Unbelievable excitement ensues as two Seattleites prepare for a baby!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Driving with Chris: Nissan 350Z Roadster

Ours was like this, but red - and with a pregnant woman in the passenger seat.

Reviewing cars can be a brutally tough business. What is this world coming to when a poor soul can be callously tasked with the duty of driving a nimble, powerful, red sports convertible for a week?

It was a difficult burden to carry, but I mustered every bit of professionalism I could to get through the ordeal.

The Nissan 350Z Roadster is the open-topped variant of Nissan's relatively recent reinvention of its Z-car line. Most onlookers were impressed by the topless 350Z's styling - its taut, aggressive, and modern looks combined with its bright red color and automatic convertible top gave the aura of a car more exotic than a $35,000 Nissan sports car. The 350Z is refreshingly non-retro - unlike Chevrolet with its Corvette, Nissan felt free to create something entirely new out of its storied sports car line, with excellent results.

That is, if you don't listen to the uncharitable onlookers who compare it to a rolling red gel cap straight out of the medicine cabinet.

Inside, the 350Z is startlingly stark - everything is textured black plastic, with no evident luxury touches. The aggressively contoured dash looks a bit cheaply made at first, but over time appreciation grows for its simple, clean layout.

The seats are firm and very supportive, but thanks to a reclined seating position and an extremely low car, getting out is not nearly as easy. Those familiar with my No. 2 pencil-like flexibility will have little difficulty in visualizing my lack of grace in exiting the car. Extracting heavily pregnant Leigh from the 350Z often required calling in the Jaws of Life.

Nissan doesn't even make a pretence of providing a back seat with the 350Z. That's actually a bit refreshing - the Audi TT is just one notorious example of a four-seat sports car in which the back seat is suitable only for limbless eight-year-olds. However, in cars with vestigial rear seats, that area can serve as a padded and seatbelted luggage shelf. The 350Z has no such space within the cabin, and the Roadster's trunk is only 4.1 cubic feet large - sufficient to fit only one, perhaps two laptop bags. The 350Z is definitively not the car for long cross-continent odysseys.

As a beast of burden, then, the 350Z falls sadly short. As a sports car, however, it excels.

Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 engine is one of the best around - it is powerful, flexible, refined, rugged, and even provides reasonable fuel economy (to the tune of 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway in the 350Z). In the Z, it provides 278 horsepower and an excellent burbling soundtrack whether the driver is loafing happily along or is in full race-driver mode.

To judge against the 350Z's competition, if the Mazda RX-8 sings in a shrieking soprano and the Chevrolet Corvette murmurs in a mellow baritone, the 350Z voices its song in an aggressive tenor, warbling its way through the midrange of automotive music with a distinctively mellifluous six-cylinder note all the way up to its surprisingly low 6,500 RPM redline.

That engine, paired with the toggle-switch movements of an almost unnervingly immediate gearbox and clutch combination, propels the 350Z to hyperlegal velocities remarkably (and thrillingly) quickly. The 350Z also handles extremely well, although at the cost of some ride comfort.

As much fun as the 350Z is with the top up, dropping the top adds another dimension. Any convertible in summery Seattle can enthrall, entertain, and relax - this one can do so while subjecting one's body to hugely entertaining G forces.

At $35,000 as tested, the 350Z is obviously no bargain for a family looking to haul groceries and pick kids up from soccer practice, but it's an excellent choice as a smooth, well-engineered sportster.

Kim wishes she drove a red Nissan 350Z Roadster.


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