Nissan's 350Z: Another Classic in the Making?

The new Z retains the spirit and power of the original

Nissan Motor (NSANY ) struck a chord with the Datsun 240Z, first introduced in 1969 as a 1970 model. It was stylish--a Jaguar lookalike. It was fast--150-hp under its long, sloping hood. Most of all, it was affordable. At $3,526, the Z was just a couple of dollars more than the average new car that year and about half the price of competing sports cars.

Now, Nissan has done it again. At a time when true two-seat sports cars start at $42,350 for the bargain-priced Chevy Corvette and go up from there, Nissan's new 350Z will carry a base sticker of just $26,809 when it goes on sale in mid-August. That's only about $1,000 more than what the average new car fetched last year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

Over the past month or so, I've driven preproduction versions of most of the new Z models, from the base car to the top-end $34,619 Track Model with oversize brakes and lightweight aluminum wheels. For comparison--O.K., for fun--I also spent a week in a fully restored 1972 chrome-yellow 240Z.

Cars have come a long way from the days before air bags, computer-controlled engines, and power-robbing pollution controls. The new Z is no exception: It's a heavy car, some 3,200 lbs., but Nissan has given it a 287-hp engine with plenty of oomph. And there's lots of the no-compromise spirit of the earlier car.

The company isn't boasting about how fast the new Z zooms from 0 to 60 mph. But it has thoughtfully built a stopwatch into the instrument panel, and enthusiasts are clocking well under six seconds. That power is available at higher speeds as well; Even in sixth gear, there's enough get-up-and-go to fly past other cars on the highway.

Sure, Nissan had to make compromises to keep the price down, but not where it counts. Every model has the same 287 ponies, in contrast with the underpowered engines on less expensive versions of the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. There's no switch to soften the suspension for highway cruising, and yes, the ride's a bit stiff. But the payoff comes when you whip it around a curve a little faster than may be prudent. The tail end stays put.

I loved the cockpit. The driver's seat is firm and snug, with big side bolsters to keep you firmly planted around those curves. The passenger seat is less aggressively styled, designed more for comfort. The instrument panel is clear and simple and backlit in orange; its three gauges move with the steering wheel as you tilt it for the best driving position. An additional three gauges are mounted center dash in individual pods, just like in the original Z.

You can see where Nissan skimped on this car. There's no glove box, unless you count a deep, horizontal compartment behind the passenger seat. A single dash-mounted cupholder is the cheapest plastic kind, and it hit the floor when accidentally struck by a passenger's knee. Two other cupholders are in the center console, but behind the seats. There's plenty of room underneath the hatchback, but a steel cross-strut--needed for stiffness--bisects the space, making it well-nigh useless for luggage. Another problem: The long hatchback compromises rear visibility, and forget about seeing anything in that blind spot over your left shoulder.

There's no question that the new Z, with its Audi TT-like good looks, is a head-turner, fetching all manner of thumbs ups and hurried conversations at stoplights. Someday, this car, too, is likely to evoke the affection, the stories, and the reminiscences that the restored 240Z did when I took it to a Kool & the Gang concert this summer. Everyone, it seems, loves the original Z. They'll like this one, too.

By Larry Armstrong

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