We almost ran over a small dog with the 2011 Nissan 370Z Roadster. Okay, it wasn’t that close — the animal scurried onto a sidewalk and we spotted it from a block away. But in this compact roadster, which drives like rocket-propelled tank, one block zips by in seconds and you never know when a canine will zig when you zag. Well, we know the brakes work, and we know this is convertible has ultra-precise steering. Curiously, it has a dose of muscle-car growl with helpings of Corvette-like control, offering the best of both worlds – but never embracing either.
Powerful yet practical
That’s not meant as a ding. For some drivers, a muscle car like the Chevy Camaro SS Convertible, which we reviewed a few weeks, is a bit too lurching with too much weight on the road without the finesse of fine cornering. Yet, the Chevy Corvette GS Convertible is almost too low to the ground for casual driving: It is meant for spirited driving even if you are heading up to Target to get a new shirt.
The 370Z fits somewhere in between. With a curb weight of 3,426 pounds, it is almost 600 pounds lighter than the Camaro SS. Yet, it is also much smaller – just under 14 feet long. Sitting in the driver seat, you can feel the extra weight, which is intended to keep the sporty car evenly balanced on the road and pinned to the tarmac. This rear-wheel drive car has a 332-horsepower engine and 270 ft-lbs of torque. The 370Z moniker comes from the 3.7-liter V6 engine.
One smooth six-speed
No offense to Mazda, but the Z probably stands for zoom. Given the smaller size and weight, with the hefty engine specs, the 370Z drives fast and precise. In first gear, there’s a punch that felt like a high-octane push from a starting block. Third and fourth gears was smooth and agile – we downshifted past a slow-moving truck, time-tested on an open track, and tested acceleration from 0-75 on a highway and always felt secure on the road with smooth gear changes with the 6-speed manual.
A sports mode button, located near the gear shifter, automatically blips the throttle to match revs as you shift. To disengage it, you have to press and hold the button a few seconds.
The fact that the 370Z is not a true muscle car and not a sportscar is probably ideal for some drivers, but we did yearn for a little more of either. The Camaro SS sounded like a mountain lion on the prowl, a thundering, guttural roar. The 370Z growls, but it’s subtler. There’s not the sense that you can lumber along on a side-street and still sense the awesome power of the Camaro’s 426-horsepower V8 engine, but the 370Z still has some lumber.
Around corners, the 370Z is road-hugging and precise – we took one corner at 80 and it felt like we were going about 55 — but the suspension is not tuned to shift the balance of the car like the 2011 Corvette Grand Sport we tested recently. With a Corvette, which is admittedly not in the same class or price point, you can take a corner at 80 and it feels like the car is going about 35. This doesn’t mean the 370Z feels rough around corners, but the handling is not quite as agile.
With the 370Z, the main draw is the styling. There is some muscle, and some sportiness, but this vehicle has a unique, bulbous look that hints at the 2011 Infiniti G37 Convertible and even the 2011 Infiniti M37x. Well, it is more than a hint. All three cars have a similar curve: a little hunched in the back, angular down past the doors, and then a casual sweep toward the front fender. The smaller size makes the 370Z just a blast to drive around town, zipping in and out of traffic.
Emphasis on the drive
The 370Z is not heavily outfitted with technical advancements. We did find a USB port that worked smoothly with an iPhone 4, and the 370Z does let you stream Bluetooth audio. You can also record CDs to a jukebox, or play XM Radio.
The interior controls are little awkwardly placed. As you’re thrill-driving around town, you might find it hard to press the trip meter controls, which show fuel range and an instant MPG rating, common in most new cars. But, the dials are placed on the left behind the steering wheel. Most of the center console controls are much easier to find, although you might find yourself reaching for the climate control knob and realizing it is the volume control – they both look the same.
For fuel efficiency, the 370Z is rated for a maximum highway mileage of about 25mpg. We actually found that to be fairly accurate on a 60-mile road trip. Around town, mileage plummets to about 18mpg, or lower if you test acceleration at every stop.
Otherwise, standard features are fairly routine: dusk-sensing headlamps, stability traction control to keep the car from flipping over, Xenon headlamps. The 370Z does not have a hill-assist feature, which means when you park on a slope and need to go in reverse, you might need to use the handbrake for a manual assist.
The convertible top is made from a canvas material, and it tended to flap in the wind at high speeds, but only in the back. With the top down, the 370Z feels cramped unless you are shorter than 6 feet tall. However, this is a roadster – it is not meant for stretching out and driving for 18 hours. The trunk is actually bigger than expected – we stuffed in three large duffel bags with no problems. The G Convertible has a much smaller trunk when the top is down, since the hard-top uses most of the space. Overall, the Z felt small but in a good way; it has a sporty, road-ready feel.
The 370Z Roadster is easy to recommend. It fits in between a muscle car and something much more suited for the track. As a small car, it felt like driving a low-slung Juke with a stick and a convertible top, with more muscle. No, it does not have the growl of a muscle car. Cornering is good not great. But the eye-catching design and quick acceleration means more fun and more sun.