Generally speaking, most of the cars I get a chance to drive are relatively stock. Oh, sure, there’s the occasional BMW track car to spice things up, but most are showroom fresh. But every once in a while, someone tosses me the keys to something a little more interesting. That is why I was up before dawn on a Saturday, when the temperature was barely above freezing. Generally speaking, I tend to try and avoid cold mornings, as I am a small man, of delicate constitution. However, I can make exceptions for money, women, or horsepower.
So, why was I sitting in a parking lot and the end of a dead end road, when my girlfriend was at work, and my bank account was sulking from lack of attention? Because someone offered me a tuned Nissan 370Z to beat on to my heart’s content. We are talking full on Need For Speed spec here. Poly bushings, slammed suspension, ECU tune, full bolt-ons. The works. It even had an aftermarket front lip. Be still my boyracer heart.
Now, I had never driven a 370Z before, although I drove a handful of 350Zs back in the day. But I knew what to expect. A lighter, tighter version of that. Some nimble little two seater, like a Japanese Porsche Boxster. But that is not what I got. The Nissan is not a precision instrument. Everything is a bit rougher than its German counterparts. The interior sounds like a rattlesnake having its way with a beehive, and you can see the shift knob visibly vibrating.
The seating position instills a sense of drama upon first entering. You sit very low, and very far back. The seating position reminds me of a Corvette. Instead of sitting up front and center, you are deep in the bowels of the machine. You’re not piloting from the bridge, you’re huddled down in the hold, giving orders from there. It feels as if the rear fenders are wrapped around your ears. The steering wheel on this particular car was trimmed in carbon fiber, complete with the yellow center stripe, reminiscent of Porsche cup cars. Is that strictly necessary on a street car? Of course not. But it’s rad. And isn’t that what’s really important?
The Nissan is a car that rewards a heavy hand. It performs better, the worse you treat it. Let it walk around on you a little bit. Bang it off the rev limiter. Just throw it in, and gather it up on the other side. The low suspension means you need to be a little cautious on your road selection, but the car soaks up abuse with no complaint. It is not some dainty piece of clockwork. It is designed to be thrashed.
I have to admit. I have a personal bias against the V6 as an engine configuration. I think it is lacking in personality. I don’t think it is mechanically deficient in any sense, just that it doesn’t make my bits tingle. That being said, the 370Z’s engine is a workhorse. While it make not inspire me to wax poetically, it is one damn solid drivetrain. In some cars, you’re constantly banging through the gears, trying to keep the engine singing in a narrow powerband just shy of the redline. This car doesn’t require that. I would leave it in just third gear for miles on end. The power is so usable throughout the entire rev range that I rarely had to change up or down. On a longer stretch, I might make a brief sojourn up to fourth, just to see how it was, but then immediately drop back down. You can just let that lump up front do the work, while you try to keep it out of the weeds.
The Nissan is a symbol of a bygone era. A low slung, curvaceous, two seat, front engine, rear wheel drive, naturally aspirated sports car with a manual transmission. Nearly every manufacturer is transitioning to some manner of turbocharging to meet emission and fuel efficiency requirements. I know that turbos make sense from an engineering standpoint. I know they allow smaller, more efficient designs. I know that, and I can accept it logically. But slotting that exhaust-gobbling gremlin into the mix removes something intangible.
With a naturally aspirated engine, you lose some efficiency, but gain an immediacy that is difficult to quantify. Every throttle input seems that much more visceral. When you blip the gas to rev-match your downshifts, the Nissan’s revs are whipcrack-fast at leaping skyward. Under hard acceleration, there is an urgency that vibrates through the controls that is hard to capture with turbocharging. It is one more layer that has been peeled away between the machine and your brain.
So, now that you’ve got this speed racer, where do you take it? You need twisty roads, with a minimum of cross streets. You also need early mornings, for a few different reasons. First and foremost, sunrise makes for the best photos. Secondly, the wee hours minimizes the amount of traffic, cyclists, and police you will have to contend with. Nothing puts a damper on your day like making a donation to your local municipality.
For our compatriots on the west coast, they are spoiled for choice. The canyons of Malibu are famous the world over for their amazing driving roads. Here in Missouri, things are a bit more difficult, unless you want to do a transit stage of a couple hours. It’s a bit trickier to find a long stretch of suitable tarmac, so you tend to do piecemeal sections. You wind up hunched over the GPS screen like it is some sort of scrying orb, searching for anything that resembles corners.
Sometimes that leads to roads closed by construction. Sometimes that leads to half paved roads containing beautiful, quaint, little cabins that are just perfect for getting murdered in. But sometimes, just sometimes, you find miles of empty, tree lined roads, with nary a traffic enforcement officer in sight. Then you can settle in, and start to understand what this car is all about.
Sure there are some quirks and foibles to get used to. Yes, the method for selecting reverse is asinine. Pushing the shift knob down, and then all the way to the right and down never feels natural. Yes, the rear plastics buzz and rattle. Yes, the V6 engine lacks character. Yes, the pedal position makes heel toe downshifting awkward, but maybe that’s just my tiny, girlish feet. But the 370Z has a certain honesty that I can respect.
It would be easy to dismiss the Nissan 370Z as being a stunning body, without much character, like your college girlfriend, but that is not telling the whole story. Sure, it has flaws. Sure, it’s not the most enjoyable car I’ve ever driven. But it knows what it is, and makes no apologies for that. There’s something respectable in that.