Nissan 370Z gets to the heart of the matter: Fun

A casual glance might not say so, but Nissan did a major overhaul on its Z sports car — first on the 370Z coupe about a year ago as a 2009 model and lately the convertible version that went on sale last fall as a 2010.

It amounts to the first full redo of the Z since it was launched as a 2003 model. The new one is about 4 inches shorter and 1.5 inches wider than its predecessor for a beefier, more stable stance.

Metal panels replace some plastic panels, allowing tighter fit and “higher perceived quality,” says Larry Dominique, vice president in charge of product planning for Nissan North America.

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The new Z sits on a shorter wheelbase. It has a bigger engine that offers more power while using less fuel. And — big change — it looks very good as a convertible.

The previous-generation ragtop — roadster in the lingo — had a lumpy, abrupt look, as if the coupe’s flowing hardtop were crudely chopped off.

The rear edge of the 2010’s soft top sits 6 inches farther back, for a sleeker look that seems to emphasize the fender bulges. The top itself is from a more premium material and padded inside to hide the hardware, quiet the interior and look classier.

The test car, a well-furnished top-end Touring model, was $45,265. You could get into the base model for less than $38,000, if you don’t need gizmos and will accept (or prefer) a six-speed manual instead of the seven-speed automatic.

The Z droptop is some $4,000 more than the Mustang GT convertible (a very different type of car but sure to be compared by some shoppers), $11,000 less than a Porsche Boxster, $16,000 less than a Chevrolet Corvette.

The heart of the Z is Nissan’s delightful V-6, now displacing 3.7 liters instead of 3.5.

In the test car, it sounded sweet — a moan rising to a howl when flogged. Forward progress was commensurate. But it is easygoing in traffic, too, so no need to hammer it to enjoy.

The motor burns premium, unfortunately, and at a quick, midteens rate if you drive like you appreciate performance.

The new seven-speed automatic (vs. five speeds in the ’09 automatic) snicked off shifts crisply and smoothly going up or down. In manual-shift mode, it revved the engine on downshifts, as a performance-oriented driver might do with a manual, for a smooth lower-gear engagement.

Nissan’s a big user of CVTs (continuously variable automatic transmissions) in other models, so it was a delight to drive a Nissan with a real gearbox instead. CVTs give a rubber-band feel, like driving a manual with a slipping clutch. Nail the gas, and the engine revs hard and stays there until the car’s speed sort of catches up, then the revs drop. A CVT is supposed to be good for gas mileage, but it’s bad for fun.

Other standout features:

•Automatic-latching convertible top. You no longer have to manually operate two catches to release or secure the top when raising or lowering.

•Better window and roof seals to reduce noise. But the test car issued a faint scratching sound from the driver’s window area when the top was up.

•Good air management when the top’s down, eliminating buffet, so you can enjoy open-air driving more often.

We even ran the young one to school on a 38-degree morning with the top down. Used lots of heater, of course, but no need for the doofus-looking side-windows-up approach.

What better attribute can a ragtop have than a design that invites more top-down use?

Gripe points:

Visibility. Wretched (unless you put the top down, of course). The back window’s small and sloped, so only a slit remained for viewing. The fat fabric panels at the rear of the top eliminated any chance of glancing around to see what’s in the blind spot. (The coupe is nearly as bad.)

Gauges. Nissan rightly uses three round pods atop the center of the dash, copying the look of the original 1970 Datsun 240Z. But it fills them with an odd choice of instruments.

Two pods present an oil temperature gauge and voltmeter — useful, but you might prefer fuel level and engine coolant temp. Those are minimized into unreadable absurdity elsewhere, the levels tracked by lines of little lighted orange dots.

The far right pod houses a digital clock, which could have gone elsewhere. And that clock isn’t synced to the time display on the navigation screen, so you must set them separately.

Look for Nissan to make the instruments “configurable,” as on the Nissan GT-R very-high-performance coupe, Dominique says. That would let you choose which gauges are displayed where. He wouldn’t say when.

Road noise. The high-performance summer tires snatched up and spit off every tiny piece of snow-removal grit remaining on the roads, producing a cacophony from the underbody and rocker panels. If you live where there’s never snow, or the roads get swept every day, fine. In the real world, really annoying.

Some of those details have little to do with the car’s performance, but everything to do with whether it grows on you over time, or grows tiresome.

But the Z Roadster looks great and, as ever, is a red-hot performer. It’s seductive and generally satisfying.

About the 2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster

•What? Convertible version of the front-engine/rear-drive, two-seat sports car.

•When? Roadster’s been on sale since September.

•Where? Made at Tochigi, Japan.

•Why? It was time. Previous-generation Z was launched as a 2003, making it ancient by auto standards.

•How much? Base model with six-speed manual transmission starts at $37,690. High-end Touring with seven-speed automatic starts at $42,540. Well-equipped Touring test car was $45,205.

•How potent? 3.7-liter V-6 rated 332 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, 270 pounds-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm (up 26 hp and 2 lbs.-ft. from 350Z predecessor).

•How big? Smaller than its beefy looks suggest, and the same width and length as the 370Z coupe. Roadster is 167.2 inches long, 72.8 inches wide, 52.2 inches tall on a 100.4-in. wheelbase.

Weighs 3,426 to 3,489 lbs (175 to 219 lbs. heavier than the coupe).

Passenger space, just 52.3 cubic feet (because there’s no back seat). Trunk is 4.2 cu. ft.

Turning circle diameter: 32.8 ft. (with 18-in. diameter wheels), 34.1 ft. (19-in. wheels)

•How thirsty? Rated 18 miles per gallon in town, 25 on the highway, 20 (manual) or 21 (automatic) mpg in combined driving.

 

Trip computer in automatic test car registered 13.6 mpg (7.35 gallons per 100 miles) in short-hop, frisky suburban driving.

Burns premium, holds 19 gallons.

•Overall: Serious driving machinery that’s also easygoing in daily use, marred by some interior gaffes.

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