An unusually warm late November week provided a rare opportunity to air out Nissan's new-for-this-year 350Z Roadster. Lowering the convertible top could hardly be easier: Release a single front latch on the windshield header center, depress the brake, and press a button. The side windows lower, a tonneau raises, the top goes into the space below it, and the tonneau snaps shut, completely hiding the top when down. The whole process takes about 20 seconds. The three-lock, single-latch system provides a more secure seal on the windshield header and eases the closing process. No doubt about it, the top is a fine piece of engineering, much like the rest of the car.
Top down or up, the Z Roadster is a head turner and looks fast standing still. Backing up the slick-smooth body lines is an all-aluminum 3.5-liter, 287-hp DOHC V6 with 274 lb-ft of torque. Nissan credits a Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System and a special intake port design with the generous torque output. Power goes through a close-ratio six-speed transmission fitted with a precise, short-throw shifter, then to a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic drive shaft, and finally to a limited-slip rear differential.
The car actually is fast and accelerates with authority up to speeding-ticket range and beyond (Nissan claims a 156-mph top end). But straight-line speed is only a part of the equation. The car also handles quite well. Steering is racing-go-cart tight and precise. The suspension is stiff as you might expect, but not overly so. The chassis is stiff as well, something convertibles aren't typically noted for.
Here's why: Nissan took the front midship platform of the 350Z Coupe and added structural reinforcements to strengthen the Z Roadster unibody. These include a center floor V-shaped cross bar connecting the side sills and a front A-shaped cross bar reinforcing the front end. Additional reinforcement at the door openings and a triple member in the seating area that connect the sides to the floor structure further boost rigidity.
One of the biggest drawbacks to top-down cruising is the considerable amount of wind noise and rattles associated with most convertible designs. Wind-tunnel tests of the Z Roadster helped engineers design the body to route airflow so as to minimize interior noise and turbulence. A key design element is a tempered-glass wind deflector located between the seats that directs wind out and over the cabin to lower wind noise. Low-tech seat-belt fasteners help keep seat belts from flapping in the wind. The Z Roadster is eerily quiet with the top down, except for the steady growl from the dual exhaust.
The cockpit is cozy, perhaps a bit claustrophobic with the top up. Cups in cupholders get elbowed when shifting, for example. The glove box located behind the passenger seat is less than convenient. And the rear glass is barely more than a slit when viewed through the rearview mirror. However, the excellent heated seats made especially for holding occupants secure under high-g maneuvers more than offset these liabilities. Especially noteworthy is the multifunction dash-mounted display that serves, among other things, as a lap timer and an adjustable rpm-warning bug. A great-sounding Bose audio system with six-disc CD changer and seven speakers round out the package.
For those on the market for a pure sports car not put off by the $35,000 sticker, the 350Z Roadster may be the ticket.