On the Road Review: Nissan 370Z Roadster

Ragtop fans have a diminishing pool of two-seat roadsters to pick from. Larger automakers such as Toyota, Honda, Chrysler, Hyundai and Kia offer nothing in this class, while many automakers have abandoned convertibles in any configuration all together.

The stalwarts remain, however, and they offer some excellent products. At the entry level, Mazda’s MX5 Miata ($23,720) celebrates its 25th year of production, with an all-new model in the wings — coming first quarter of 2015. Next in the mass-market is Nissan’s 370Z ($35,270) followed by the Audi TT, ($43,350), the Mercedes SLK, ($43,525) with Porsche’s Boxster ($50,400) next. BMW’s 1-series is morphing into the 2-series and a convertible has yet to be revealed. Chevy’s Corvette ($58,000 in convertible trim) follows, while Jaguar’s exciting, new F-Type starts at $69,000.

The rest of the conventional two-seat roadster sports cars are expensive premium offerings that defy the logistics of most drivers’ purchasing power.

As this list illustrates, convertibles are niche products. They also are ‘halo’ offerings that reflect a manufacturer’s emphasis, character and philosophy about the cars they build. Could Mazda claim to be the ‘zoom-zoom’ automaker without the Miata? Would Jaguar be Jaguar without a sexy two-seater? Would the Corvette be relevant without a roadster version?

Most of the aforementioned two-seaters also come in coupe form, with a fixed roof model or a power roof not made from fabric. Some purist sports car lovers believe that the best handling cars have solid tops, but these drivers are missing the larger picture; convertibles are the best drivers on the best days when you want the best overall experiences in your car. Hands down, convertibles are more fun whether you are loafing along enjoying the scenery or listening to the engine scream toward redline.

So where does the Nissan 370Z fit into this picture. With a starting price of just over $35,000, the Z Roadster is about $5,000 more than its coupe sibling, or, for perspective, $15,000 less than a base Porsche Boxster. The Z is comparable in size to the Boxster — longer wheelbase, but shorter overall length, close on width and height — yet the base Boxster is 300 pounds lighter than the Z. This is key in this segment; weight matters when you are creating nimble sports cars that must handle confidently at the limits of traction and still provide composed ride dynamics for the rest of the time.

Both the Z and the Porsche use six-cylinder engines. The Z has a 332-hp 3.7-liter V-6 while the Boxster comes with a 2.7-liter flat six making 265-hp. Bump up to the Boxster S (add $12,000 more) and you get a 3.4-liter flat six making 315 hp — still less power than the Z. The Nissan effectively has twice the horsepower of the Miata too, 332 hp vs. 167 hp, while the latest offerings of the TT and the SLK have less power than both the Boxster and the Z.

The outlier in this group is Chevy’s Corvette. It packs a 460-hp V-8 into a chassis barely larger than the Boxster and only 100 pounds heavier than the Z, 3,470 pounds. By comparison, the Jaguar F-Type is similar in size to the Corvette and comes with three engine layouts ranging in power from 340 hp to 495 hp.

From this chair, the Nissan Z is a ‘tweener.’ The Z’s price fits between the Miata and the premium German offerings. The power delivery is more exhilarating than the Miata’s and every bit the equal of the motors in the German cars, while the size of the car, its storage space, as well as the cabin, are a notch above the Miata and also comparable to the similarly sized German two-seaters. As with most of today’s automotive products, judicious option selection can also produce a high-end product with the appropriate amenities for your taste.

In Touring trim, our Platinum White Z was quite fetching, drawing favorable commentary from many onlookers. The optional Bourdeaux colored top offered nice contrast to the usual black fabric, while the bright red brake calipers and racy Rays forged wheels definitely had some curb appeal. Touring trim brings auto-climate, a seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters and automatic rev-matching for downshifts, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated and cooled seats, a superb Bose audio system, plus LED lighting, including the side marker emblems, for $45,470. The NAV system package, with rear view camera and 7-inch monitor, adds $2,150, while the SPORT package includes the 19-inch Rays wheels, a Viscous limited slip rear differential, Euro-tuned sport shocks and larger brakes for $2,830.

The Z’s cabin earns high marks for civility, the power top works relatively quickly and seals well (no manual latches anymore) plus fit and finish is improved from earlier models. The Sport suspension however produces a firm ride over less than perfect pavement. While making the Z a track star, this setup will be less endearing in daily use.

Nissan also has leaned on the 3.7-liter V-6. Tuning has smoothed out the engine’s vibration tendencies and further increased power delivery across the rev range. To be competitive with the Porsche is admirable; to get faster, Nissan will have to cut some of the Z’s weight, or move to turbocharging — a ploy used before. It would be good to cut the car’s weight and increase efficiency and power.

With the calendar revealing fall, convertibles might not be high on your fourth quarter shopping list; firewood, holiday travel plans, a larger TV for football, etc.

Yet fall is a great time to enjoy the virtues of top-down motoring. Falling leaves, clear days, quiet harbors to visit, less traffic on back roads — all of the pieces are there to create fascinating memories on the road. The 370Z Roadster is a capable companion that will not blow the budget yet still satisfy your sports car desires.

Next week: Hyundai Santa Fe Limited

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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