One of the brightest spots in all of motoring over the past 10 years, the Nissan 350Z was a charismatic sports car with a distinctive design, excellent performance and best of all, an affordable price.
Nissan’s single most direct successor to the original 240Z from the 1970’s, the 350Z was the fifth generation of Z cars from the company. After the 240Z was introduced, the model grew larger and heavier with each generation. The 240Z eventually evolved from a sleek two-seat sports coupe into a bloated Grand Touring car with odd proportions.
That is, until the introduction of the 1984 Nissan 300ZX.
The ultimate iteration of the concept of a Z as a GT car was universally praised, but it was also considerably more expensive than any Z before it. Despite this, it sold well for a while. But the booming economy in Japan and the strong Yen of the day continually pushed the price of the 300ZX ever higher. This factor, in combination with the then-blossoming love affair with the SUV, which led to a shrinking sports car market, pushed the 300ZX farther and farther off the table.
Eventually, Nissan had to discontinue it in 1996.
With the version of the Z introduced in 2002 as a 2003 model, Nissan took the concept all the way back to its roots. This new Z eschewed bloated GT aspirations and was instead a pure sports car. Designed around Nissan’s front mid-engine platform, the 2003 350Z was endowed with outstanding agility. The VQ series Nissan V6 engine, roundly regarded a paragon of smoothness and tractability, was chosen to power the model. This engine embellished the remarkable agility of the 350Z with strong acceleration, a delightful exhaust note, and a high top speed.
An improvement in every measure over the preceding Z cars, the 2003 Nissan 350Z found ready favor among enthusiasts — along with a voracious market and strong sales. The Nissan 350Z ran from model years 2003 to 2009.
The 350Z went on sale in late 2002 as a two-seat coupe. A 350Z roadster came on line just in time for the spring of 2003, but as a 2004 model. The 350Z coupe was offered in five trim levels; Base, Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track.
Base models offered automatic climate control, seventeen-inch wheels, ABS and electronic brake force distribution. There were also power accessories, a CD-based audio system and remote keyless entry.
To those elements, the Enthusiast model folded in Xenon headlights, cruise control, traction control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a limited-slip rear differential.
The better-handling 350Z Performance model stacked Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), a tire-pressure monitor and eighteen-inch wheels on top of the Enthusiast model’s offerings.
To that kit, the Track model added front and rear spoilers, a lighter set of eighteen-inch wheels and a more robust braking system.
Acknowledging there would be a group of buyers more enamored with the look of the 350Z than its performance potential, Nissan’s product people also specified a more luxury-oriented version of the car, called the Touring model. Heavier and softer, this iteration of the Z featured an upgraded audio system fed by a six-CD changer. Its heated leather seat’s adjustments were power actuated. A DVD-based navigation system was optional, as were side airbags.
The sole engine offering was a 287-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 producing 274 ft-lbs of torque. In true sports car form, the six-speed manual transmission was the standard offering, while a five-speed automatic was optional.
The 350Z Roadster was introduced in two states of trim, Enthusiast and Touring, featuring the same elements of those models as the 350Z Coupe. Also for 2004, the Touring version of the coupe was the first iteration of the 350Z to offer satellite radio.
To commemorate the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the 240Z, a special 35th Anniversary 350Z was offered. Featuring Brembo brakes, eighteen-inch alloy wheels, an aero package and two-tone leather seats, the 35th Anniversary Edition 350Z actually presaged the horsepower increase all 350Z models equipped with manual transmissions would get for 2006. The 2005 35th Anniversary Edition 350Z’s 3.5-liter V6 produced 300 horsepower, making it the first Z model to do so since the twin-turbo 300ZX was discontinued in 1996.
For MY’05, Nissan also gave the Z a tire pressure monitoring system as standard equipment. The outside mirrors were heated and the driver’s seat gained height adjustment. The navigation system’s software was reworked to enable it to calculate routes more quickly and he five-speed automatic transmission was reprogrammed to perform rev-matched downshifts.
In addition to the more powerful engine, a number of other changes improved the offering, while still maintaining the Z’s most desirable sports car attributes. Right off the top, eighteen-inch wheels were made standard equipment across the board, as were Xenon headlights.
