First Drive: 2009 Nissan 370Z

, Posted by Sports Cars Fans at 6:05 PM

 2009 Nissan 370Z

Stand on any corner in any city, close your eyes and open your ears. Eventually you'll hear the telltale swell of an engine as someone blips the throttle while braking before the bend. This secret auditory handshake among gearheads signals the arrival of a driver schooled in the art of heel-and-toe. And when the 2009 Nissan 370Z goes on sale in January, you won't be able to tell an aspiring Schumacher from Joe the... shoemaker. Nissan's simple yet brilliant "SyncroRev Match" will relegate the artistry of rev-matching to the annals of motoring history. Other automakers compelled to offer manual gearboxes for the dedicated few will doubtlessly adopt the system, and those of us who care – who've unconsciously conditioned ourselves to crane our heads to catch a glimpse of what's coming – will cease to do so. Progress is a double-edged sword and rarely balanced, but don't fret. The 370Z's overly hyped rev-matching system isn't the end of the world, and it's hardly the best part of Nissan's new Z.

The moment the first batch of Z spy shots surfaced, it was obvious that Nissan's sports car was on its way back from the gym. The coupe was wider, shorter and more sculpted, and when the wraps came off at the 2008 LA Auto Show, we finally had proof that at least one automaker gets "it." By "it" we mean lighter. And Nissan has succeeded – just.

 2009 Nissan 370Z

Although the Z's overall length has been shortened by 2.7 inches, the wheelbase cut by 3.9 inches and a set of aluminum doors join an aluminum hood and hatch, Nissan has only managed to shave 95 pounds from the curb weight of the standard model. Thanks to a wider track (0.5 inches up front and 2.2 inches in the rear), side curtain airbags and all of the other assorted equipment required by both the government and the public, the weight savings on the base 370Z is negligible, and the car will likely be heavier than its predecessor when kitted out in Touring trim.

But the Z's 3,232-pound heft is used to good effect. Weight distribution remains 54/46 front-to-rear, and a lighter, stiffer aluminum front suspension cradle works in conjunction with a rear-mounted V-bar and a carbon composite radiator housing to stiffen the structure while keeping it light. The result is 30 percent more torsional rigidity up front, a 22-percent increase in the back and a 30-percent increase in vertical bending resistance in the rear. Combined with the new double-wishbone front suspension, redesigned four-link rear setup and new shock valving, the overall effect is – at first – mildly disconcerting.

The 370Z eschews its predecessor's rickety ride for the kind of refinement you'd expect from a grand tourer. Puttering around town and mashing on the motorway, you get the sense that the 370Z has matured, dropping any adolescent ideas of performance and instead, making a B-line for Dullsville. That sensation continues right up to the point that you muscle the six-speed manual into a lower gear with a notchy ka-thunk, mash the floor-hinged throttle into the carpet and let the 3.7-liter's exhaust note evolve from a idle buzz to a mechanical beehive jacked up on Ephedra.

As you're likely well aware, the 3.7-liter VQ37VHR V6 is the same engine that motivates the Z's FM-platform stablemate, the Infiniti G37. With the optional seven-speed automatic, complete with paddle shifters, you'd swear you are driving the Z's more luxurious sibling. The thoroughly refreshed interior helps matters, dropping the Playskool plastics in favor of a soft-touch dash, redesigned IP and a leather-stitched center console that bears a passing resemblance to that of the GT-R. The eight-way adjustable driver's seat benefits from a bit more bolstering than the passenger, but both chairs balance the proper amount of coddling with the kind of side-hugging support you'd expect in a sports car. The three-pod gauge cluster still pivots to provide an unobstructed view through the asymmetrical steering wheel (it's not quite an oval, but it's certainly not round), allowing you to keep tabs on the central-mounted tach, speedometer and ghastly LCD/LED read-out.

