Nissan’s 2004 350Z Roadster – driving excitement with an open top

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Nissan 350Z Roadster offers all the driving excitement of the hard top Z-Car but with the additional reward of open-air motoring.

A week behind the wheel of the roadster convinced us that nothing is lost in the exceptional performance and handling the hardtop 350Z offers. At the same time, body flex, an undesirable trait found in many drop-top models, is wonderfully absent.

The New Z-car, built in the image of the original two-seat, hatchback-style 240Z, was introduced at the North American International Auto Show in January 2001.
The final result, which went on sale during the summer of 2002 as a 2003 model, is stunning. It stays true to the original Z but in sleek, modern new clothes. It became a success in its first year of production.

Now in its second year, the 350Z is joined by an open-air version. A convertible – or roadster in the case of a two-seater – usually follows the hardtop version to keep interest up and to give buyers the opportunity to invest in additional fun.

Nissan wasted little time getting the roadster ready. It went on sale this past summer as a 2004 model.

It comes in just two trim levels, Enthusiast and Touring, and carries about a $7,000 premium over the hardtop model. That seems a reasonable price to pay for such a well-conceived roadster.

The hardtop also features Performance and Track trim levels. The differences are minor with the exception of the Performance version of the hardtop that comes with 18-inch wheels and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) as standard equipment. Eighteen-inch wheels were a $1,200 option on our test car.

All Z-cars are powered by Nissan’s workhorse 3.5-liter V-6, the same engine used in several products including the Altima and Pathfinder. But in the Z-car, engineers used several tricks to push output to a hair-raising 287 horsepower.

The engine which has variable valve timing and an electronically controlled throttle sits neatly behind the centerline of the front wheels to give the car excellent weight distribution. Add in sophisticated independent aluminum multi-link suspension and you have a sports car that not only goes fast but is a fun to drive performance beast able to eat up curves swiftly and easily like a carb-crazed food junky at a pizza buffet.

The real driving enthusiasts will opt for the slick-shifting, short-throw 6-speed manual transmission. But for those who would rather be free of shifting chores, a 5-speed automatic with a manual shift mode is available. Both versions are incredibly fast while offering docile around-town cruising.

Our roadster tester came with the automatic, but there is little performance fall off from the 6-speed, and somehow, it seems a modern roadster is more in tune with the world with an automatic shifter.

While the 6-speed manual roadster is capable of a 0 to 60 miles per hour time of 5.7 seconds and a quarter mile run in 14.3 seconds at 99.5 miles per hour. The automatic should accomplish the run to 60 in around 6 seconds. The difference only matters on the track not on the street.

Undo the center latch and the top powers back and is stowed under a rear deck panel in just over 18 seconds. The windshield design together with a clear glass wind deflector behind the seats keeps the noise level surprisingly low at highway speeds. In fact, wind and road noise with the top up seemed more intrusive than with the top down because you expect a quiet interior with the top in place.

A delightful aspect of the convertible is its profile. Its particularly handsome with the top down. In fact, the 350Z might even look better as a convertible than a hard top.

The dashboard is thoughtfully laid out although we found the auxiliary gauges over the center console easily washed out in bright sunlight. The knobs have a solid, high-quality feel to them, as do the stalks to the right and left of the steering wheel.

One really worthwhile feature that had previously been used in the Infiniti G35 sedan and coupe is an instrument cluster that moves with the steering wheel. No matter how much you tilt the wheel the instruments will always be in optimum view.
The driver’s seat is next to perfection. It is firm in all the right places, very well bolstered and proved comfortable even after hours behind the wheel.
Storage is at a premium, most of it in bins behind and between the seats that cannot be accessed without getting out of the car unless you have a range of motion that far exceeds ours. Minus a glovebox, the bins are the only storage area for such things as the owner’s manual and CD boxes.

Two cupholders positioned behind and between the driver and passenger are next to useless as drink holders. They are better suited as storage for small objects. There is one cupholder on the passenger side of the dash.

The only power outlet is behind and between the seats, a very challenging position for a radar detector.

The trunk in the roadster is good for only small items such as an overnight bag or a week’s worth of groceries – if you don’t eat a lot. But that is a sacrifice that must be lived with in virtually all roadster models.

A door that hides a cubby (or the navigation system if so equipped) at the top of the dash rises up in a well-damped fashion. Lowering the lid is something else again. It doesn’t track well and has to be yanked by hand to pull it down. This problem was solved in the 2004 hardtop version, but remains a bugaboo in the roadster.

The base hardtop model starts at $27,000 while the roadster begins at $34,410. Our test car, a Touring edition, carried a base price of $37,730 and a bottom line of $39,010 with a couple of options.

Standard features are many including such safety equipment as antilock brakes, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution and side impact airbags. Power heated seats, a 6-disc CD changer, automatic temperature control and leather seating surfaces are also among the standard stuff.

Extras on the test car were the 18-inch wheels and floor mats.

While you can look forward to fun times in the Z roadster and knowing it will offer many hours of comfortable interstate cruising and give you thrilling performance on demand just  remember…pack light.