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THE RETURN OF THE Z

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Wed, Oct 20, 2004

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

THE RETURN OF THE Z By LARRY MASON

My Two Months on the Road With the Nissan 350Z It all started with a phone call. I was driving a 2002 Maxima cross-country from Los Angeles to Miami and was somewhere in east Texas on I-10 when my cell phone rang. "Hey, what are your plans after Miami, are you busy?" came the voice on the other end of the phone. "How would you like to do the 350Z training for us?" replied my contact. "Are you kidding me? That would be great!" I exclaimed. I had been working many years in the ride and drive business as a pro driver, product specialist, and facilitator, but this facilitation gig would be a bit different. It was in-dealership training and I would be a one-man show bringing the Z, participant workbooks, computer/projector, and my luggage to two dealerships a day for two months in the mid-Atlantic region. It all sounded cool to me and I thought that this is a pretty good gig - good work if you could get it. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That powerful Z logo and brand identity was way stronger than I had ever imagined. What would ensue over the next two months can only be described as almost a cult following of sorts with this car.

The mid-Atlantic region had been in a drought for the entire summer - that is of course until I arrived. It was dry when I landed that night in Dulles, Virginia, but the next afternoon would be my first training session at a dealership about two hours away from Nissan regional headquarters. The hotel shuttle took me to HQ where I unloaded the cases of workbooks and other training materials that had been waiting for me at the hotel. I was getting nervous whether all of that and my luggage for two months would fit, but fortunately it did. The sales operations manager accompanied me to the first dealership to get an idea of the training. I figured since I would be driving the car for the next two months (and I had no clue as to where the dealership was) I'd let him drive. I should have realized it then when even in a driving rainstorm people were giving us the thumbs up and staring at the car as we drove down the highway.

There was one instance where a guy in a Lexus was closing on us at about 20 mph faster than our rate when he braked and hung at our rear quarter panel for about 30 seconds before he sped off. That would be my first indication at how hugely popular this car is. A couple of minutes later, two Gen-Xers in a beat-up little Pontiac pulled up next to us grinning and gave us the thumbs up. Guys in Maximas were prone to the same behavior. One lady darn near ran off the road as she kept looking - first out her side window, then out her driver's side mirror as she continued to weave down the interstate. "This is insane" I thought. It continued this way throughout the tour. One dealership I pulled up to - just a wee bit early on a weekday morning, caught me a bit off guard. Have you ever seen the cardboard cutouts of the Maytag repairman? Well as I pulled up to the showroom, there looked to be like 3 or 4 of these cardboard cutouts. As it turned out it was the sales consultants frozen at the window staring at my gleaming chrome silver Z. It wasn't until I walked up closer to the showroom door did they actually move from there perch to let me in. Of course after that I was treated like royalty. Almost every dealership I visited cleared their showroom floor for me (of course not for me, but the Z). I was merely the decoration (however not as good looking as some of the female consultants) along for the ride - oh yes, and the training.

It was fun. I was getting paid to drive a new Z and hang out with car people all day. Two dealerships a day (for a total of 58) and 30 some odd hotels over the course of two months. Of course at the end of the day I would have to find my way to my hotel and for a place to eat. One time just outside of DC at a hotel near FedEx field, I left the hotel for dinner. It was dark when I finally left (after doing a walkaround for the hotel staff) and as I made my way through the parking lot to get to the restaurant, I noticed a pair of headlights that had been behind me for a while. As I entered the restaurant parking lot, the headlights followed. I saw a prime parking spot right in front, but I thought, "I'll just let that person take it". They didn't. I drove a bit further and passed a couple more spots. The car kept following me. Finally, I pulled in front of a fast food joint and took the last parking spot before two handicapped spots. The car pulled into the two handicapped spots diagonally and when I looked out, there was a tall man dressed in black and he yelled to me, "Hey, I'm sure it happens to you all the time, but I gotta ask you about your car!" Somewhat relieved at this point, I said "Sure." Well, about 20 or 30 minutes later I got to go inside and get something to eat. Inside the restaurant more people asked me about the car. This was typical and then it dawned on me that this is certainly not the car to have if you're in the witness protection program.

