A well-balanced, fun car for the real world
by: JAIME VALDEZ Nissan's latest Z-car, the fast and fun 370Z, could be the best yet.

Despite all the angst over high gas prices and foreign oil imports, sometimes you just want to get in a car and have fun.

And there are few cars on the road today as much fun at the 2011 Nissan 370Z, a true two-seat sports car that is available as either a convertible or three-door fastback.

We drove the Touring edition of the fastback version around the Portland area for a week and it never failed to entertain. Everything about it was aimed at provoking a visceral response, from the ridiculously large rear fenders to the well-bolstered seats, the raspy high-revving engine, slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, supple suspension and responsive brakes. We've driven faster cars, but few that are as well-balanced and easy to drive on their edge of their abilities.

The 370Z is the latest in the line of Z-cars that Nissan first introduced in America in 1969. Then called Datsun, the company's first 240Z was groundbreaking in many respects. Until then, most sports cars for sale in this country were either inexpensive but unreliable models from Britain and Italy - or expensive but unreliable models from Britain and Italy. The most reliable two-seater, the Chevy Corvette, was considered by many to be more of a muscle car than a genuine sports car.

The 240Z broke the mold by being affordable and reliable. Unlike the British and Italian sports cars, it did not leak oil, short out or regularly break down. But more than that, it was good looking, comfortable and powerful. The inline six cylinder engine produced 151 horsepower, more than enough to move the relatively lightweight car swiftly down the road.

The displacement of the original engine was 2.4 liters, which explains the 240Z designation. The designation has changed as the engine size increased over the years, from 2.6 to 2.8 to 3.0 to 3.5 and, now, 3.7 liters. The configuration changed from an inline to a V6 engine in 1984, and all subsequent engines have been V designs, too. But they have always been six cylinders.

Although each generation of the Z-car has been larger and heavier, it has never gotten too big. Some 2+2 models were available with small back seats, but that is not an option in the current version.

Our version was the Touring model, which includes such comfort and convenience features as leather-appointed power heated seats, driver's adjustable lumbar support, a digital Bose audio system with 8 speakers, and the now-expected connectivity options. It is situated in the middle of the five trim levels. They begin with the entry-level 370Z and end with the most powerful NISMO 370Z, which 18 more horsepower and a range of performance upgrades, including bigger wheels, a rear spoiler and front chin aero deflector.

Even without the external changes, our test car was stunning - low, wide and aggressive looking, especially around the muscular rear haunches. The original 240Z appears dainty in comparison. The sharply angled headlights and taillights are especially contemporary, although all of the lines are thoroughly contemporary. Rear visibility is compromised by the wide back roof supports, but our car was equipped with the option rear view camera that helped when backing up.

Like all small sport cars, getting inside requires some flexibility. Shoulder and headroom is greater than some midsize sedans, however. The optional leather seats in our test car were wider and more comfortable than expected, although still well bolstered for hard cornering. The gauges and console were simple and easily read, with three gauges across the top of the dash that are reminiscent of the earliest models.

The engine barks to life with a raspy sound that some reviewers have criticized as unrefined. We liked it, though. The sound was more like an actual race car than most other sports cars. Some manufacturers admit tuning their exhaust systems to achieve just the right pitch. Nissan doesn't seem to be playing that game, which is fine with us.

On the road, the 370Z is a blast to drive. The engine revs quickly, encouraging fast shifts to maximize acceleration. The speed-sensitive power steering is precise with plenty of the road feel missing in so many modern cars. Although the suspension is stiff enough for flat cornering, it is not jarring over rough pavement. And the brakes are among the most responsive we have ever tested - a light touch is enough for all but panic stops.

Our biggest complaint was the constant road noise produced by the wide tires. Although this could get tiring on long trips, the excellent Bose stereo is capable of easily blocking it out.

A convertible version is available that Nissan sells as a separate Roadster model. It comes in three trim levels that include all of the option in the hardtop line up. Prices are significantly higher, however, which might impede sales in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, you don't have to put the top down to enjoy the 370Z any time of the year.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 370 Z Touring.

• Manufacturer: Nissan.

• Class: Sports car.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Two-passenger, two-door plus hatchback car (as tested); Two-passenger, two-door convertible.

• Engines: 3.7-liter V6 (332 hp - as tested); 3.7-liter V6 (350 hp).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested); seven-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 18/26.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $31,000 ($38,295 as tested).

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