Nissan 350Z: Affordable, Exciting Roadster

If you aren't bothered by high gas prices and want a fun, well-priced roadster, the Nissan 350Z is the car for you

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Bang for the buck, power ragtop, decent (but not great) mileage

The Bad: Tiny trunk, terrible rearward visibility, interior has some downscale materials

The Bottom Line: An affordable cure for the summertime blahs

Up Front

Gasoline prices are soaring and Americans are suddenly obsessed with trading down to small, fuel-efficient cars. But, hey, you still have to have some fun in life, and with summer upon us it's hard not to think about splurging on a sporty, two-seat convertible. In that category, the 2008 350Z ragtop Roadster from Nissan (NSANY) offers better bang for the buck than just about any other model.

Much of the buzz about the 350Z lately has centered on the new track-ready Nismo version of the hardtop 350Z Coupe, as well as the all-new and more powerful 370Z that's planned as a 2010 model. But it would be a shame if the 350Z Roadster gets overlooked in all the hullabaloo. I recently did my first test drive of the sporty little Nissan, and it's a marvelous vehicle, especially if you get to drive it during a string of gloriously sunny summer days, as I did.

The '08 version of the 350Z Roadster is a quick, well-balanced, rear-wheel-drive sports car with cat-like reflexes and a power ragtop that pops up and down at the push of a button in 20 seconds. The ragtop 350Z costs substantially more than the Coupe, but it's still thousands of dollars cheaper than such rival German two-seat convertibles as the BMW (BMWG.DE) Z4, the Audi TT, Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes SLK 280, and the Porsche Boxster. The only model that comes close to matching the 350Z's bang for the buck, in my view, is the entry-level version of the Audi's (NSUG.DE) TT (more on that later).

The 350Z Roadster comes in three styles. The Enthusiast, starting at $36,940 with a stick shift, has power seats, a power-operated convertible soft top, 18-inch cast aluminum alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlamps, and automatic climate control. Next up is the Touring model, starting at $39,290, which adds a seven-speaker Bose sound system with a six-CD changer and heated and leather-trimmed seats. The Grand Touring starts at $41,640 and adds big Brembo brakes and a dynamic stability control system. (In addition, there are five versions of the 350Z Coupe, ranging in price from the $29,170 base model up to the $39,280 Nismo.)

Whether hardtop or Roadster, the 350Z only comes with one engine, but that's not a bad thing because the engine in question is a wonderfully calibrated 3.5-liter, 306-hp V6 that delivers plenty of oomph at just about any speed. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a five-speed automatic available as a $1,000 option.

Even though Nissan hiked the power rating of the 350Z's engine as of the 2007 model year, the car gets better mileage now than pre-2007 models. The '08 350Z Roadster is rated to average 20 miles per gallon with either transmission (17 mpg in the city, 24 mpg on the highway with a stick shift; 17/23 with an automatic). In 254 miles of fast driving, I got 19.6 mpg in a test car with a stick shift.

Standard safety gear on all versions of the 350Z Roadster includes antilock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution and braking assist, traction control, and front and side air bags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the '08 350Z its top five-star ratings in side impact and rollover accidents, and four stars in front-end collisions.

The main options on the Enthusiast are 18-in. chrome wheels ($1,800) and a flashy Nogaro Red paint job ($500). On the other models you can also get a navigation system for $1,680, as well as a grey ragtop (instead of the standard black), and garish orange-upholstered ventilated seats at no extra charge.

As with most sports cars, demand for the 350Z has been clobbered this year by gas price jitters. Sales fell 52.8%, to 830 units, in June and were off 40.1% to 6,577 units in the first half of this year. That's almost as big a drop as has been experienced by Nissan's Titan pickup truck and Pathfinder and Xterra, which are among this year's worst-selling SUVs.

Behind the Wheel

The 350Z Roadster matches or surpasses the speed, handling, and road-hugging capabilities of the BMW Z4. However, in roughly the same price range I prefer the Audi TT. In my opinion, the 350Z can't come close to matching the tight feel and excellent handling of the admittedly far more expensive Porsche Boxster.