Larry Mason training at Hamilton Nissan (Tony Akarolo photo) One night in another city, I had just parked the Z, set the alarm, and was walking away when two girls in a Durango pulled right behind me and said, "Oh wait, wait, can I ask you about your car, can I see your car?" Of course I waited and while the one girl was working the steering wheel and gauges up and down, another guy and his wife pulled up next to us in his jeep. A couple of minutes later four guys in a Mustang pulled up. Before you knew it, I was doing a walkaround with 8 people! That's more than at some of the dealers I trained at! Finally, I decided that if the restaurant was within walking distance of my hotel I'd better walk - otherwise I'd never eat! Checking into and out of the hotel became another experience. One night after I received my room key and went back out to get my luggage, I was again besieged by people asking about the Z. To make a long story short, besides the guy at the front desk of the hotel coming out to see the 350, it took me 45 minutes to get to my room! Any time I would stop to eat lunch, people would look and point at the Z in the parking lot and you could hear them talking about it to their friends when they came inside the restaurant. "Hey look, there's the new Z." "Oh wow, that's cool." There was one fast food worker that waited until I finished my meal just so he could go out and look at it. This young kid was very knowledgeable about the Z and knew more about it than many of the sales consultants. He was standing there rattling off data about what he had read about it and at the same time his eyes glazed over in awe of this machine. His jaw dropping sealed the case of his passion and longing to get one of these. Of course at minimum wage, he was going to have to work a while to fulfill his dream. But with the look he had in his eyes, I have no doubt that he will one day sit behind the wheel of his very own Z.

Old people, young people, male and female alike were always curious about this car. There was another time when I was checking into a hotel when a guest was dropped off by a taxi. The taxi driver wouldn't leave. He asked me to show him the car. First under the hood, then the interior, the trunk, the suspension. He went on and on with not only his questions about the new Z, but also what a bad MF this car was. He was thinking of how good this would be as a chick magnet. His thoughts and sentiments on the Z were echoed by many a sales consultant throughout the tour. Of course, having a California manufacturer license plate on this car made it seem even more Hollywood than it really was. The number one question I got every day, multiple times a day was "Did you drive this all the way from California?" "No, I picked it up at Nissan headquarters in Virginia, I just brought the plate with me" was my usual reply. I guess I wasn't a good enough liar to fabricate some wild and wacky story to further fuel their fantasies. I figured the car had enough merit to stand on its own. At the end of my training sessions, I would hand out a survey of how they enjoyed my session and if they learned from it. Of course I was bribed every day with "I'll give you all 'excellent' if you'll let me drive it". Sadly for them, there just wasn't enough time. Fortunately for me, they gave my training excellent reviews anyway.

Yeah, it was a fun time with the Z, but as with all good things it must come to an end. I left Burlington, NC on Friday morning heading back up to Herndon, VA. As it was when I picked up the Z, it was raining. But this time I would have to drive the Z through what was once Hurricane Kyle. The town I was in had 5.6 inches of rain dumped on it within the previous 24-hour period and it wasn't letting up. I put the wipers and the Xenon headlights on and hunkered down for a full day's drive in the storm. In about five hours of driving, I was able to go maybe half an hour without my wipers on. Miserable driving conditions with near zero visibility and heavy downpours helped fuel my anxiety about returning the Z in one piece. I can't remember how many accidents, rollovers, and emergency vehicles I saw on my way up I95. To top it off, I95 was closed in Virginia because the DC sniper had struck again. Fortunately for me, they had reopened the freeway by the time I got there, but there was still a snarl of traffic on the streets as I passed by the crime scene. I returned the car in wet, but good condition. Just a couple of rock chips on the front and the windshield courtesy of the gravel hauling semis during my travels. I was relieved to return it in one piece, and anxious to return home after being gone for two months straight, yet I felt a longing in my heart as I said goodbye to my traveling partner, the rock star, the 350Z.

