By Lary Coppola
I confess, I’ve always been a ragtop guy, having owned about a dozen in my life. That’s why when given an opportunity to test drive one, I’m always first in line with my hand up — as was the case recently when Nissan invited me for a test drive over some of California’s finest mountain roads out to the coast, and a ride up the Pacific Coast Highway.
Building a really good convertible is complicated. There’s a lot more to it than just hacking the roof off — things like rigidity and stiffness for example — not to mention basic design issues.
The first–generation Nissan 350Z Coupe was a great car, praised by press and the public alike. But the original roadster sort of took the “hack the roof off” approach, and some of the main things I loved about the 350 — its poise, style, and handling — were compromised somewhat by the roadster’s added weight and lack of stiffness. Not nearly as much as say, the Chrysler Sebring or Toyota Solara — but compromised somewhat just the same.
The new 370Z Roadster is a huge departure from the original — being designed and engineered from the ground up as a droptop. Nissan Vice President of Design, Bruce Campbell, told me, “The difference between this car and the coupe, is that we started from zero knowing we were going to build a roadster.”
Walkaround: The 350Z Roadster looked almost like a stepchild with the top up, and even lowered, the long, flat rear end seemed oddly out of sync with the coupe’s sexy lines. The new 370Z roadster remedied those quirks. Nissan moved the latch point of the roof rearwards, giving it more coupe-like lines with the top up. The Z’s rear quarters also have a nice arch, highlighted by flared-out rear wheel wells, a wider stance, shorter wheelbase and overall length, with lines flowing smoothly into the boomerang-shaped headlights and taillights. The total package is much more Z-like than the original.
The one-touch power roof is fully automatic, with no latches or levers — and neatly stowed with the steel tonneau locked in place in just under twenty seconds. In addition, Nissan scratched the vinyl, with a new cloth top and an interior headliner adding a more upscale feel.
New is the ability to operate the top from outside (nice, if you live in say, Arizona or Florida) via a button on the door handle, and the ability to open and close it while moving up to 3 mph.
Interior: Like the coupe, the cockpit layout is driver intuitive, with amenities basically the same as the coupe, except for the available high-back ventilated leather seats with optional heating and cooling on the Touring model. Instrumentation is larger than previously, although it all still moves as a unit with the tilt steering wheel. Power windows with one-touch auto up and down, power mirrors and door locks, cruise control, security system and a myriad of airbags are all standard.
Like the coupe, storage space is limited, but there is room in the trunk for a golf bag, which wasn’t the case previously.
Technology upgrades include Nissan’s standard Intelligent Key; a touch-screen navigation system; an optional 8-speaker Bose audio system, with 6-CD changer; available XM satellite radio, with XM NavTraffic and NavWeather; DVD playback capability; a 9.3 GB Music Box hard driv; iPod interface; Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and Bluetooth streaming audio.
Under The Hood: Nissan’s highly versatile V6 has been praised repeatedly and universally as the best powerplant since the small-block Chevy and Cadillac Northstar. This configuration of it puts an impressive 332 horses to the highway at 7,000 rpm, while delivering 270 ft. lbs of torque at 5,200 rpm, thanks to Nissan’s 4-valve per cylinder variable valve event and lift control system.
The V6 is married to a standard six-speed manual transmission, or a seven-speed automatic with manual mode and steering wheel mounted paddle shifters.
Behind The Wheel: Compared to the 350, the new 370Z’s body stiffness enhancements are impressive. What’s more, the 370Z Roadster is 150 pounds lighter than the 350.
Our drive route took us through winding mountain forest roads, driven primarily in second, third, and fourth gears. Chassis flexibility was solid, with the added weight never compromising the Z’s handling through tight turns. Because most of the added weight sits just behind the cockpit, the drive wheels have added stability, eliminating the tendency for the back end to come around when pushing it hard through a turn.
Steering is crisp and confident, and braking is outstanding. The roadster really hugs the corners when pushed hard and is just downright fun to drive like that.
The low driver position still allows unobstructed visibility, with the windshield top high enough that the A-pillar was never directly in my line of sight.
Whines: Tire noise is loud at speed, and when driving with the top up there’s quite a bit of interior wind noise (not unusual with most convertibles). But combined with the tires, and depending on the road surface, it can get pretty loud.
Bottom Line: The small differences between the 370Z Roadster and coupe are minimal. Because the two are so similar, buyers need to remember the roadster isn’t a toned-down version of the coupe like some marketplace competitors. Li
ke the coupe, it’s a strong, hardcore sports car, and starting at $36,970, it’s a terrific value.