The new Nissan 350z roadster qualifies as an exciting and engaging sports machine.
Nissan’s metamorphosis under chief, Carlos Ghosn, into a specialist manufacturer of sports-oriented motor vehicles continues with the release of the other half of the 350Z equation, the Roadster. Does this also-pretty 350 have the wherewithal to match its kissing cousin, the Coupé? Darn tootin’, it does. Furthermore, there’s just no other Roadster within a country kay that comes remotely close to matching its bang-for-buck value.
Right from when pen first hit paper, or mouse hit pad, the 350Z was envisaged in two guises: one a coupé, the other a roadster. Mechanically the two are similar in the extreme. Same drivetrain, all but identical running gear, much the same specification. The concept for the roadster was that it should offer the same exhilarating drive experience as the Coupé. Nice in theory, nasty to achieve – cue lots more sill superstructure to compensate for the loss of the sheet metal overhead. And that means even more weight added to a chassis already not short on beef. Structural reinforcements include a V-shaped crossbar connecting the side sills, and an A-shaped cross bar under the front end. Door apertures and A-pillars also receive attention, and a further strengthening brace is added to the seating area. Both doors sport a serious prong that fits snugly into an opening at the base of the B-pillar. It’s made of stern stuff, this.
Partially to offset the extra weight, items that might otherwise have been made of sheet metal are produced of lightweight composite materials; this we discovered when it came time to attach the magnetic VBOX sensor to the lidless 350. The only place it would adhere was to the thin strip of metal atop the front windscreen.
Despite countermeasures, the 350Z Roadster still gains the equivalent of a decent bag of sand over each of its attractive 18-inch alloy wheels. The Z Coupé weighs in at 1510kg with a full tank. Nissan accurately claims a tare weight of 1548kg for the Roadster, which might not seem much of a price to pay. The casual observer will do the sums and figure weight has only risen by 38kg, but the numbers are misleading. Tare weight is bare weight: one car, no fuel. Add a 76-litre payload of gas to get to kerb weight, and you’re looking at around 1605kg. Our four-corner scales concurred, near as dammit, with a ready-to-roll weight of 1610kg, precisely 100kg up on the Coupé.
We have, in the past, assessed the effect of adding a passenger to a vehicle’s acceleration – it increases the 0-100km/h time by around 0.5 of a second. Our 350Z six-speed manual Roadster was only just run in, but still achieved a piping-hot 6.68s, just over 0.4s adrift of the Coupé. This remains a stellar performer, keeping pace with the Boxster 2.7 litre manual, but at vastly less, costing two-thirds of its price.
When you first jump into the Roadster the drop-off in performance is detectable – just – but after a brief spell at the wheel, you soon forget about it. It’s simply a rocket because of the engine’s brawn across a broad spread of revs, and the choice of six forward gears accessed by the stubby shifter. Using half throttle, you’ll need to keep one eye ahead, another on the speedo. Drifting along in top gear at 3000rpm, you’re already touching 130km/h – and it feels more like 110. If you find yourself in the wrong gear, no matter. Just apply more throttle; it almost always suffices, especially if you’re only a gear out of place. And if it’s wet, the drive is still enjoyable as the stability and traction control mechanisms keep a sobering check on proceedings.
All the while you’re marvelling at the driving experience. If you’ve never driven the Coupé, don’t sweat it – the Roadster feels 95 per cent a replica. There’s the same loud and proud steering mechanism, the same reassuring rock-solid show of precision. It’s such a rarity to find a roadster that drives just like the hard-top that spawned it. There’s usually some clue – more road shock or shake through the steering column, some chassis groaning or squeaking through up-and-down corners, a little windscreen or scuttle vibration. But not with this Roadster. It simply apes the Coupé.
There are some minor differences to specification and mechanicals. Amongst these are altered suspension settings and brake components. These spec changes apply both to the six-speed manual version and the five-speed auto with manual sequential changer. Essentially, there’s just the single Roadster model with two tranny options.
