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Thoughts on Z-Cars: The 350Z

September 18, 2011 by Matt

2003 Nissan 350Z

Few sports car dynasties have gone through as many changes as Nissan’s Z-cars. From the original 1970 240Z to the present-day 370Z, the design details, the engine and the chassis have all undergone a wholesale revolution, keeping the car competitive in its class while still attempting to maintain a link to its heritage.

As you might imagine, as a Z-car owner, I have a some opinions about the ’03-’09 350Z, the “reboot” of the Z-car concept after the previous generation’s departure from our shores in ’96. As with most re-imagingings, the 350Z retained some of its immediate predecessor’s styling cues, introduced some new ideas, and reached back to the original 240Z for certain elements.

2007 Nissan 350Z Rear

The most obvious carryover from the ’90-’96 300ZX, and the styling feature I have the biggest problem with, are the proportions. Instead of a more classic long-nose, short-deck distribution of visual masses in profile, the cab is intentionally pushed forward to sit more or less in the middle of the car. The designers’ goal may have been to try to define a sort of “center of mass” that the car would seem to rotate around, making it look more agile, but result is that the 350Z looks downright awkward from some angles—notably the rear 3/4 view—and every aftermarket styling scheme invariably adds a large rear wing in an attempt to get some “wedge” back in the car’s profile. Adopting a more traditional sports car shape would have solved the problems handily. I understand there were concerns the car would have been perceived as “too retro” or a shameless attempt to cash in on nostalgia (a la ’02-’05 T-bird, among others), but there’s a way to push the envelope stylistically and still keep the overall proportions that remain the key to a sports car’s curb appeal. The designers missed the mark on that one.

Nissan 350Z Interior Inside Cockpit

The links to the 240Z and completely new design elements I don’t really have a problem with. The grille opening, featureless interior door panels and triple gauges surmounting the center dash recall the original Z, while the door handles, headlights and taillights are the most prominent new features. Overall, they’re well done and contribute positively to the car’s look and feel. Well done there.

As for the engine and chassis, well, the car was exactly what it needed to be. It wasn’t as barnstormingly powerful as the twin-turbo 300ZX, but in the context it was introduced, it didn’t need to be. There was an opening for a simple, honest, straightforward 2-seat sports car with a modicum of extra power, and the 350Z fit the bill perfectly. It wasn’t as intentionally unconventional as its arch-rival the RX-8, and therein lay one of the keys to its success vis-a-vis the Mazda offering. Buyers didn’t have to educate themselves before a test drive; they arrived on the Nissan lot and saw a car that looked kind of cool. They sat in it, and instead of learning it had a Wankel rotary engine and suicide rear doors, they found two doors, two seats, a 6-speed and a totally normal 3.5l V6 under the hood. That kind of simplicity had its appeal, and was a major reason 350Z sales easily outpaced those of its major competitor throughout its model run.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series discussing various generations of Nissan’s celebrated Z-car series. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Datsun, Nissan, Thoughts On Z-Cars


  1. Michael B says:

    It is funny that you posted this. I just watched a Top Gear episode from season 3 that compared the 350Z and RX-8 over the weekend.

    They both posted the same time around the track; 1:31.8 (same as an E46 M3 by the way). The concluded the Mazda was better because it was cheaper, more comfortable, makes a better noise, and doesn’t wear you out when you drive it.

    I have never driven either and I don’t like the looks of either, but the Mazda looked like a very fun car to drive. I would be very curious to experience it just because of the rotary engine.

    • Matt says:

      I remember that episode, I think. You’re right; they did like the RX-8, and most every publication has echoed their conclusion, saying the chassis finesse of the RX-8 trumps the more “brute force” approach of the 350Z.

      As much of a rotorhead as I am, at the end of the day, I honestly don’t know which I’d drive home. For as much as Mazda got right with the RX-8, there’s an equal helping of the awkward and off-putting. I think overall, in the long run, the 350Z’s styling will age better, even if the rear 3/4 view is really awful. Tough choice.

      You should drive a rotary. I wouldn’t go as far as the TG guys and say every true car buff must own a rotary-powered car at some point (like their pronouncement about Alfa Romeo), but I will say every true car buff should at least drive one. :)

  2. John D says:

    (A turbo charged one, preferably… ;)

  3. Shawn says:

    What’s most awkward about the styling of that and the current Z is those awful door handles. There is no logical reason why they should be so large and pronounced.

    • Matt says:

      The only design justification I can think of for it, other than simply wanting to make a jewel-like detail out of it, would be to break up the expanse of sheetmetal on the flanks of the car.

      Placing my finger over the side view above, though, it doesn’t lose much, if anything, from being removed. And the vertical orientation of the door handle “blocks” the front-to-rear flow of the styling, making the car look even more stubby in profile.

      So yeah, I’d have left it off. Not a deal-killer, but the cons outweigh the pros, IMO.

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