Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Driven #29:- '08 Nissan 350Z

There's been an eerily Japanese wind blowing in my direction recently, and fetching up on my shore today is a Nissan 350Z, of 2008 vintage. Now replaced with the 370Z, This was the first wave of Datsuns recent assault on the Sports Coupe market, re-imagining a line that stretches back to Count Albrecht Goertz's delectable 240Z of 1970, and the elegant, lithe Fairlady's before even then.

Having spent a few days behind the wheel of the GT-R, imagine my surprise when this thing rocks up. It was like somebody on high was sending these cars to me, for some kind of automotive psychometric test I had to sit. I had been luck enough to play with a broad selection of weird and wonderful cars over the last months, yet, like Bono, I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

I had discounted the GT-R from winning my absolute favour. It's too capable, it suffers fools too gladly. And I'm ashamed to admit, it's too fast. My drive from Scotland was carried out in fear of accidentally sneezing and hitting the speed of light, and then finding myself going forward in time to some useless juncture where pig-dolphin hybrids battled each other for the right to the last grassy meadow. That, and the fear of losing my license in Police-State England.

I know, as a fact, that I love the stress-free demeanour of big, fast, comfortable turbodiesel saloon cars, especially when they can acquit themselves tidily around the bends if it's so required. But I've kind of lost my focus when it comes to out-and-out sports cars; mainly because so few of them seem to get the whole sports-car job quite right. I've commented on the fact that, in my view, the previous generation SLK was a better car than the current one because you could enjoy it when you were chilling out as well as pressing on. The swings and roundabouts have dictated that the current car loses some of that unruffled nature in the search for better dynamics. Interestingly, early reports seem to be that the new generation SLK will step in a slightly more easy-going direction. It may no longer pretend to be the sharpest drive, and this could well be its unique selling point.

The Nissan 350Z has now been replaced, too, but this generation was still current when the GT-R was launched, so I was fascinated to find what it could offer me inmy search for a Sports Car that I could really get along with. It's an uncomplicated beast, deliberately eschewing much of the technical wonderment that makes the GT-R car so astonishing. What it is instead is a no-nonsense two seat muscle coupe of the old school.

Look at it. In the near obligatory shade of burnt orange they nearly all seem to be, the 350Z looks terrific, and in this more masculine metallic black it still carries plenty of presence. It's actually pretty, and offers glimpses of it's S30 Fairlady Z parentage. From all angles the long bonneted, short tailed Nissan looks fast, purposeful. To my eyes it's a more successful shape than the replacement 370Z. It's also uncomplicated. No silly garnish, but the occasional sexy detail (taillights, front turn signals, door handles). Crucially, it just looks like a sports-car.

Inside you get what has become pretty much the standard Japanese sports car interior, but for a few little clevernesses. As with the GT-R, the dial pod moves in unit with the steering column to ensure legibility regardless how odd your driving position (and mine is profoundly odd). There are three supplementary gauge pods atop the centre stack, which lend an air of cohesiveness to the place. This particular car featured the Sat-Nav I had needed so badly in the GT-R. Being so equipped really lifts the interior; 350Zs without have a somewhat apologetic plastic storage compartment in its place. Incidentally, go without the Sat-Nav and the flap over that storage compartment is made from the worst plastic to be recently available in a Japanese car. The rest of the interior is easily tolerable, nothing special but definitely fit for purpose and well screwed together. There seems little likelyhood of much trim breaking or falling off in a hurry, except that flap. Please, please buy the SatNav. If only for that.

The seats are similar in shape and feel to those in the GT-R, A Good Thing; those leather 'n neoprene perches did well to disguise the worst the totally uncompromising suspension had to offer. You sit low in the bowels of the 350Z, with the side glass at or above your shoulder level. You'll either find it claustrophobic or, as I did, subliminally, very sporting.

Start her up and already there's cause for celebration. After the briefest of starter-motor churns the 300hp 3.5 litre V6 rips into life and, sing hosanna, sounds terrific. The car pulses slightly with the engine, and there is some fuss from the hydraulic tappets, but the song sung by those twin exhausts is as gratifying as the GT-Rs sonic signature was disappointing. This is the joy of a normally aspirated car, with a trained ear you can hear the induction and the point at which the variable valve timing comes into play. And it's not emasculated by huge, sound absorbing turbochargers like the GT-R is.

