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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Nissan Z exudes old-school fun

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

All hail the letter Z. In an auto world gone made with X — NSX, XT5, QX30, X3, MKX, X-drive — Xperts Xpect every car badge to have an X in it within the neXt decade. But the Z is sacred. A special badge for special cars. The Camaro Z28. Corvette Z06.

And my guest ride this week, the 2017 Nissan Z Roadster.

The Z and I go way back. As a kid who spent the early 1970s at autocrosses racing go-karts — a boy among sports car-driving men — I coveted the first-generation Z. It’s long hood and plastic-covered, scalloped headlights reminded me of a Jaguar E-Type (the Raquel Welch of sports cars). One particularly quick driver had outfitted his red, 1972 Z with fat slicks swelling beyond the fenders. Beauty and the beast. He gave me an on-track ride one day that is still etched in my memory. As I held on for dear life, he’d fling us through a series of pyloned corners, the Z’s rear zigging and zagging behind us, the six-cylinder singing like a bird.

The 370Z doesn’t make my heart race like the ’72.

After the Z’s epic, third-gen, Motor Trend-car-of-the-year, 1990 redesign — hailed as one of sports car world’s greatest bods — the body has grown bulbous, aping the family lines of Nissan’s Murano and Maxima. The coupe’s elegant fastback helps smooth the lumps, but my convertible’s shortened roof accentuates the body’s bulbous proportions.

Honey, does this dress make me look fat? Ummm ...

Dropping the top helps. But the process reminds you that the old Z is getting long in the tooth. Unlike competitive soft-tops from Camaro or Audi TT, the Nissan’s roof can’t be operated while moving. Feel rain drops? Pull over, toggle the console switch and the roof folds into place in 20 seconds. The procedure is jerky and loud, the tonneau cover thumping into place like a restaurant waiter piling up chairs at closing time.

Once executed, however, the topless Z is a basket of adorables. Its short, 100-inch wheelbase makes for easy visibility. Its well-engineered climate control system and heated seats make it a cozy cocoon even in Michigan’s cool fall weather. And the twin-exhaust, naturally-aspirated six-cylinder can be heard in full stereo.

In an increasingly-regulated world of turbo-charged four bangers (even my precious Porsche Boxster has gone to four-pot), the Z remains a throwback to the glorious days of naturally-aspirated, big displacement engines.

The 370Z plays second fiddle in Nissan’s lineup to the (also aging) twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive, “Godzilla” GT-R. But the old school Z feels more like a baby Corvette Z06.

Inside the cockpit, it shares the Stingray’s long, carved hood, strange chemical smell (what are Chevy and Nissan using to stick these things together? Airplane glue?), and a narrow slit of a windshield that seems half-filled by the rear-view mirror.

With 270 pound-feet of torque and 3,696-cc of piston hammering on the crankshaft, it’s a blast to take into a parking lot for roaring, smoky burnouts. It won’t spin like a top as the 6,162-cc Z06 does, but it’ll put a grin on your face. Like the ’Vette, pulling on the 7-speed automatic Z’s big, bat-wing, steering-wheel-mounted shifter paddles provokes a guttural burp — like King Kong digesting his lunch — on each downshift.

The chassis on the Z and Z06 feel loose, their frames bending over Metro Detroit’s punishing roads — but get them up to speed and they are eager road carvers.

Throw the Nissan through Hell, Michigan’s Z-shaped country roads and the stocky beast crouches to the pavement, springing from turn to turn, vectoring right where you point it. Only on exit did the Z feel out of its element as the automatic box was lazy to shift — almost giving the Z the feel of a small-displacement turbo. I could have had cup of milk and a doughnut while waiting for the gear to kick in. The lag became so annoying I found myself reaching for the bat paddles regularly to speed up the shifts. Bang bang. Down two shifts, flatten the pedal and the eager six would roar. Even on the highway, I preferred the quick paddle downshifts for passing spurts.

How I yearned for the 6-speed manual — which, thankfully, Nissan still offers.

I should be careful what I wish for, though. When the next-gen Z appears, it will surely have a double-clutch tranny like its close competitor Audi TT (and even small sedans like the Elantra Sport I just tested) but it will also likely get a turbo-4 banger. Gotta appreciate these naturally-aspirated sixes while we can.

My pricy $50,465 convertible-Z most closely compares to the $52K Audi TT Roadster I tested last year, which also is a ready companion through Hell. With 100 less horses, the TT still manages a similar 0-60 sprint than the brawnier Z, so maybe there’s hope for 4-bangers yet.

The TT’s advanced Virtual Cockpit shows how far interiors have advanced beyond the Z’s traditional, slow-infotainment display. Nissan is also slow to the game with Android Auto and Apple Car Play, but beyond these connectivity issues, I don’t think sports car enthusiasts will mind the Z’s unique, motorcycle-like instrument display. The cockpit is driver-focused and easy to use — a blizzard of buttons and gauges at your fingertips. Like Porsche, Nissan can pull this off with a Z heritage that spans generations of track nuts.

Different from the TT, though, a base Z can still be had for a bargain $30,795. In a market stuffed with incredible, $40,000 sports toys (Golf R, Focus RS, Camaro SS), the TT’s $43K entry price is its Achilles heel. True to its ’70s roots, the Nissan remains one of autodom’s best values at half the price of a Porsche Cayman and comparable to muscle car alternatives such as the Mustang and Camaro sixes. Entry-level performance cars are as American as apple pie.

Yet, a quick look at the standard technology in the Z shows how sports cars have evolved. Side-curtain safety bags, tire-pressure monitoring, anti-lock brakes, front-and-rear crush zones, and on and on. It’s a long way from my favorite, but raw, test rider of 50 years ago.

Long live the Z.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Nissan 370Z Roadster

specifications

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear-wheel

drive, two-passenger sports car

Power plant

3.7-liter V-6

Transmission

6-speed manual; 7-speed automatic

Weight

3,503 pounds (Touring Sport trim as tested)

Price

$42,865 base ($50,465 as tested)

Power

332 horsepower, 270 pound-feet torque

Performance

Zero-60: 5.5 seconds (Jalopnik);

top speed: 157 mph

Fuel economy

EPA 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway

/21 mpg combined (automatic as tested)

report card

Highs

Short wheelbase handles like a gem; V-6 six-string

Lows

Roadster sticker shock; clunky drop-top

Overall:★★★

Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★