Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nissan chops the top off its 370Z and adds a whole lot of fun

The Nissan 370Z is equipped with a folding canvas top that is lined on the inside.

''What a cute butt!"

Turning around to look, we had to agree, it was a cute butt. Soft and round but still muscular and altogether very purposeful-looking. We smiled.

Our 370Z roadster test car sat outside the bagel shop, on full display through the large plate-glass window. Passersby paused to look, sipping their morning coffees, admiring its wide rear stance, the curvature of the trunk line where it hugs the wheel flares, the dual rear cowls tucked in behind the fixed roll hoops--less mechanized and cold than its predecessor overall and entirely more sensuous in effect. We'd like to think that we brightened a few folks' mornings. Or, rather, that the car did.

Just a year after the 370Z coupe supplanted the fantastic 350Z, the roadster is set to do the same this September. And while it largely carries over the mechanicals from the coupe, the roadster has its own styling--and lifestyle--statements to make.

The cantilevered roof is gone, naturally, giving way to a handsome folding soft top, now with an automatic latch operation. Where the previous Z roadster settled for more of a Popemobile look with the top up, the 2010 roadster manages to retain a bit of a sloping coupe feel, with the trailing end of the top, and its glass backlight, easing down to the rear decklid rather than falling off sharply. And yet, with the top down, it's striking how different the roadster looks from the coupe; absent that single hard line leaping forward from the taillights, shooting the roof out over the cockpit, the 370Z has a softer, more approachable feel about it.

It's more inviting inside, too. The soft top, cut from a quality canvas rather than the vinyl of the previous roadster, now features a full cloth liner, too, and on the road, its insulating qualities are appreciated, dulling the unwanted noises from the wind and the wheels while hiding the top's steel support bars.

There's not enough sound deadening to muffle the throaty noises coming from under the hood--and we're thankful for that. Like the coupe, the roadster gets a bigger engine, the former 3.5-liter V6 growing to 3.7 liters, jumping to 332 hp and featuring Nissan's signature variable valve timing and lift-control system, called VVEL. Torque peaks at 270 lb-ft, just 2 lb-ft higher than the previous engine. But, as with the coupe, the 370Z roadster feels eager off the line, spooling up revs quickly and launching from a stop with a roar, the rear tires squealing in response. The pull doesn't let up until the engine bangs up against its 7,500-rpm redline. Nissan says the roadster will hit 60 mph not far back from the coupe, in the low-to-mid-five-second range, despite its 194-pound disadvantage.

The extra heft at the curb is mostly the result of a significant amount of stiffening added to the structure to compensate for chopping off the roof, typical sorts of reinforcements added at the A-pillars and side sills. Even so, the 2010 roadster still weighs 149 pounds less than the previous drop-top Z, and that's with more standard content, including seat-mounted side and door-mounted curtain side-impact airbags.

Despite the extra stiffening, the 370Z does suffer a bit from having the roof removed, but the result is not nearly as egregious as you get with softer open-top conversions, such as a Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder or a Chrysler Sebring convertible. In fact, the Z roadster retains most of the rigidity of the coupe and displays a marked improvement over the previous roadster. Only serious potholes, railroad tracks and the like will turn the body the least bit wonky. Nissan says it upped front-body torsion by 40 percent, while the rear twists a full 45 percent less than the 350Z roadster.

The roadster uses the same chassis layout as the coupe, with a double-wishbone setup in front and a four-link rear design, with quicker-responding shocks and 18-inch wheels all around. Tuning feels slightly more cushioned in the roadster, though we're not talking a major softening; mostly, the effect gives the roadster a more civilized ride feel than the previous model had. Where the 350Z roadster would bang its way over bumps, the 370Z does a better job of soaking up the impacts.

And still, the roadster maintains most of what makes the coupe such a hoot to drive. The whole car hunkers down through the turns, with gobs of grip available where you want it, and--with an extra dip in the throttle and a twitch of the steering wheel (and with the stability control turned off)--the back end drifts on command.

The redesigned Nissan 370Z roadster costs just $100 more than the previous Z roadster.

Both transmissions from the coupe carry over to the roadster: the silky-smooth seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters and the six-speed manual transmission with its SynchroRev Match system just as slick in the open-top car. On downshifts, the system detects which gear you're aiming for and blips the throttle to match revs. The effect is almost magical and utterly cool. And unlike with a dual-clutch gearbox such as that found in an Audi or a BMW, the system uses a real clutch pedal and an H-pattern shifter and allows for skipped shifts. Heel-toe snobs will be happy to know that there's a button just above the shifter that turns off the SynchroRev system.

The 370Z comes in two flavors. Standard features in the base model include a keyless push-button ignition, traction- and stability-control systems and a panoply of convenience items such as tilt steering, an auxiliary input jack, automatic temp control and a drive computer. Upgrading to the 370Z Touring roadster adds a Bose audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and power ventilated and heated leather-trimmed seats. From the Touring model, you can then add one of two packages: the sport package includes the SynchroRev Match system, 19-inch wheels, larger brakes (14-inch front rotors, 13.8 rear) and a limited-slip rear differential; the navigation package adds nav, XM satellite radio and a 9.3-GB hard drive with USB connectivity.

All of this--and that cute butt--can be had for just $100 more than the previous Z roadster, with stickers starting at $37,690.


2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster

ON SALE: September

BASE PRICE: $37,690

DRIVETRAIN: 3.7-liter, 332-hp, 270-lb-ft, V6; RWD, six-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 3,426 lb (mfr)

0-60 MPH: 5.5 sec (est)

FUEL ECONOMY (EPA/AW): 21/17.8 mpg


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