The car gives a full-bodied bark that hardens as the revs rise, a distinct timbre that you don't get from an Italian or a German V6. I ponder briefly the fact that the same VQ35DE engine was available in the Renault Vel Satis, albeit in substantially detuned format, and wonder if it sounds as good in that application as it does here. What an interesting conveyance that would be, that exhaust snarl providing a tantalising contrast with the ever so slightly awkward yet architecturally charming big saloon car styling.

Digressions aside, the truth is that the 350Z wouldn't be half the car it is without the accompanying soundtrack; it's as vital an ingredient as eggs are to an omelette. Look beyond the obviously sporty exterior and the plastic trinketry and disposable technology of the interior, and the rest of the package is refreshingly simple and honest, and, unlike the GT-R, it drives in a thoroughly simple and honest way.

This is no Lotus Elise, it doesn't have crack-knuckle reflexes and gossamer sensitivity. It doesn't need to, that's not what it's all about. The 350Z's game plan is to to offer as much of what you'd call handling as it can reasonably be expected to, and then back this up with almost improbable levels of grip. In plain terms of roadholding, it hits the target rather well, and better still, does so with a fairly joyous sense of the familiar.

I didn’t get to approach anywhere near where I thought the limits might be, but every corner I lunged at rewarded me a strong whiff of proper, old-fashioned involvement. The steering is satisfyingly heavy, even though it feels a bit like the power assistance has been reined in a few notches from some nancy-boy earlier set-up. The gearchange is as quick as any I can think of, requiring only small, deft movements to flick from one cog to the next. The pedal movements, too, are minimal, as is the clutch weighting. It's an intuitive driving experience; as challenging as you make it, and served up in an agreeably raw, ungarnished platter. It encourages you to make an effort, to try harder. And it's all the better for it.

This is a strange paradox in comparison with the GT-R. That machine elevates even the most moronically unsubtle helmsmen to some higher driving echelon, it embues you with an artificial, electronic halo, a technological forcefield that makes the impossible possible. The 350Z, though, is just a set of tools to encourage you to drive as fast as you could can. It's like a Fisher Price My First Sports Car, and should come in primary colours and moulded out of ABS plastic.

RAF Fighter pilots work their way through a variety of different aircraft before they find themselves in the cockpit of a Tornado. They learn the fundamentals of flight in a basic trainer like a Shorts / Embraer Tucano before they progress to cleverer stuff in a British Aerospace Hawk. The 350z is that Advanced Trainer, the natural step between fast, ordinary cars and real, pedigree exotica.

Proper, well-bred performance cars often call for certain driving techniques, and your enjoyment of them is greatly enhanced if your skills are honed. The 350Z, on the other hand just lets you get on with it. Whatever you put into it, you'll get out the other end. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Balls up your approach to the corner and you'll look like a buffoon, but this is unlikely. The 350Z is a very easy car to drive fast. And like so many powerful, rear-wheel-drive, scruff-of-the-neck coupes before, it enjoys oversteer. So do I. 

On its launch the 350Z marked a return to old-fashioned values. In a way it was back-pedalling a little from the 300ZX of the early 90's, which was a lot more technologically advanced than we like to remember. It's good, honest, fast fayre, and that suits me pretty well. I felt alienated in the GT-R, because it's cleverer than me; it had all the answers and allowed me little scope for my own ideas on how to proceed. I'm a simple man, I need a car I can negotiate with. The 350Z lets me lay my driving proposals on the table so we can figure out the best way to run with them. 

This is damn close to what I want in a sports car, Not so hard that it's an absolute liability, not so precise that it needs constant concentration. It isn't dangerously powerful or unusably fast, nor is it highly strung or temperamental. Were it not for the fact that I've driven far too many cars and gotten myself onto a horribly fussy, arrogantly un-satisfiable plateau, it would probably be the answer to all my driving questions.

But it isn't. My totally unreasonable complaint is that it just doesn't quite demand as much commitment as I want it to. It's slightly too forgiving to really completely turn me on. It's a Japanese thing, a trait that even exists in cars as disparate and remarkable as the AE86 Corolla, and even the hallowed Honda NSX. By being so accessible, so easy to interface with, somehow they lose that edge of danger and peril that causes my pupils to dilate.

And I know this isn't just my imagination. I know that that touch of evil is out there, and there's a bright red car sitting nearby that has it in spades.

Please read on.