Monday, November 30, 2009

Nissan 350Z Review


The 350Z is getting cheaper and cheaper by the day, where first model 2003s are selling for as low as $12,000 with good mileage. So that means more and more will be sold as second-hand vehicles, and that also means a vast majority of those cars won't have warranties.

So me, I'm doing a service to the future 350Z community by providing them with this, perhaps, overly in-depth review. Well, that and the fact that I actually own the very car I'm reviewing kinda' made it easier to make this my first auto piece. And what better way to introduce yourself into a whole new world of entertainment-journalism?

History Lesson:
The Nissan 350Z is an iconic car, as well it should be, because its predecessors the Z32 300ZX, and even the original 240Z were, and still are icons today. The Nissan/Datsun 240Z proved that you can have Porsche-like qualities in a Japanese sports car, without the Porsche-like price-tag, and the world responded. But many years later, the Nissan 300ZX (Z32) proved that Japan can evolve and keep up with the Germans, by offering a twin-turbo Z-car with 300HP. The 300ZX was not alone, as it squarely faced off against the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4, and more importantly, the MKIV Toyota Supra, arguably the 90s' biggest Japanese-muscle icon.

A Few Details (This May Get Boring):
History lesson aside, the 350Z debuted to massively strong sales, fantastic critical response, and extremely loyal fanfare. It was the car I wanted since I first saw it back in 2002. It had everything, drop-dead gorgeous looks that breaks a neck on every city street, razor-sharp handling, a spectacular - and bullet-proof - motor, and, of course, rear-wheel drive. After pining for the 350Z for many years, I finally got one in 2007. The very one you see pictured is my actual car, and I got it with a meager 4000 miles on the clock; the car was 6 months old, but smelled, looked and drove like new. Best of all, depreciation hit, so this $34k car was mine for many thousands less. Great success.

A quick runthrough the car: this is a loaded Touring model, and these come equipped with a Bose 6-disc CD changer w/MP3 CD compatibility, heated seats, leather seats, steering-wheel radio controls, cruise control, automatic/motorized seats, and navigation, SAT radio, and Bluetooth (2007-08) are optional. It's worth noting that the 2006-08 350Zs have the refined interiors, which are less plasticky, and feel a bit better to the touch, in addition to being less rattle prone than the earlier 03-05 interiors. On top of that, a number of options found in the refined years, are not available in the earlier cars. Lastly, a layout of three mini-pods lay on top of the center console - one that shows battery voltage, oil pressure, and the most important, a multi-functional display that can be cycled to show average MPG & average MPH, mileage left until empty, digital MPH readout, tire PSI for all four wheels (not available on 07-08), a stopwatch, outside temperature, and length of time driven.

On the outside, the 06-08 models receive numerous enhancements over the original 03-05 design, these include standard bi-xenon HID projectors, LED taillights, polished 5-spoke 18" wheels, revised front bumper, among other extras. Inside the engine bay lies the heart of the beast: all 2003-2006 get essentially the same motor, the VQ35DE, which makes anywhere between 287HP/274TQ or 300HP/260TQ. In 2005, Nissan offered a higher-revving variant of the original motor for certain 350Z trims. This newer motor ran to 7000RPM vs. 6600RPM, but the trade-off was less torque, which made differences not very noticeable between the two engines. But it is the 2007-2008 cars have the overhauled VQ35HR motor, which packs 306HP/268TQ, redlines at 7500RPM, but puts down all of that torque and power more efficiently, compared to the motor in my car right now.

Putting Your Foot Down:
So, let's get down to business. What is a Z capable of? Well, traction is a royal bitch with the car. Unlike a Mustang and its solid-beam rear, the Z's independent-rear makes launching this car quite difficult, so wheelspin is almost always a damper on the experience. But, launch it just right, and you'll easily hit a 5-second dash to 60MPH, and 1/4 miles typically range anywhere between mid/high 13-seconds, with inexperienced runs or poor launches netting underwhelming low-14s (assuming compliant weather and sea-level setting). Again, it's all in the launch, so if you get it down right, when the 1/4 mile ends, you'll be running through it anywhere between 100-104MPH. And those stats go for both shifting variants the Z offers, the 6-speed manual, or the 5-speed auto w/manual mode.

Transmission Variants:
Typically, good results come from launching the 6-speed at 3000RPMs, and the automatic is best when torque-braked to 2000 - anything more is not recommended. Now, what's most impressive about this car is that it actually manages to be one of the very few sports cars with a proper automatic gearbox. Yes, I know, blasphemy - by all rights my tongue and fingers should be pecked at by savage birds, but in this case, it's true. This 5AT is a very impressive unit, as in manual mode it gives you full control, allowing you to bounce off that redline all day and night, never stepping in to shift for you, like most other automatics with manual modes. Best of all, this gearbox performs a revmatch for every downshift, and actually adjusts to your driving habits in a variety of ways. For example, if you're driving spiritedly, the shifts will be crisp and firm. If you're just cocking about, blasting your latest snob-rock indie hit, trying to impress the local girls in a swanky part of town, the shifts will be slower and engage smoother. As a whole, when you're full on it, shift speeds are brilliant and lightning fast, providing you a constant surge of power, without any disruption in momentum when the box shifts to the next gear.

