Thumbs Up: Razor-sharp handling and stunning good looks that honor the Z’s heritage
Thumbs Down: Poor outward visibility
Buy This Car If: You want a reasonably priced track-day toy you can still commute in
Nissan, then Datsun, blessed the automotive world with the Z-car in late 1969. No one knew what to make of the car at first, since “Japanese automaker” and “sports car” were phrases not often used in the same sentence. That’s not to say that the Japanese hadn’t launched sports cars in the U.S., but none were a sales success. Toyota sold a modest number of their 2000GT coupes in the U.S. market, and Datsun’s own roadsters didn’t exactly threaten sales of the MGB or the Triumph TR series.
The Datsun Z changed all that, selling 135,000 units in its first version, the 240Z. Later versions, starting with the 260Z, took the car in a slightly different direction; the Z was still sporty, but it was evolving into more of a grand touring car than a no-holes-barred sports car. The change didn’t hurt sales, and the Z remained a staple of Nissan’s product line through the early 1990s. By 1996, however, a weakening dollar and rising yen, coupled with plummeting demand for sports cars, caused Nissan to pull the plug on the Z in the United States.
Fast forward to 2002, when Nissan reintroduced the Z-car to the world as the 350Z. Rather than define the car as a sports car or grand tourer, Nissan let customers decide how they wanted their cars configured. Trim levels and option packages let you build a Nissan 350Z exactly to your liking, and the car once again offered serious performance at a relatively modest price.
In 2008, Nissan upped the ante to the 370Z, pushing the displacement of the car’s V-6 from 3.5-liters to 3.7-liters, and upping horsepower from 306 to 332 hp. The range of models still included both track-focused sports cars and more luxurious grand-tourers, and Nissan once again brought back the extreme-performance Nismo (Nissan’s tuning division) 370Z. If you wanted the highest performance Z you could find, right off the showroom floor, the Nismo 370Z was the car to buy.
Not much has changed in the two years since, but that’s a good thing in this case. The 2011 Nismo 370Z remains focused on providing the best acceleration, handling and braking of all the cars in the Z family, and it does so at the expense of creature comforts. The suspension is harsh on all but smooth pavement, and the wide rear / narrower front tires cause tram-lining on crowned or uneven pavement. The seats are cloth, and the AM FM CD radio’s sole concession to modern technology is an Aux-In jack. If you think these are complaints, they’re not; in fact, they’re compliments to Nissan, for staying focused on what the Nismo Z needs and eliminating what it doesn’t.
Outside, the Nismo is instantly recognizable by its unique front and rear fascias, sizable rear wing and stunning forged-aluminum 19-inch wheels. Especially in profile, it’s easy to see the family resemblance to the Z cars of old, dating all the way back to the first generation. The familiar fastback design is there, as is the long sloping nose and steeply raked windshield. I wasn’t impressed with the design of the 350Z, which seemed too radical a departure from Z car heritage, but I’ll admit to being captivated by the lines of the 370. Nissan’s stylists deserve praise for going back to the car’s roots, and the result is a car that’s timeless in its good looks.
Inside, the Nismo Z remains focused on its high-performance mission. Seats are cloth, not leather, but that’s a good thing (and I wish more manufacturers would go back to using premium cloth seats in their vehicles). Nismo editions get red stitching and unique fabric panels, as well as an embroidered Nismo logo on the seat back. As you’d expect, the seats are superb for spirited driving: well bolstered at both hip and back, and adjustable enough to fit most any driver.
Dash layout will be familiar to anyone who’s ever owned a classic Z. Front and center in the instrument cluster is a tachometer (with a unique design in Nismo models), flanked by an information display / fuel gauge / temp gauge on the left and a speedometer / odometer on the right. The tachometer also includes a gear indicator and a “SynchroRev Match” indicator, but more on that later.
To the right of the instrument cluster, atop the dash, is a separate instrument display, another nod to the Z-cars of old. There’s an oil temperature display (mandatory for running the 370Z on a racetrack), a volt gauge and a digital clock, but surprisingly there’s no oil pressure gauge. Personally, I’d rather have that than a digital clock or voltage meter, and I’m sure the Z aftermarket has a ready solution.
Like any true sports car, the Nismo Z lacks a back seat. It does feature a relatively spacious hatchback, so getting groceries (or taking a weekend trip) won’t pose a challenge. Don’t expect to move furniture in the Nismo Z, since the rear hatch doesn’t offer a lot of height; on the other hand, the Nismo Z will be a whole lot more entertaining on a racetrack than a Nissan Murano.
The Nismo Z is more than just a body kit and a stiffer suspension: under the hood, the 3.7-liter V-6 puts out 350 horsepower and 276 ft-lb of torque, which is 18 more horsepower and 6 more ft-b of torque than a standard 370Z. The engine comes mated to a six-speed manual transmission only, but Nissan includes their “SynchroRev Match” technology on all Nismo version Z cars. SynchroRev Match allows a driver to execute perfect downshifts without having to blip the throttle as you put the clutch in. If you’re good at rev-matching, the feature doesn’t add much; if you’re not, the feature will give you both confidence and better lap times. For purists, the feature can be disabled with the touch of a button.
As you’d expect, the Nismo 370Z is quick, reeling off a 0 to 60 time in around 4.5 seconds on its way to an electronically-governed top speed of 157 miles per hour. Despite this, the car returns reasonable (for a sports car, at least) fuel economy of 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, as long as you don’t constantly mat the accelerator (which, given the cars entertainment value, is hard to resist). In city driving, I saw an indicated 17.3 mpg, but I wasn’t driving in a fuel-saving style, either.
On the road, the Nismo Z is a mixed bag. What makes it good on a track makes it a handful on the street. The clutch, while not overly heavy, does have an odd travel to it, making smooth engagements a challenge (at least until your accustomed to the feel). Shift throws are relatively short, but the Nismo Z likes a firm hand; like the Shelby GT500, the Nismo Z’s transmission doesn’t like to be rushed and it doesn’t appreciate extra finesse. The Z’s V-6 pulls hard from relatively low revs, but it loses steam before the car’s 7,500 rpm redline; that’s not a bad thing, since NIssan’s 3.7-liter V-6 isn’t the smoothest or most melodic engine in the sports car world. Finally, you’ll need to adjust your mirrors carefully, since outward visibility is limited by the rear wing, the stout B pillars and the small rear windows.
The Nismo Z’s handling is faultless, but those with sports car experience will need to turn off the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) for any kind of spirited driving. Nissan’s stability control is surprisingly intrusive, on par with BMW’s, so any kind of performance-oriented driving will require deactivation of the electro-nanny. Fortunately, Nissan’s stability control system allows a driver to do this.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to track the 370Z during my time behind the wheel. Any faults present in street driving would quickly disappear on a racetrack, where I would expect the Nismo Z’s stiffer suspension, more powerful engine and sport brakes to excel. The Nismo version is not the best choice of Z car for street driving, but it’s absolutely the best choice of Z car for autocrossing, track days or time trial events. If that’s your passion, this is the Z car you should be shopping.
My Nissan-provided 2011 Nismo 370Z had a base sticker price of $40,740, including a destination charge of $750. My Nismo Z’s only options were Nismo-logo floor mats ($115) and Nismo performance brake pads ($580), for a total sticker price of $41,435. For comparison, a similarly equipped (but less powerful) Hyundai Genesis 3.8 R-Spec would sticker at $28,000, while a comparable Porsche Cayman R would sell for $65,003.