Although I have undertaken it more times than I care now to count or remember, the flight from the UK to Los Angeles always feels long. Despite a good supply of motoring magazines to read, as well as the in-flight entertainment system, and even though I was lucky enough to have been upgraded into Business Class (thank you, BA, it is appreciated!), it was with some relief that the plane finally started its descent into LAX airport. As we flew directly over the Hertz facility, I could see a surprisingly empty looking car park, with a few of the distinctive yellow Corvettes easy to pick out. This is always the exciting bit of the journey, and all I had to do was to clear immigration (no queue, and I was almost first off the plane) and collect luggage (for once, my case was one of the first to appear). So I was at Hertz a full hour earlier than expected. Even so there was a car with my name on it: an enormous Chevy Tahoe. However, I had spotted something rather more beguiling as the courtesy shuttle had driven into the Hertz lot. A quick trip to the Service Desk, and it was mine. A bright red 350Z Roadster.
I drove a 350Z Coupe in April 2007. I remember it well, not least because I had the car on my birthday, but also because it was probably the most fun rental car I had ever had (before or since) in the US. At the time, I decided that I would like to drive the Roadster some day, but that day never seemed to come, and the car gradually dwindled from the Hertz fleet. I had not seen one for a year or so, and assumed they were all gone. The test car appears to have been first registered in February 2008, and had 44,500 miles on the clock, but apart from a few scrapes to the edges of the front bumper and couple of minor stone chips on the front, has otherwise survived its rental time well.
One of my abiding memories of the 350Z Coupe was of the glorious set of sounds from its 3.5 litre V6 engine. It’s hard to describe, as it is neither delicate like you get in many a six cylinder, nor the sort of rumble you get in a V8 like a Corvette. Nor does it have the exhaust rasp of a traditional Alfa. I think it probably is a unique noise, a mixture of all the noises I just cited. It strikes you on start up, and it really gets you when you press the throttle more than very gently. And in this car you will. My previous test car had the earlier 276 bhp engine. For 2007, Nissan increased the power to 306 bhp. Without undertaking a back-to-back comparison, I could not honestly tell you whether the extra urge is immediately evident or not, and in any case the Roadster is a heavier car because of the extra strengthening for the chop top. Suffice to say that the car does feel fast. Press the throttle more than just that gentle squeeze and it rockets forward, gaining momentum with some alacrity.
Like all US rental cars, this one had an automatic gearbox- sadly. It is a five speeder, but there is the option to use it in manual mode. In automatic mode, it is very smooth, with just the engine note to act as a clue surrounding a change of ratio. It is not just the performance of the Z that appeals, though. Top marks also for steering and handling. That these were both excellent also stuck in my mind from the Coupe test, but I did approach this car wondering if it would be cursed like a number of other convertibles, with a far less stiff body and consequently rather wobbly road manners. I am glad to report that the Roadster was equally impressive. This fun does all come at a price, though. And that is the ride. Stiff to the point of being so firm that every single ridge, pothole (of which there are plenty on the roads of Los Angeles) and even slight bump is oh so very obvious. Veritably, this not the car the eponymous lady of the children’s legend, the Princess and the Pea. And yet, this really does not seem to matter, as you almost expect it in a car like this. There is a lot of road noise, too, exacerbated by the concrete road sections that prevail in the Los Angeles area. No issues with the brakes, I am pleased to report – and they got a fair punishing on some of the winding canyon roads on Route 23 from Westlake down to Malibu.
The interior of the Roadster is all but identical to the coupe model. The three main dials are in a binnacle which moves with the steering column, thus ensuring that the relationship between wheel and dials never changes. The rev counter is the centre most and it is larger than the adjoining speedo and third dial containing fuel level and water temperature. Three smaller dials, for trip computer, oil pressure and an ammeter are in the top of the centre of the dash. Under this is a small oddments cubby then you find the controls for the Bose stereo system, and the climate control dials. The overall design is neat enough, but the materials are a bit on the cheap side, and are example of how the price of the car was kept affordably low. The leather covered wheel is slightly smaller in diameter than you find in most cars, and also felt a bit disappointing to hold. There are a number of switches on the wheel for the cruise control and stereo. As I drove the car with the roof down almost all the time, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the climate control system, but I can say that the stereo worked well and did not even have to have the volume adjusted much when driven al fresco. There is a huge speaker behind the driver’s seat.