Review: Nissan 350Z It has 287 horsepower and 274 pound-feet of torque. It's the most technologically advanced Nissan ever brought to the United States. It's sort of like a rolling technology lab that can't wait to get to the test track to log some data. Nissan says that it "fuels the rebellious spirit", and let me tell you - it does! Every time you get in the Z you just want to drive it hard. Pedal to the metal action is what it's all about. Now don't get me wrong, you can drive this car just as docile as you'd like. You can even set the cruise control to keep you out of trouble in the speed traps. But the bottom line is that this car likes to be driven, and driven hard. The first thing that impressed me about driving the 2003 Nissan 350Z is how solid the chassis is. It feels as though it's been machined out of a solid piece of billet aluminum. No chassis flex, squeaks, or rattles were detectable even when going over rough roads and driveways. There's very little road noise coming into the cabin from the tires, a relatively smooth ride (due to the long wheelbase), and there's also very little wind noise. Is it fast? Well, LA Car posts 0-60 mph times at 5.4 seconds. It's not a light car (3,247 lbs in this trim) but has phenomenal amounts of grip. Even in the rain, the Z has more grip than some cars do in the dry. With the Vehicle Dynamic Control option you could push it hard in the rain knowing that if you applied too much throttle in the middle of a turn, the VDC would make the necessary corrections and scoot you on your way. I left a tollbooth one damp and cool day and after I redlined it in first, I grabbed second only to have the traction control system kick in. I turned VDC off another time in the dry just to see what it would do and it chirped the tires in second gear. Minimal body roll in the corners and relatively little brake dive help make this car feel connected to the road. Inside, there's no conventional glove compartment. That's been relocated behind the passenger's seat. It's still accessible from where you're driving, but certainly not as convenient. The gauge cluster tilts up and down with the steering wheel so you'll always have good visibility. The aluminum accents inside are true aluminum - not aluminum flavored plastic. The rear hatch opens to expose a decent size trunk area. However the rear strut tower brace interferes with the amount of space you have. I was able to fit two bags of golf in there although it was a bit ungainly. The best feature inside the Z is the DVD-based navigation system. I used that system everyday to find my way to the dealerships and my hotels. I got into the habit of just punching in the phone number of the dealership and that lady with a beautiful voice would say "Proceed to the highlighted route" and I'd say "Okay." She'd then tell me where to turn while I watched my progress on the display map. Pretty soon I would arrive at my destination refreshed from the drive and the confidence of not having to know where I was going. As long as I followed what she said to do, I never went wrong. A close second when it comes to cool features would have to be the over-the-top trip computer that included a tire pressure monitor and programmable tachometer upshift indicator light. For the latter, all you do is enter the number that you want your shift light to come on at. For example, if you set it to 6,500 rpm, the upshift indicator light will start flashing at 6,000 rpm. At 6,500 rpm, it stays on solid. That's a cool feature taken right from racing! You might be thinking by now that I think this car is perfect. Well think again. There are some minor annoyances like the cheap feeling navigation cover, the poorly-placed cupholders (behind your elbow), and the cheesy tow hook cover on the front grille. There was also a problem with the "AudioPilot noise-compensation" system in the Bose stereo that caused it to overdrive the bass response. Apparently there were enough complaints that Nissan has made a running production change and has offered to fix the ones already sold. The six-speed gearbox is good, but I wouldn't call it great - especially when compared to the one in the Honda S2000. Other than that, it's truly a car that you could live with everyday. The base Z starts at an MSRP of just over $26,000. The fully loaded Touring model I was driving came out to just over $36k. Nissan produced about 30,000 units back in 2003. Nearly 8,000 were already pre-sold and they remain a hot item today. If you want one, put your order in because I don't know of any dealers that are actually giving test drives. If you do find a dealer giving test drives, take one, and then write your check. I think you'll be glad you did. © Larry Mason

SIDEBAR COMMENT With the 350Z, Nissan gives you maximum performance and style for the money. This is a beautifully styled sports car with all the power, handling, and stopping ability that one can ask for. In order to have all this ability for this low price, something had to go. In this case, it's creature comfort and refinement. The ride is rather rough, the engine is loud and angry, and the interior plastics are abundant. If you want maximum bang for the buck in a sports car, this is your car. As for me, I'm willing to pay a few extra dollars for more refinement - i.e., give me the 350Z's sister car, the Infiniti G35 Sports Coupe. - Roy Nakano

For more information on Nissan products, go to www.nissanusa.com.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: starting at $26,470 Engine type: 3.5-liter DOHC, 24 valve V6 with aluminum alloy block/heads and molybdenum coated pistons. Horsepower: 287 hp at 6,200 rpm Torque: 274lb.ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm Drive configuration: longitudinal mounted front engine/rear wheel drive Transmission type: 6-speed manual / 5-speed automatic with manual shift mode. Suspension: Front - multi-link with coil springs, gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar, strut tower brace. Rear -multi-link with coil springs, gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar, strut tower brace Wheels and tires: Bridgestone summer tires 225/45R18 front/245/45R18 rear with 18X8 alloy wheels. Brakes: fron t-11.65 in. vented rotors with twin-piston calipers rear -11.50 in. vented rotors with single piston calipers Overall length: 169.6 in. Overall width: 71.5 in. Overall height: 51.9 in. Curb weight: 3,188 lbs. EPA mileage: 20mpg/city, 26mpg/highway 0-60 mph: 5.4 sec. 60 mph-0 mph: 125 ft.

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