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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Chip Off the New Block

The latest Z is wider, shorter and stubbier.


The interior of the 2009 Nissan 370Z looks familiar but was improved by many small refinements.

FOR most of four decades, the Z-car has given purpose and direction to the rest of Nissan’s lineup, serving as a metallic lodestar for engineers toiling away on ambitious sedans like the Altima and Maxima.

Now, however, Nissan has an even higher-performance standard bearer — the GT-R. This 480-horsepower supercoupe is available at finer Nissan dealerships for about $80,000, and it will spin your underpants around. Its arrival presents a reordering of the sports-car universe.

But even if the Z is overshadowed by the GT-R, it is newly energized by the association. For 2009 a revised Z-car — the 370Z — emerges as a scale version of the hulking GT-R supercoupe. It is just as tightly focused, just as much fun and, now, just as weird looking as its bigger brother.

Stylistically, the two cars represent a nascent and unapologetic Japanese aesthetic. When I met the GT-R’s designer, Hiroshi Hasegawa, on a recent trip to Japan, he said he was fascinated by Japanese robot fantasy culture and its sentient, transforming machines. He wanted his car to suggest that same sense of inner life and metamorphosis. Though the new Z’s design actually came out of Nissan’s San Diego studio, it is similarly animate.

Like the GT-R, the Z has a gaping catfish grille, Rubenesque hips and a swept-back roofline that the car seems to be shedding. Its body is wider, shorter and stubbier than the outgoing 350Z’s, and the surfaces are pulled together with a kind of implosive energy.

Beneath all this is yet another layer of kineticism. Walking around from the driver’s side to the front, I saw the curvy fenders shape-shift and flatten out on top to merge with the hood, forming a wide steamroller of sheet metal. At the rear, the car appeared to squat.

I opened the car with the upright, rectangular handle that sits on the door like an earring, and crouched to get in. Though thematically similar to the 350Z’s interior — three auxiliary gauges aimed at the driver, instrument cluster that tilts with the steering wheel — there are small refinements everywhere. The mood is elevated by little knurled aluminum knobs on the vents, a subtly ovoid steering wheel and contrasting stitching on the center console.

The seats are well bolstered, and the left chair has a bump between the driver’s legs for the thigh support essential during hard cornering. From the driver’s seat, the view out of the car is cinematic. Two ribs on the hood guide one’s eyes to the center of the road, and the front windshield pillars are slim.

Behind the seats, Nissan has moved the cross-car brace in close so it no longer bisects the cargo area, but the suspension uprights still intrude on the sizeable cargo hold.

This chassis is an exemplar of sports-car precision, a hi-def version of the departing 350Z. A lighter but more rigid aluminum cradle holds the new double-wishbone suspension in front, and the revised four-link rear setup is lighter and stiffer, too. In fact, the whole thing is stiff.

Every fissure in the pavement is communicated with slight, nervous jiggling of the bodywork, but only man-swallowing potholes upset the car. Tire noise is prevalent, too. The payoff for this is a car that feels stout, like an ingot of steel, with responses as sharp as the GT-R’s.

I drove the 370Z on my favorite local road, a tight, vertiginous loop in the heart of suburban Bloomfield Hills. Here, the car achieved a sort of Vulcan mind-meld with the asphalt, galloping as if it had been on this road hundreds of times. The Z sniffed out corners and placed itself perfectly within them. This car not only looks somehow alive, it also feels that way. It is undoubtedly the best-handling Z-car of all time.

Nissan has simplified the ordering process, compared with the 350Z, and there are now just two trim levels — base and Touring — with Sport packages available on both and a Navigation option for the Touring. My test car was a base Sport ($33,625), so it did without the features that come with the $4,350 Touring upgrade: Bose audio system, heated four-way leather-and-suede seats, aluminum pedals. But the $3,000 Sport package brought the goods important to any enthusiast, including a viscous limited-slip differential, 19-inch forged-aluminum Rays brand wheels with spokes shaped like crab claws, bigger brakes, front and rear spoilers and — an industry first — a manual transmission with downshift rev matching.

Many so-called “clutchless” manuals have this throttle-blipping feature, which smoothes out the gear engagement as it mates engine speed to wheel speed. But Nissan’s SynchoRev Match system represents the first time a conventional three-pedal manual has done the throttle prodding for you.

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A lighter but more rigid aluminum cradle holds the new double-wishbone suspension in front, and the revised four-link rear setup is lighter and stiffer, too.

I have spent decades trying to perfect my heel-and-toe downshift technique, and was saddened in the Z to find that the only driving skill I could pass down to my offspring was suddenly worthless. For my first couple of downshifts, I kept rolling my right foot from the brake pedal onto the throttle out of habit. I soon found that my blips were vastly inferior to the computer’s.

A sensor in the shifter gate knows exactly when and where you are about to shift. It then opens the throttles precisely to match the higher engine speed of the impending gear. The feature is automatically on when the car starts, but a push of the S button adjacent to the gear lever disengages it.

As much as I initially resented this HAL-like usurpation of human control, I eventually found I could keep my right foot focused solely on braking and let the computer take care of the hard part. Of course, I also turned it off periodically to remember the good old days. (A direct-shifting 7-speed automatic is $1,300, if you’d rather not be bothered.)

The manual gearbox, though wondrous, is not entirely without fault. For all the bolt-action directness and shortness of its throws, the clutch-engagement point is a bit undefined and happens too high in the pedal’s travel. Also, if you’re already deep into the gas and want a lower gear, a throttle blip from SyncroRev Match may send the engine speed up against the rev limiter (which keeps r.p.m. under 7,500 as a protective measure) and kill the buzz.

No such niggles concern the estimable V-6. Borrowed from the top-tier Infiniti brand, it displaces 3.7 liters rather than 3.5 (hence the 370 designation) and has variable valve timing and lift. These changes bump the horsepower to 332, from 306 in the last 350Z, even as the car has shed 100 pounds.

The resulting performance gains are impressive on paper (0-to-60 acceleration in 4.9 seconds, compared with 5.1 for the 350Z), but are even more meaningful to the ear and the backside. Though criticized by the automotive press, the Z’s engine note sounded layered and aggressive to me, perfectly expressing the car’s insistent, mounting acceleration.

The 370Z may no longer be Nissan’s sports-car flagship, but in some ways it is more satisfying than its larger, more powerful sibling. Unlike the GT-R, it doesn’t sound like a demonic vacuum cleaner; nor does it weigh as much as a tugboat. It provides seven-eighths of the performance for less than half the price. More heroically, it throws the whole Nissan sports-car hierarchy into question.

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