Converting the 350Z into an open top car is easy. With your foot on the footbrake, release a large catch in the centre of the roof, above the rear view mirror, then with the ignition on but the engine not running, hold the button mounted to the left of the steering wheel and watch as the procedure takes place. It takes about 20 seconds. During this time, the compartment within which the folded down roof is housed, lifts up, and the air deflector emerges. Nissan make great play of how this feature helps to reduce buffeting and to make the cabin decently quiet. I found that with the side windows raised, even after dark on a late January evening, driving roof down was a very pleasant and not unduly cold or noisy experience. The rear window is glass, and it does have a heating element. It is small, though, and in combination with the rear view mirror on the top of the screen and the rather meagre door mirrors, visibility is not the strongest suit of this car. In fact, that is true when the roof is lowered, too, because you are sitting well in what is actually quite a high-waisted car, so the mirrors are only so much help in assisting you to see what is coming up alongside you on the freeway. With the roof up, there is a huge blind spot over your shoulder so reversing out of parking spaces and the like is something to approach with extreme caution. Or put the roof down first.
One challenge I recall from my test of the coupe was that the boot was far from generous. In the Roadster, it is smaller still. Neither deep from front to back, or from top to bottom, the main area of the luggage area neatly accommodated my suitcase, leaving a small area at either side, not large enough for my lap top bag. I did managed to repack the items in it, though so it would more or less, and – much in the way that the cabin crew on a plane push hard on the lids of the overhead stowage areas, got the boot to close. There is a sticker on the inside of the boot lid, demonstrating how to get a set of golf clubs in. There certainly would not be room for anything else if you achieved this feat. It is not as if there is any space in the cabin, either. There is not. Derisory door pockets are augmented with a very small cubby between the seats, and a very tiny lidded compartment in the centre of the dash. There is no glove box at all, but there is the equivalent of a decent sized such item in the rear bulkhead behind the passenger seat. You have to power this seat well forward to access it. And that is it. Even with the driver’s seat well forward, which is how I needed to set it, there is no additional space for anything at all. Under the boot floor, you will find a space saver spare wheel and the jack.
In the test car, the seats were leather trimmed. Although it is not obvious from a visual inspection, they wrap around you quite well, providing some extra means of holding the driver in place for that enthusiastic cornering. After a day of hopping in and out of the car, and covering over 200 miles, I concluded that they are indeed comfortable. The switches to power the seats fore and aft and to alter the rake of the backrest are mounted on the seat itself, with rotary knobs for lumbar support on the lower side of the seat, between it and the door. Less pleasing is the seat belt, which sits a little too low over the neck or me, though to be fair, it is always hard in any open topped car to find the means of getting the belt higher than the waistline of the car.
The 350Z Roadster was available in a number of different model variants, and from what I could discern from my web researches, I think I got a Touring, which is the middle variant of the three. This adds heated leather seats and a 7 speaker 6-CD Bose sound system to the specification of the entry level Enthusiast model. Spec for that car includes 18″ alloys, bi-xenon lights, powered seats, power operated roof with glass rear window, aluminium drilled pedals and full climate control. It is enough, as I felt there was nothing wanting.
Conclusion? Like its coupe brother, this is a fun car. Fun, with a very capital “F”. As long as you can live with the limited boot and the fact that it is a strict two-seater, if you live in a place where you could drive it with the roof down at least some of the time, and preferably if you could use twisty roads rather than just motorways, I fail to see how you could be disappointed with the Z. It remains at the very top of fun rental car experiences I’ve ever had. A terrific car.