I clocked the 350Z Roadster with a manual transmission at around six seconds in accelerating from zero to 60 mph. That makes the Nissan considerably quicker than the Z4 3.0i, which BMW rates at 6.6 seconds. However, the entry-level version of the Audi TT ragtop, the 2.0T, which has a turbocharged 2.0-liter, 200-hp four-cylinder engine, is almost as quick as the 350Z.

The 350Z Roadster doesn't have quite the taut feel of the 350Z Coupe, but it comes close. The car handles hard cornering very well. Its steering is well balanced and responds instantly and precisely to input from the driver. The suspension is sport-tuned and provides all the road feel you expect from a car like this. You feel every bump on back roads and every imperfection in the road surface at highway speed.

The stick shift in the 350Z is designed for quick-shifting during the first five gears. Sixth gear is overdrive to provide better fuel efficiency on the highway. One of my few complaints about the way the 350Z drives is that the shift feels a little mushy compared to an Audi or BMW, and I'd like the clutch to be a little stiffer.

The 350Z ragtop actually has slightly more headroom than the Coupe, as well as a surprising (to me at least) amount of legroom. I'm 5 feet 10 inches tall and with the driver's seat all the way back, I couldn't reach the steering wheel without stretching forward. The seats move back and forth and the seatbacks adjust via two little toggle switches on the sides of the seat, a setup I found very practical because you can easily see the switches to operate them. However, Nissan really should add a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, which would make the car even more practical for tall and heavyset drivers.

Otherwise, the 350Z Roadster has many of the inconveniences of any sports car. The passenger compartment is utilitarian, with off-black carbon-fiber-style surfaces predominating, and some of the materials used (such as the plastic doors on the storage cubby holes) seem a bit cheesy. Rearward visibility is terrible, even by sports car standards. The back window is small and narrow, and the cowling behind the passenger seat creates a major blind spot over the driver's right shoulder. Storage space is tight. In lieu of a glove box, there are several cubbyholes scattered around the cabin, but if you have a briefcase it's still probably going to have to be stowed in the tiny trunk if two people are riding in the car.

Trunk space is limited to just 4.1 cu. ft., even though the convertible top automatically folds down into in a separate space under a hard tonneau behind the passenger cabin. There's a sticker explaining how to fit a golf bag into that small space, but getting two golf bags into the trunk would be a stretch.

Buy it or Bag It?

The big question you have to answer before buying a 350Z: How much extra are you willing to pay for a convertible top? The '08 350Z sells for an average of just under $33,000, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). But hidden within that number is a big differential between the price of the hardtop 350Z Coupe, which sells for an average of just $31,586, and the ragtop Roadster, which averages $38,448. So, if you're on a tight budget, the 350Z Coupe is the better bargain. (But then again, if you're that concerned about money, with gas at more than $4 a gallon these days, you probably aren't shopping for any kind of sports car.)

The two rival German models closest in price to the 350Z are the '08 BMW Z4, which sells for an average of $39,788, and the '08 Audi TT, which averages $43,218, according to PIN. The ragtop versions of both those models also carry a substantial premium over the hardtops, so they're pricier than the 350Z Roadster. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

The exception is the entry-level version of the Audi TT ragtop, the 2.0T, which starts at just $37,575 and is definitely worth test-driving if you're considering a 350Z. In addition to being extremely agile and almost as quick as the 350Z, the 2.0T gets better mileage than the Nissan (23 mpg city, 29 mpg highway).

Other, German alternatives, include the Mercedes SLK280, which has a retractable hardtop and sells for an average of $46,830, and the Porsche Boxster, which comes standard with a ragtop and sells for an average of $57,358. Both are more refined than the 350Z, but they're also far more expensive. In the end, it's hard to beat the 350Z's bang for the buck.

Click through's slide show to see more of the 2008 Nissan 350Z Roadster.

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