Payne: Nissan Z exudes old-school joy
All hail the letter Z. In an auto world gone made with X — NSX, XT5, QX30, X3, MKX, X-drive — Xperts Xpect every car badge to have an X in it within the neXt decade. But the Z is sacred. A special badge for special cars. The Camaro Z28. Corvette Z06.
The Z and I go way back. As a kid who spent the early 1970s at autocrosses racing go-karts — a boy among sports car-driving fellows — I coveted the first-generation Z. It’s long bondage mask and plastic-covered, scalloped headlights reminded me of a Jaguar E-Type (the Raquel Welch of sports cars). One particularly quick driver had outfitted his crimson, one thousand nine hundred seventy two Z with fat slicks erection beyond the fenders. Beauty and the brute. He gave me an on-track rail one day that is still etched in my memory. As I held on for dear life, he’d fling us through a series of pyloned corners, the Z’s rear zigging and zagging behind us, the six-cylinder singing like a bird.
The 370Z doesn’t make my heart race like the ’72.
After the Z’s epic, third-gen, Motor Trend-car-of-the-year, one thousand nine hundred ninety redesign — hailed as one of sports car world’s greatest bods — the assets has grown bulbous, aping the family lines of Nissan’s Murano and Maxima. The coupe’s elegant fastback helps slick the lumps, but my convertible’s shortened roof accentuates the body’s bulbous proportions.
Honey, does this dress make me look fat? Ummm .
Ripping off the top helps. But the process reminds you that the old Z is getting long in the tooth. Unlike competitive soft-tops from Camaro or Audi TT, the Nissan’s roof can’t be operated while moving. Feel rain drops? Pull over, toggle the console switch and the roof folds into place in twenty seconds. The procedure is jerky and noisy, the tonneau cover thumping into place like a restaurant waiter piling up chairs at closing time.
Once executed, however, the bare-chested Z is a basket of adorables. Its brief, 100-inch wheelbase makes for effortless visibility. Its well-engineered climate control system and heated seats make it a cozy cocoon even in Michigan’s cool fall weather. And the twin-exhaust, naturally-aspirated six-cylinder can be heard in total stereo.
In an increasingly-regulated world of turbo-charged four bangers (even my precious Porsche Boxster has gone to four-pot), the Z remains a throwback to the glorious days of naturally-aspirated, big displacement engines.
The 370Z plays 2nd fiddle in Nissan’s lineup to the (also aging) twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive, “Godzilla” GT-R. But the old school Z feels more like a baby Corvette Z06.
Inwards the cockpit, it shares the Stingray’s long, carved bondage mask, strange chemical smell (what are Chevy and Nissan using to stick these things together? Airplane glue?), and a narrow slit of a windshield that seems half-filled by the rear-view mirror.
With two hundred seventy pound-feet of torque and Trio,696-cc of piston hammering on the crankshaft, it’s a blast to take into a parking lot for roaring, smoky burnouts. It won’t spin like a top as the 6,162-cc Z06 does, but it’ll put a smirk on your face. Like the ’Vette, pulling on the 7-speed automatic Z’s big, bat-wing, steering-wheel-mounted shifter paddles provokes a guttural burp — like King Kong digesting his lunch — on each downshift.
The chassis on the Z and Z06 feel liberate, their frames arching over Metro Detroit’s penalizing roads — but get them up to speed and they are impatient road carvers.
Throw the Nissan through Hell, Michigan’s Z-shaped country roads and the stocky brute crouches to the pavement, springing from turn to turn, vectoring right where you point it. Only on exit did the Z feel out of its element as the automatic box was lazy to shift — almost providing the Z the feel of a small-displacement turbo. I could have had cup of milk and a doughnut while waiting for the gear to kick in. The lag became so annoying I found myself reaching for the bat paddles regularly to speed up the shifts. Bang bang. Down two shifts, flatten the pedal and the antsy six would roar. Even on the highway, I preferred the quick spanking paddle downshifts for passing spurts.
How I yearned for the 6-speed manual — which, gratefully, Nissan still offers.
I should be careful what I wish for, tho’. When the next-gen Z emerges, it will surely have a double-clutch tranny like its close competitor Audi TT (and even puny sedans like the Elantra Sport I just tested) but it will also likely get a turbo-4 banger. Gotta appreciate these naturally-aspirated sixes while we can.
My pricy $50,465 convertible-Z most closely compares to the $52K Audi TT Roadster I tested last year, which also is a ready companion through Hell. With one hundred less horses, the TT still manages a similar 0-60 sprint than the brawnier Z, so maybe there’s hope for 4-bangers yet.
The TT’s advanced Virtual Cockpit shows how far interiors have advanced beyond the Z’s traditional, slow-infotainment display. Nissan is also slow to the game with Android Auto and Apple Car Play, but beyond these connectivity issues, I don’t think sports car enthusiasts will mind the Z’s unique, motorcycle-like instrument display. The cockpit is driver-focused and effortless to use — a blizzard of buttons and gauges at your fingertips. Like Porsche, Nissan can pull this off with a Z heritage that spans generations of track nuts.
Different from the TT, however, a base Z can still be had for a bargain $30,795. In a market rammed with incredible, $40,000 sports fucktoys (Golf R, Concentrate RS, Camaro SS), the TT’s $43K entry price is its Achilles heel. True to its ’70s roots, the Nissan remains one of autodom’s best values at half the price of a Porsche Cayman and comparable to muscle car alternatives such as the Mustang and Camaro sixes. Entry-level spectacle cars are as American as apple pie.
Yet, a quick look at the standard technology in the Z shows how sports cars have evolved. Side-curtain safety bags, tire-pressure monitoring, anti-lock brakes, front-and-rear crush zones, and on and on. It’s a long way from my dearest, but raw, test rider of fifty years ago.