Nissan's Z car tradition goes back to 1969, when the company was called Datsun and the Z launched with a 240 designation. At the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, the latest Z came out as the 2009 Nissan 370Z, its new name reflecting a bigger engine and the long ago jettisoning of the Datsun brand. In all those years, Nissan stuck to a naming convention representative of the car's engine displacement, putting the 370Z at 3.7 liters, the biggest engine yet in a Z.
We would expect this Z to be an improvement over that original 240Z, given the nearly 40 years of power-train technology in between them. But the 370Z is also a significant improvement over the 350Z, its immediate predecessor, which is not always the case with new model launches. Not only does the 370Z get a bigger engine, it features some impressive new transmission technology, along with the option of Nissan's excellent suite of cabin technology, which we saw most recently in the new Nissan Maxima.
Unfortunately, our review car was optionless in the cabin, so we didn't get to try out that infotainment center, but even worse, the stock CD player wouldn't read an MP3 CD, a big surprise for a 2009 model from any automaker. But the car makes up for that omission with new styling--an elongated nose and faster back--giving it the appearance of a mini GT-R.
Test the tech: California road trip
Someone once said it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car fast. Well, the Nissan 370Z is a fast car so maybe it would be more fun on a road trip. We picked up the keys in Los Angeles and took it up to San Francisco, a drive of a little over 400 miles with the route we chose. The first thing we noticed about the little Z as we drove it out of the parking garage was its extremely smooth shifts. In racy little sports cars, we expect to feel some orneriness at low speeds, with temperamental gas pedals that make first and second gear shifts difficult when you need to drive at 5 or 10 mph. Not the 370Z. It was easy creeping out the driveway, then shifting up to second into typical Los Angeles street traffic.
This reasonable behavior made the following succession of stop lights, before we were able to open it up on the freeway, easy to deal with. On the big arteries, we used the 370Z's impressive acceleration and nimble handling to merge with traffic and change lanes adroitly. The shifter, while not a precision short throw like we've seen in some Hondas, is solid and sufficiently notchy. We put it into fourth, then fifth, then its sixth and top gear, finding usable acceleration in each powerband. This six-speed manual has a neat little trick called SynchroRev Match, which maintains engine speed between downshifts, matching revs to the next gear. As we played with the gearbox, shifting from sixth to fifth, then down to fourth, the revs didn't drop as we lifted off the gas to engage the clutch, making very smooth transitions.
These smooth shifts came into play as we entered the Grapevine, the series of mountains between Los Angeles and California's Central Valley that takes you through the over 4,000-foot-high Tejon Pass. As lesser cars around us slowed at the grades, we put the 370Z in fifth, gave a little more gas, and didn't lose a single mile per hour as we ascended, the powerful V-6 engine propelling the little car without complaint. There are a lot of curves on this section, along with lane changes necessitated by slow trucks, and in maneuvering we found a decent amount of oversteer with the wheel. The car wanted a steady grip, as any accidental pull on the wheel would send it careening into another lane.
Once out of the moderately interesting section of road, we were presented with the long, straight stretch of freeway, the only solace being the 70 mph speed limit. Here the sporty handling and the notchy shifter of the 370Z didn't come into play, but the rigid sports car suspension made itself known. We began to envy our colleague, following the same route in a Lexus RX400h. For entertainment, we plugged an MP3 player into the car's auxiliary input, conveniently placed on the radio face plate just below a big dashboard hatch where all those optional cabin electronics we lusted over would normally go. Well, at least that hatch was a good place to keep the MP3 player.
We cut across to Paso Robles, a town nestled in the mountains, and took a little time out to put the 370Z on some twisties. Forget about all those long miles on the freeway--this side trip was what the car was made for. A fast start broke the rear tires loose until traction control could settle the car down. The big front calipers took some speed off as we entered a turn, and that SynchroRev Match kept us from losing any power on the downshift. A helpful little display on the tachometer showed which gear we were in, leading us to conclude that the 370Z was a good beginner sports car. With its short wheelbase and rear-wheel drive, it was a joy to take it through what corners we could find, and the grip was good enough that we didn't shake the tail out.
But then we had to get back to the long, boring cruise. With little drama we made it the next 200 miles to San Francisco, with the trip computer reporting an unimpressive 18.5 mpg. In the end, we decided that a fast car is not necessarily more fun on a road trip, unless you can make a stop-over to mess around on some good twisty roads.
In the cabin
You know that you are in a sports car when you are sitting in the 2009 Nissan 370Z. The seats are low to the ground, and have knobs to manually raise or lower the front and back of the seat, optimizing driving position. Three pods for gauges rise up from the center of the dashboard--an element held over from the 350Z. One of these pods holds a digital clock, while the other two host gauges for temperature and battery. Switchgear on the steering wheel spokes for audio and cruise control feels solid, reflecting the general quality of fit and finish in the cabin.
One element we aren't crazy about is the multidisplay on the left side of the instrument cluster, next to the center-positioned tachometer. It has a cool-looking metal face plate with an orange monochrome display showing useful information from the trip computer, which is all fine, but the fuel gauge is a row of 16 orange lights along the top of the display. Although it might look cool at night, you can't read it when the sun is bright and glaring through the large back glass.
Because of the angle of that back glass, rearward visibility is poor. Looking in the rear view mirror, you get a gun-slit view out the back. With an SUV right behind us, all we could see were headlights and a strip of grille.