Where the manual Track version of the 350Z had the superb Brembo brake performance package, the Roadster makes do with the smaller rotors of the Touring version, still vented both ends. And still with ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. The fact that our best panic brake stop from the open-road limit took two metres more than the Coupé is a reflection of the additional hundredweight (of kg), and reduced swept brake area. A stopping distance of just over 36m is still fine, and the drilled aluminium pedal feels almost as progressive and confidence inspiring as that of the Coupé.
Of equal import is the revision of the damper rates for a more ‘European’ ride quality. The change is readily apparent, with slow-speed progress now more even, less jittery. Over your favourite Sunday-sprint roads, the Roadster displays the same disdain for mid-corner bumps taken at speed, maintaining line despite a touch of kickback through the wheel. Softer damping keeps the wheels tracking over dips and rises better, improving grip. This European suspension setting is to find its way into the local 350Z Coupé as well, according to Nissan NZ staff.
In terms of other creature comforts, the 350Z doesn’t fall very far behind the Track at all. There are the same heated leather pews, with power operation through two sensibly placed rocker switches sited to the outside of the left thigh. Love those hot and hotter seat heaters, which are particularly handy in the Roadster, for you’re more likely to be chilled in it than in the Coupé. You also get climate-control air conditioning, trip computer, a six-disc in-dash Bose head-unit with dedicated subwoofer and Autopilot function (alters volume setting automatically according to noise levels), and a quartet of airbags. Switchgear also is unchanged. The retro-looking alloy-studded wheel retains the cruise control, and the signature Zed secondary instrument cluster atop the centre console is no different from that of the Coupé. The excellent driving position remains, as does the just-so placement of alloy brake and accelerator pedals; heel and toeing is almost ridiculously easy.
There’s a wee bit of storage space in between seats, and behind the passenger backrest is space enough for a brief case. Boot space is barely adequate; figure on a set of golf clubs, just, but the trundler you’ll have to hire, or else forego taking a playing partner.
Nowadays, few discriminating Roadsters do without self-retracting hoods, and the 350Z drop-top is no different. It takes about 20 seconds to stow under a neat composite tonneau cover. The hood drops into a well, ahead of the same crossbar that bisects the luggage compartment of the Z Coupé. It all works sweetly enough, though is not quite fully automatic – you’re required to reach up and fiddle with a centrally mounted D-handle to initiate or complete the procedure.
The soft-top features a narrow-gutted glass rear window with a built-in demister, offering a compromised but acceptable rearward view from within the vehicle. Reversing ain’t much fun with the roof up, however.
Nissan engineers really did a smashing job limiting NVH in the Roadster, so much so that it’s quieter at 100km/h with the roof in situ than the Coupé! Our sound-pressure meter registered open-road noise levels one decibel lower. We couldn’t believe it either. Evidently, the soft-top compartment offers better isolation of rear-wheel noise. The Roadster is not only quiet with the top up but relatively hushed with it tucked away, and the tempered glass deflector between the headrests means hair stays coiffed.
Roadster-specific kit includes a handy belt presenter and extra knee padding in the dash. The vehicle is available in the same colours as the hard-top, with a black or dark navy-blue roof fabric, depending on external hue.
The Roadster is a peach with the roof down, rivalling the Coupé for looks. Putting the roof up changes the lines of the car, however, as there’s no way the soft-top can emulate the ‘fastback’ tail of the Coupé, and the Roadster’s bum looks a little too big. Despite this, it really deserves to sell well, though will have a tough road ahead matching the 130 sales to date of the hardtop in New Zealand.
Not only does the 350Z Roadster represent good buying at $72,990, but there just isn’t a competitor as dramatically attractive, capable and inexpensive. It’s the bright-star contender for Roadster of the Year, if not Roadster of the Century.
This article originally appeared in the November 2003 edition of NZ Autocar Magazine.
|Model||2003 Nissan 350Z Roadster||Price||$72,990|
|Engine||3498cc, V6, EFI, 206kW/363Nm||Drivetrain||6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive|
|Fuel Use||11.5L/100km||C02 Output||0g/km|