[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]
The late ’90s and early ’00s were dark days for American fans of the Nissan marque. Their 300ZX and its twin-turbo V6 died out in 1996, the Sentra SE-R became fat and slow, and the 240SX had pretty much fizzled out. The brand that had once …
Punching Above Its Class
With plenty of horsepower, an all-aluminum suspension, aggressive alignment settings and a refreshingly clean appearance, the new Z-car was a hit. Zero-to-60 times were in the mid-5-second range, and contemporary road tests put maximum lateral g-loads around 0.88. Overall, performance was on par with that of a Porsche Boxster S, a $50,000 car.
The new Z-car, though, was much more modestly priced. Thanks to a few cost-cutting measures—using rather ordinary materials for the interior, sharing platform development costs, and mildly pumping up a corporate engine—the new Z-car started at just $26,800. A loaded 350Z could approach $35,000, but even then it offered an amazing performance value at the time.
Reviews at launch praised the Z’s excellent steering, brake and shifter feel, and lauded its overall performance. The VQ engine also received great marks for its broad torque curve and ability to induce oversteer seemingly at will. Gearing matched the engine well, with plenty of power to pull—even in sixth gear.
Photography Credit: David S. Wallens
A tendency to plow in faster corners, a less-than-sprightly curb weight, and an impractical cargo area received negative marks. However, most enthusiast publications branded the 350Z as a worthy successor to the original, returning the model to the performance-value balance that gave it such popularity in the early 1970s.
Typical of Japanese automakers, the 350Z did not have many à la carte options. Upgrades were possible through option packages, and in addition to the base model—it didn’t even have its own name—buyers could choose from the Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track trim levels.
The base car really was basic—cloth seats, no cruise control, six-speed manual transmission and an open differential. Enthusiast-package cars were equipped more completely, receiving HID headlights, a viscous limited-slip differential, traction control and interior detailing, such as aluminum pedals.
The Performance package added VDC—Nissan’s stability control system—and 18-inch wheels. Touring combined those 18-inch wheels and VDC with powered, leather seats, a Bose audio system and an optional DVD-based navigation system. Enthusiast and Touring were the only packages with an available automatic transmission.
Photography Credit: Per Schroeder
The hardcore option was the Track package: no leather seats, no high-end audio and no navigation system on this model. Instead, buyers got Brembo brakes at all four corners, staggered 18-inch Rays wheels, an underbody aero kit and a small hatch spoiler. This package was available only with a manual transmission.
Broadening the Lineup
Nissan didn’t rest on their laurels, however: They updated the car during its model run. One year after its launch, a convertible version joined the lineup in 2004.
The 350Z Roadster featured a powered soft top and was available only in Enthusiast and Touring trims. While it lost some of the coupe’s edge, the roadster added a dash of style that was popular with buyers more interested in cruising than racing.
The 350Z saw a few horsepower bumps over the years, and for 2007, Nissan released another special package for the driving enthusiast: the Nismo 350Z. While mechanically it was basically a Track package, the Nismo cars had a special front and rear aero accessories and revised suspension tuning. Lightweight forged Rays wheels—18-inch-diameter fronts and 19-inch rears—further differentiate Nismo cars from the rest. According to Nissan, only about 1600 examples were produced.
Photography Credit: Courtesy Nissan
You could say the 350Z ended on a high note, too, as the reincarnated Z left one year after the introduction of the Nismo. The Z-car wasn’t a temporary project to help get Nissan back on its feet, though; it was a sign of things to come. For 2009, Nissan released the 370Z—an even bolder, faster version of the beloved car.
Things to Know
While no model year seems to be particularly troublesome, it’s best to buy the newest car you can afford. The Z received gradual improvements each year—including more engine horsepower—so every new car emerged better and faster than the one before it.
Photography Credit: Per Schroeder
Engine and Drivetrain
The 350Z’s most serious problem is excessive oil consumption, and it affects a few of the 2005 and ’06 cars fit with the Rev Up engine. Fortunately, all is not lost: “Most of the oil-burning engines have probably been replaced by the dealer pretty early on,” Stillen’s Kyle Millen affirms.
We have heard of the occasional failed crank and cam position sensor.
“The most common issue we’ve seen,” Kyle adds, “is worn second- or third-gear synchronizers that lead to a crunchy shift. Otherwise, it’s a great car with very few issues.”
A few good bolt-ons can help. “The engines like headers and high-flow cats,” Kyle explains, “and you can pick up as much as 20 horsepower with just intake and exhaust modifications.”
The VQ loves turbocharging, but the high compression ratio is not compatible with high boost levels.
Body and Interior
Like most Nissan products, these are good, reliable cars overall. The paint quality is not the best, though, and the thin quarter panels are easily dented.
Watch out for weak power window motors.
As with almost any hatchback, failing hatch struts aren’t uncommon.
Suspension and Brakes
Excessive front-tire wear is a frequently reported problem with the 350Z, especially the 2003-’04 models. A few factors deserve the blame: the very sticky OE Bridgestone RE040 tires, the aggressive toe-in settings at the front, and the quick-wearing front suspension bushings. These issues were corrected in later years, and the aftermarket has solutions if the replacement Nissan parts don’t hold up.
“One thing we run into with lowered cars is a lack of camber adjustment, especially at the front,” Kyle says. “If you try to add more negative camber to counteract the cars’ natural understeering, you will very quickly need to go to aftermarket upper control arms. This can happen at the rear, too.”