The Nissan 350Z sports car receives a host of minor changes for 2006. Mechanical updates include an increase in horsepower, to 300, for all manual-transmission-equipped cars, larger brake rotors for cars without the Brembo brake package and a new vehicle speed-sensitive steering rack. For the exterior, the Z sports a revised front bumper and new headlight and taillight designs. Eighteen-inch wheels and HID headlights are now standard on all models. Changes inside include new cloth seat material, revised climate controls and a new navigation system. Finally, Nissan has made some adjustments to the Z's trim levels. A Grand Touring trim level is now available for the coupe body style; it features the Touring trim's equipment plus Brembo brakes, spoilers and stability control. Additionally, the Track and Grand Touring trims get new RAYS super lightweight forged-alloy wheels that measure 18 inches in front and 19 out back.
Few Nissan products have a more loyal following than the Z. Light, nimble, sporty and affordable, the original 1970 Datsun 240Z was the company's first big success in America. Prospective owners had to wait nearly six months to get one. Though it became increasingly heavier and more luxurious, the Z continued to sell well throughout the '80s. In 1990, Nissan debuted an all-new 300ZX. The car had a 222-hp V6 and a new body and interior. Later in the model year, a twin-turbo 300ZX went on sale with 300 horsepower. By the mid-1990s, however, the sports car market was shrinking. A strong yen also caused the Z's price to skyrocket. Sales slid and Nissan pulled the plug on the 300ZX in 1996.
Within the depths of Nissan, however, the eternal light wasn't quite extinguished. In 1999, the Z Concept first appeared on the auto show circuit. Created in secret by a team of designers at Nissan's Southern California studios, this metallic orange car relied heavily on cues from the first-generation 240Z. Its styling wasn't perfect, and the hardware underneath was mostly 240SX, but it was enough to get Nissan's top execs, as well as the public, excited about another Z. Nearly a decade later, the Z returned and Nissan's fortunes have been on the rise ever since.
The 350Z is built on Nissan's FM platform. FM (front midship) refers to the positioning of the engine. Compared to most front-engine cars in which a considerable amount of engine weight is placed over the front wheels, the 350Z's engine is located further rearward behind the front wheels. Handling, as you might imagine, is fantastic. Blast through the gears and there's a constant, insistent rush apt to make even the most jaded driver grin like a grade-schooler driving a go-kart. Although several other manufacturers have introduced performance cars in this price range over the last few years, the 350Z remains an excellent buy for enthusiastic drivers who don't want to spend big bucks.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 350Z is available as both a two-seat coupe and a roadster. The coupe comes in base, Enthusiast, Touring, Grand Touring and Track versions, while the roadster is limited to Enthusiast, Touring and Grand Touring trim levels. Base models come with automatic climate control; 18-inch alloy wheels; HID headlamps; power windows, locks and mirrors; a tire-pressure monitor; a CD player; and remote keyless entry. Going with an Enthusiast model sets you up with cruise control, traction control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a limited-slip rear differential and, on the roadster, a power-operated soft top and wind deflector. The Touring model offers an upgraded audio system, power and heated seats, leather upholstery and, on the roadster only, side airbags. For even more performance, the Grand Touring model has front and rear spoilers, stability control, 18-inch front and 19-inch rear lightweight wheels and upgraded Brembo brakes. Geared for the serious enthusiasts, the Track model has all the Grand Touring performance goodies and none of the Touring luxury items.
Powertrains and Performance:
The front-engine, rear-drive 350Z features a strong and flexible 3.5-liter V6. Similar to the engines found in the Nissan Maxima and Altima 3.5 SE, the Z's engine has variable valve timing and an electronically controlled throttle. In manual transmission models, it makes 300 horsepower, while automatic-equipped Zs make do with 287 hp. The manual gearbox is a close-ratio, six-speed unit, while the optional automatic is a five-speed with downshift rev matching.
Four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with ABS are standard on all models; the Grand Touring and Track models get an upgraded set of four-piston Brembo calipers. Side and head-protecting side curtain airbags are optional on all coupes. Regular side airbags are standard on Touring and Grand Touring roadsters and optional on Enthusiast versions.
Interior Design and Special Features:
Inside the contemporarily styled body is a driver-oriented cockpit that combines both classic and cutting-edge designs. The instrument panel features three gauge pods similar to the original 240Z, while a rear suspension brace resides prominently in the cargo area. While this brace certainly improves body rigidity, it also compromises valuable luggage space. All of the controls a driver might need are close at hand, but some of the materials used in the cockpit seem low-grade for this price range.
There's nothing special or gimmicky about getting started -- just turn the key, buckle your seatbelt and go. Around town, the V6 is quite docile, and the clutch isn't overly stiff. Open it up a bit, and the dual-exhaust pipes produce an enjoyable and throaty V6 growl. Power delivery is linear and athletic, with the most fun coming on around 4,000 rpm. During cornering, outright grip is high, and the car feels well balanced. Overall, the car offers handling equal to some of the best sports cars available.