaranteed, you can bang down the ratios as fast as you like with little fear of destabilising the 370 into a corner, allowing maximum concentration on steering and braking. It’s effective, and more to the point it would probably flatter the driving style of Alain Prost. For us lesser mortals, it’s just pure fun – adding an extra level of engagement with the car and encouraging greater commitment from the driver under almost any circumstances.

In fact ‘greater commitment’ would be a valid summary of the new 370Z itself. Lower, wider, stiffer, grippier, faster, more involving and significantly more desirable than the model it replaces, the new model highlights Nissan’s stated commitment to strengthening its brand credentials with genuine enthusiast appeal – and the 370Z delivers.

Specification  
Power 327bhp @ 7000rpm
Torque 270 @ 5200rpm
Weight 1525 kg
Economy 27 mpg
CO2 249 g/km
0-62mph 5.3 sec
Top speed 155 mph