Who Needs Science? iPhone Will Do!
As unscientific as it may be, I've actually measured numerous cars using the iPhone's accelerometer and studying the dips every car makes in-between shifts. I, with the help of a few friends and family, took a 2008 Mercedes-Benz 350 4-Matic (5AT), a BMW M6 (7AT SMG-III), a 2004 Volkswagen R32 (6MT), a 2009 Volkswagen R32 (6AT DSG) a 2005 350Z (6MT), and my own 2006 350Z (5AT). We ran the automatic cars manually operating through their gears, and the results were pretty incredible. The slowest shifting car, despite a pretty experienced driver, was the older VW R32. The fastest? The VeeDub with the DSG gearbox, of course. But believe it or not, the differences between my 350Z and the new R32 are not as drastic as you'd imagine, and that's simply astonishing. As far as the rest of lineup goes: in third was the automated SMG-III equipped BMW M6, which has an annoying tendency to dip forwards with every shift, because, after all, the innards are that of a manual unit, just automatically operated. Fourth was the Mercedes-Benz E350, which was disastrously slow to shift for an auto, fifth was the 6MT Nissan 350Z, and as mentioned, last was the 6MT 2004 VW R32.

But Am I Clinically Insane?
Now all of that is great, but what lead me to buy a sports car, without a rowing kit and a third pedal? Well, after test driving an assortment of manual 350Zs, before buying mine, I couldn't find one with a normally working transmission. Later on, after some research on My350Z.com, I come to realize that there is a widespread issue with the manual gearbox in 2003-2006 350Zs, with instances of people on their third or fourth replacements, already (usually dealing with lousy clutches or dead 3rd gear). Yikes. So I stopped shopping for a Z, and had a deposit down on a 6MT 2006 Red/Red Pontiac GTO. Yes, the 6-liter, 400HP LS2 monster that would make mince meat out of a 350Z on a straight. Unfortunately, being the typical stealership crooks that hunt for every last penny, they decided to sell the car to someone else and refunded me my money. And that's when I found my car...and even though it was an automatic, I figured with the awful New York City traffic no matter what time of day it is, maybe I'd be better off with this 5-speed autonanny. But once I flicked through the gears using the manual-mode, I was impressed.

Far From Perfect:
Having preemptively answered a number of questions about my purchase decision, allow me to say that the 350Z is far from perfect. For one, because this is a coupe with an open hatch (you can access the "trunk" from the cabin), the rear could seriously use at least one proper layer of sound deadening material to drown out that road noise. Also, odd little rattles will creep up from time to time, only to disappear. Although, I currently have one rattling noise that I simply cannot pin-point, and it drives me up the wall -- it will soon be annihilated, though, very soon. And, even though I have a 5AT, I still wished to see a proper manual gearbox, one that can compare to the silky smooth one in the Honda S2000, which to me is the best manual gearbox in the world.

A Sports Car Big Foot Would Agree With:
The 350Z is a fairly roomy car, though, contrary to what you may think. Me being 6'1, I sit in the thing with comfort, and don't even keep my chair pushed back. Ben, who is 6'3 and built like a UFC fighter, never complained about being cramped when he had his 350Z, and this is from a guy who drove around in a roomy Maxima, and now pilots an even roomier Infiniti M35x. Sure, trunk space isn't ideal, but it's still quite better than you may be lead to believe, as I've often loaded it up with traveling bags and other stuff. It won't fit big screen TVs (but I did get my 32" Samsung LCD in) or giant suitcases, but for grocery shopping, roadtrips, and other activities, trunk space is acceptable.

Vroom, Vroom Toys:
Now, before I end my very first, and probably too detailed car review, I figured I'd let you guys know that my Z isn't stock. The great thing about Zs is that they're fantastic cars out of the factory, but the itch to mod them cannot be controlled, not even with the strongest prescription. My car dolls a Borla True Dual exhaust, a pair of Ultimate Racing High-flow Cats, a Magnaflow X-Pipe, a Motordyne 5/16 Plenum Spacer (for upper intake manifold), Hotchkis Springs, stickier Michelin Pilot Sports, 15MM Eibach rear-wheel spacers, a Jim Wolf Popcharger intake with custom modifications done by me, illuminated sidemarkers with CCFLs (again, made by me) and the final piece to the puzzle, an ECU tune with Osiris, which is a must for these cars. What's more is that with all of the factory original items I replaced with aftermarket stuff, I've also managed to shed nearly 70lbs in weight, which is huge for a car - and my Z nows tips the scales at roughly 3175lbs.

Our Best Top Gear Attempt:
All in all, after driving a stock 350Z a few weeks ago, it's amazing how much of a difference all of my power-mods have amounted to - it's like a totally different car. After being invited out to an airport by someone who is too rich for his own good, I had a chance to use this private runway way out in Suffolk, Long Island and go against the benchmark that I've based my 350Z on, the E46 BMW M3. Much to the surprise of the driver, who was a good sport about it all, the Bavarian 333HP M-car fell behind during a pair of runs from 20-80MPH, and 40-100MPH. But when you've got a modded car making as much as 320HP at the crank - roughly 280HP to the wheels - on a 3100lb frame (I had less than half a tank of gas), the power-to-weight ratio falls squarely in my favor - it's simple logic in the automotive world. Well, that and the guy was driving a 6MT, so I had him on the shifts too.

I'm Finally Shutting Up:
So what's the verdict? First, is that I probably went on way too much about crap no one cares about, simply because I know too damn much about this car, so forgive me, it was hard to restrain myself. I promise the review after this one of the BMW M6 will be much better. But second, is that the 350Z is a proper sports car that you can actually live with on a daily basis. I've owned mine for over two years now, and despite a lowered suspension on NYC roads, I'm still pretty damn happy with it. With its razor sharp handling, aggressive nature, roomy cabin, and gorgeous looks, it's no wonder people still stop and stare at this car. Though, it's always funny telling people "it's just a Nissan" or "oh, these things can be had for cheap now, they're nothing special." So yes, the 350Z is great...so great, in fact it's even got four cup holders...four! One on each door, and two in the center.