We're at a loss on that last one. Instead of fitting traditional fuel and coolant temperature gauges – just like the trio perched atop the center console – Nissan decided to go with a set of horizontal LCDs sitting above and below a multi-information display. While the idea might be sound, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The LEDs wash out in all but the subtlest sunlight and the pseudo-techno theme doesn't tie-in with the rest of the analog dials. It's a small gripe compared to the massive blind-spots created by the C-pillars. A back-up camera isn't quite a necessity, but the side mirrors do little to alleviate the pain.

But both of these foibles are forgiven the moment you let out the stiffly sprung clutch and give it the beans. The 3.5-liter V6 fitted to the former Z remains one of our favorite mills, but the 3.7-liter proves that Darwin lives in the details. The new bent-six is mounted 15mm lower, boasts 35% all-new parts, an increased cylinder block height, and with the help of Nissan's Variable Valve Event and Lift (VVEL) system, churns out 332 hp at 7,000 rpm and 270 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 rpm. Along with the increase in displacement and power, redline is up to 7,500 rpm, but getting that high into the rev range comes with an aural cacophony that's far less desirable than the thrust accompanying it.

In Sport Package trim, the 370Z comes equipped with 19-inch forged-aluminum RAYS wheels shod in Bridgestone Potenza RE050A rubber (245/40 front and 275/35 rear). The standard brakes (12.6-inch fronts, 12.1-inch rears) are tossed in favor of 14-inch rotors in front and 13.8-inch discs out back, and the variable ratio brake pedal, Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist all work together with the ABS and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) to provide a suitable safety net for ham-fisted frat-boys intent on exploring the Z's substantial limits of adhesion on public roads.

While the 370Z does its best grand-touring impression in the civilian world, the refreshed Z grits its new air-dam-mounted fangs and goes in for the kill out on the track. Even with the traction control on, the 370Z is a revelation compared to its predecessor. Smooth inputs allow you to brake later, accelerate earlier and rarely worry about the terminal understeer that plagued the last generation. With the traction control off, it gets even better. Trail-braking elicits the perfect amount of rotation towards the apex and with the Sport Package's viscous limited-slip differential, a judicious press of the long pedal provides the perfect opportunity to test the Z's speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion setup.

With redesigned mounting bushings and a solenoid valve that acts like a damper under harsh loads, the weighty feel of a wheel that was mildly cumbersome on the road makes perfect sense when applying quick corrections -- something we had the chance to explore on a particularly short downward slope leading into the first turn at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch. With a slightly off-camber exit following a drop into a right-hand bend, the rear suspension unloaded quickly (for the record, we were forewarned) and the back end lightened just enough to set our neurons on full alert. A quick correction to the left while feathering the throttle brought things right back into line, and we were headed down the straight in third, then fourth gear, ready to tackle the next right-hander.

Hard braking induces a small amount of dive, but not nearly enough to break the Z's composure, and body roll in the bends is nominal at best. Despite being aware of the SyncroRev Match system, our muscle memory subconsciously pivoted our right foot onto the gas pedal while braking before the hairpin. As impressive as the throttle-blipping doodad is (it's fun to drag the shifter around at stop lights and let the engine rev), after our third lap we disabled it by pressing the S-Sport button above the stick. The system is nearly flawless, but old habits die hard.

After a full day of flogging, we're perfectly content declaring the 2009 370Z one of the best performance coupe bargains on the market. With a sticker starting at $29,930, a repositioned trim package that only offers two models (base and Touring) and a convertible on the way that will almost assuredly look more attractive than the Z33 (it was designed right next to the coupe, unlike the 350Z), Nissan has hit all of the right pressure points to stir the enthusiast's soul.

Although pricing for the Sport Package has yet to be announced, it's the only way to go. Forget the Touring trim, option up for the NISMO engine oil and LSD cooler (equipped on our tester and highly-recommended by Nissan if you plan to hit the track) and enjoy excessively. As for the styling – get over it. It's impressive in person and has significantly more presence than its predecessor. And if you're worried about the future of heel-and-toe, don't be – you can hold onto the past with the press of a button.