by Colin Mathews
The 370Z is a decided type-A extrovert. Like that jock friend of yours who always wants to put you in a head lock and give you a noogie when he sees you. Annoying because you have to go and fix the hair. But nice because you really don’t mind being pressed into that finely muscled chest. In fact, you don’t mind at all.
In the transition from 350 to 370Z, this car was forced to attended charm school and, thankfully, some rough edges were finally smoothed. The 3.7-liter VQ V-6 won’t win awards for being unobtrusive and hushed, but now the sound is more sport than thrash and (at least with 7-speed automatic in our test vehicle) far less of the engine’s mechanical liveliness makes it to the cabin and your fingers, toes, and backside. We’ll reserve final judgment until we drive the six-speed manual, but the annoying buzz, rattle, and hum that quickly grew tiring seems to have been banished.
More power and torque – throughout the operating range, courtesy of new VVEL valve trickery – go smack to the pavement, ripping you to 60 mph in the five-second range. Hold on, because this vehicle delights in sprinting down the road and soaring to its 7,500 rpm redline time and time again. The exhaust sound out the back – just like nearly every Nissan VQ-powered vehicle – announces the power under the hood, snarling sporting intent and ability in a blissful tenor bark. Far from subtle. But subtlety is not what the Z is about.
“Come on, come on, you can pass that entire caravan of Kias. NOW!” says the Z, always your ally for aggressive driving. Likely, you’ll oblige: throttle foot down, near-instant three cog downshift, mad rush from 65 to 90 mph. Touchdown! Scan mirror quickly for cops and jab dizzyingly powerful brakes. Blissfully irresponsible yet highly controlled. The seductive, accessible power and torque beg you to explore their limits every time.
A good old torque converter 7-speed automatic responds instantly to either the paddle shifters or tiptronic-style gearshift lever when the transmission is placed into manual mode, just a nudge to the left of the PRNDL line. Upshifts are firm and instantaneous with no torque converter slop or laziness. Even on dry roads, the 1st to 2nd shift produces a healthy snort of wheelspin, enough to induce the defeatable traction control. Downshifts are jerk-free, handled beautifully with automatic throttle blips, and upshifts also crack off with precision and authority. My initial dismay at driving an automatic Z faded when I drove this car with the aggression it encourages.
Alas, when the pace slows, this enthusiastic athlete chomps at the bit and doesn’t always make smooth moves. Two items seem at fault: the short-travel, oddly-calibrated electronic throttle and a 7-speed automatic that’s not so adept at unobtrusive operation during mild driving in full automatic mode. Manufacturers either seem to get electronic throttles – which are fast becoming the norm – right or not. The Z’s feels a little bit digital and at times disconnected from what’s going on in the engine room; very much out of keeping with a seat-of-the-pants sportscar. Why do ECUs think they know better than my right foot?
In combination with the sometimes awkward throttle, the 7-speed auto in full auto mode can be at times sloppy and hesitant. It usually slides lazily into gear rather than quickly and precisely like a Z car should. A mild press on the throttle results in a moment of confusion followed by a drop of multiple gears (why not just one?) and summarily more acceleration than you’d hoped for. Jerky and dramatic, ugh. Perhaps I needed to adjust my foot better to the short travel throttle, pressing it even less? Whatever the case, I just couldn’t seem to do moderate highway passing and acceleration without drama. So I defaulted often to the manual mode or used a click of the downshift paddle before adding more throttle (the transmission affords momentary gear selection in D before defaulting to automatic mode). Hey Nissan: can we get a reprogramming of the full auto mode? This transmission is so good otherwise.
Ride quality is remarkable given the Z’s tremendous handling capabilities. The suspension is surprisingly compliant over a variety of surfaces and incredible given the huge 19” wheels and low-profile tires included in our 370Z Touring’s Sport Package (a $3,000 option). Entertaining road manners, dizzying grip, and good ride comfort are yours in this setup; it’s clear Nissan engineers did their homework on the suspension, which now features an aluminum 2-link double-wishbone setup in the front. On a down note, there is a troubling amount of coarse and gritty road feel transmitted through the steering column on less than ideal surfaces. Baffling, given the suspension’s compliance.
The cockpit is vastly improved over the outgoing Z, which the motoring press generally labeled as cheap and plasticky. The black and ivory leather contrast on the interior was both sporty and elegant as was the faux-leather clad clamshell door that tops the center stack and reveals a cubby waiting to store your iPod, cell phone, or sunglasses. But why is said cubby lined with cheap synthetic mouse fur? And why is the expanse of semi-soft touch black dash the same dreary stuff that Nissan uses in the mediocre Maxima I drove recently?
Other items that irk are the odd fuel/temp gauge in the leftmost part of the cluster (hard-to-decipher orange LEDs that are hard to read in sunlight), and Nissan’s insistence on toggle switches for seat rake and fore-aft position stuffed into an awkward crevice between the drive tunnel and the driver’s and passenger’s inboard legs (same as in the Infiniti G, and just as awkward and fussy to operate). Last but not least, the rearward visibility in this car is perhaps the worst I’ve experienced. Forget C-pillar; it’s more like a C-boomerang that’s broken only by a small slit of a rear window. Best circle the car once before backing up lest you flatten an animal or small child. And our $39,000 tester had no backup camera or audible park distance warning feature.
Still, every time you take in that sinuous and aggressive – yet elegant and cohesive – exterior, any ergonomic sins are forgiven. The stunning Rays 19” wheels made our Z look sinister and ready for action even at rest, like a pit bull pausing on fat paws. I found the uninterrupted sweep of the sloping rear positively Porsche 911-like; at the opposite end, the low-mounted grille and unusually shaped headlights lend the Z perhaps an oddly aquatic look. But overall it’s clean, compelling, and clutter-free. It commands attention and exudes testosterone in a cool, confident way. The jock in a tux.
Starting at $29,930, this sharpened, screaming Z fills the middle ground between, say, the rough-and-tumble American players (Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro), and the sybaritic Porsche 911 (which starts at $76,300). Porschephiles will likely scoff at the comparison, but given its acceleration, balance, handling, and ride comfort, I think the 370Z is a very worthy, half-priced competitor. But for even less money ($23,040), the equally arresting 2010 Camaro is a phenomenal package in every respect; it offers arguably better road comfort than the Z (no steering wheel vibrations), more interior room, a far more cooperative six speed auto, and a stout V-6 that’s only about a second off the 0-60 times of this Z (and is far smoother in the process).
Perhaps Nissan’s 2009 370Z isn’t the most refined, nor the most practical, nor the greatest value amongst iconic high-performance coupes. But for those drivers who just can’t get enough type A in their diets, this Nissan will likely fit like hand in driving glove.
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Photos Courtesy of Nissan North America