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Nissan 370Z Roadster road test: The Z car evolves into something very different

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2013 Nissan 370Z roadster

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If you can remember what you looked and acted like 40-plus years ago, then you should have no problem understanding why the 2014 Nissan 370Z Roadster bears little resemblance to the Japanese manufacturer’s much loved early sports car, the Datsun 240Z sports coupe.

Like many of us as we age, the Nissan sports car has added bulk, dresses more expensively and tilts more toward comfort than the edgier, youth-oriented and more budget friendly early Z cars

The original 240Z, at about $3,500, would be a bit cheaper in today’s dollars than, say, a $25,000 Scion FR-S, and it featured an independent suspension, 151-horsepower, overhead-cam, six-cylinder engine, front disc brakes and a four-speed manual transmission. What’s more, it had a hatchback that opened to a relatively large cargo area behind the comfortable front bucket seats.

It was rolling excitement, a coupe to be coveted, a replacement for the low-tech British MGs and Triumphs.

On the surface, then, it would appear that the original Z would still be an ideal choice for today’s driving enthusiasts

But let’s not go overboard here. The 240Z, which arrived in 1970, couldn’t begin to cut it in today’s market. With no air conditioning, passengers sweltered in the summer heat. Balky fuel pumps were problems for owners I knew. There was no power steering, no power brakes and practically none of the safety equipment that protects today’s occupants.

What’s more, the 240Z filled a market niche that was fading away. Sports cars were losing their luster, seen as primitive, impractical and too small for buyers who cared less about driving thrills than comfortable transportation. They were into bigger cars with an ever-increasing amount of luxurious amenities. Sports car lovers had to turn to the more practical sports sedans.

Still, I cannot help but wonder if Nissan could have maintained a profitable market with a less opulent Z car that would deliver the elemental joy of driving at an affordable price. After all, it has worked for Mazda with the Miata.

Obviously, we will never know.

In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the car Nissan obviously believes is a more marketable solution for the hearty band of sports car aficionados that remain.

At slightly over $50,000, this two-seat Touring Edition is way closer to Corvette territory than it is to the Miata.

Its muscular looks are distinctive, with enough design touches to link it to the original. With power cloth top stowed, the 370Z has a strong, aggressive presence, as if it were born for racetrack duty. Top up, it projects a somewhat awkward attitude.

The car’s swagger is reinforced by a strong 3.7-liter, double-overhead cam, V-6 engine that generates 332 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. The EPA estimates fuel efficiency at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. I averaged between 21 and 25 mpg in a week of relatively tame driving. Premium unleaded fuel is recommended. The race from a stop to 60 mph can be accomplished in under 5 seconds.

The optional Sport Package ($2,830) further enforces the rear-wheel-drive 370 Z’s sports car credentials with 19-inch wheels, larger rear tires, sport-tuned shock absorbers, limited-slip differential and stronger brakes.

But, for me, there was one particularly big turn-off.

I’m talking about the test car’s 7-speed automatic transmission. Yes, I know, traffic isn’t what it used to be. It’s a whole lot worse. And, when you live in a crowded urban area a manual transmission can be annoying, even tiring, as you idle along in bumper-to-bumper traffic with your left foot constantly pressing the clutch pedal to the floorboard.

So, I get it, but I still don’t like it. Let’s face it. A congested urban area is alien territory for a sports car. The real enjoyment of a high-powered roadster comes from man and machine working as partners to enjoy the excitement of a challenging two-lane blacktop.

This can only be accomplished where the traffic is thin, the roads are twisty, often hilly and well maintained, a place where more than half the joy of any trip is getting there.

In my week with the Z, I had the roads, the weather and the time. But I couldn’t say I was able to maximize the pleasure. The Nissan tried to win me over with paddle shifters and automatic rev matching during downshifting, but on ordinary roads they just can’t match the tactile pleasure of shifting for yourself.

Sorry, folks, but the 370 Z roadster felt incomplete without a 6-speed manual transmission. But, what do I know about marketing? Nissan doesn’t even offer a manual shifter with its standard roadster. To get one, you have to select it as part of the Sport Package.

All of that said, I will at least yield grudgingly to the shiftless souls among you. You won’t experience the full measure of sports-car thrills in a slush-box Z car, but you will get a two-seat convertible that handles well, steers precisely and stops impressively fast, thanks to big, vented front and rear disc brakes.

And, you will get a luxury cruiser with a long list of the amenities typical of the manufacturer of Nissan and Infiniti luxury vehicles. In that respect, think of it as sports car-plus.

Yes, the ride quality will be significantly more harsh than what you would get with the top-flight Nissan and Infiniti sedans, but the 370 Z will match them with amenities that include an 8-speaker premium sound system, satellite radio capability, automatic climate control, keyless entry and ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, and heated and cooled power leather seats.

The option list includes a navigation system with traffic and weather information, streaming audio via Bluetooth and a rear-view monitor.

A long list of expected safety features is on board, too.

Base price of the Nissan 370 Z test car is $45,470. With options and the $790 delivery charge, the total comes to $51,365.

It’s probably fair to say that the modern Z car accurately meets the needs and wants of a 21st Century motorist who seeks a distinctive roadster, has the requisite cash and expects to spend most of the time on today’s increasingly crowded roads.

But, when I think of the Mazda Miata, Scion FR-S and Subaru BR-Z it seems obvious that less is actually more for the motorist who thinks of spirited driving as one of life’s real pleasures.

I guess that’s because I’m still basically a 20th Century kind of guy.

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