The appearance of the 2006 model was updated with a new front bumper, headlights and taillights. The interior was reworked as well, incorporating new cloth upholstery, revised controls for the climate system and a new navigation system.
The Performance model was dropped, but a new, Grand Touring model was added for both the coupe and the convertible. To Nissan’s credit, rather than taking the Touring model’s luxe aspirations farther, the Grand Touring package was designed to make the Touring model a better performer. The 2006 Nissan 350Z Grand Touring model featured a Brembo brake package, along with additional spoilers for better aero and stability control.
Another nice change was the addition of a staggered wheel set for the Grand Touring and Track models. With this setup, the 350Z ran eighteen-inch wheels in the front for better turn-in, and nineteen-inch wheels in the back for increased grip. These wheels, supplied by RAYS, were super lightweight forged alloys.
Engine output was bumped to an even 300 horsepower for models equipped with the six-speed manual transmission. The 350Z models equipped with five-speed automatic transmissions were kept to 287 horsepower.
Bluetooth connectivity made its first 350Z appearance in 2007. Also that year, side impact airbags were added to the model’s roster of standard equipment.
Another horsepower bump in 2007 predicated the adoption of a new hood design for the 350Z. Rather than a warmed over version of the previous engine, this was essentially an all-new engine with a higher compression ratio, a higher redline, a more durable block, twin air intakes, and variable camshaft timing for the exhaust valves. The hood bulge was necessitated by the new intake system.
Further, the 306-horsepower engine fitted to 2007 350Z models could be found attached to both automatic and manual transmissions. BTW, while that 306 horsepower figure looks low considering all the work done to achieve it, it’s important to note 2007 was the year the SAE recalibrated the way it quoted horsepower. In actuality, the 2007 350Z made some 20 horsepower more than the 2006.
And, just in time to take advantage of that newfound horsepower came the limited edition NISMO 350Z. NISMO is the acronym for Nissan Motor Sports, the tuner division of Nissan, similar in concept to AMG at Mercedes, or the M division at BMW.
The 2007 NISMO 350Z replaced the Track model in the Z’s lineup and featured hand-welded seams for the Z’s unit body to enhance the torsional stiffness of the car. Mass dampers, designed by Yamaha, were fitted between the 350Z’s frame rails to reduce vibrations caused by the additional stiffness. A more aggressive suspension system further improved the Z’s handling, but also made it ride very roughly. If you’re starting to suspect the NISMO Z was more track than street, you’re correct. One look at its aero package unequivocally confirms that intent.
With an all-new 370Z Coupe model on tap for 2009, there were no changes. The 350Z coupe was discontinued after the 2008 model year.
The 350Z Coupe was discontinued in favor of the 370Z Coupe. The only 2009 350Z offered was the Roadster — which went into the 2009 model year unchanged.
Replicating its predecessor in more ways than one, the 2003 Nissan 350Z brought sales success back to Nissan the way the original Datsun 240Z attracted interest to the company at its introduction (Nissan was then known as Datsun in the U.S.). Both cars featured more performance than their prices would suggest could reasonably be expected, both offered dynamic styling, and both have gone on to become icons in their own right.
When it comes to deciding which 350Z to pursue, the old adage of buying the newest one you can afford holds true. Nissan constantly updated and improved the model, so the newest ones are at once more powerful, better handling, and more nicely equipped.
One constant criticism of the 350Z was the quality of its interior components. Indeed, if you’re building a car to a price and place so much emphasis on the way it performs, you’re going to have to cut corners someplace else. With the 350Z, that someplace else was the interior. While it was a nice looking design, the materials didn’t wear very well. If a 350Z has been driven regularly, you will find the interior looks a bit tired. Happily, its most vulnerable components are available on the aftermarket, and they’re not terribly expensive—so you can still drive your Z and ride in it too.
There have also been a number of oil-related engine problems associated with the 350Z, so you’d do well to make sure the car you get has been gone over for that situation too.
Which, of course, brings us to our usual admonitions to run a vehicle history report against the VIN, research the recalls to make sure your car was updated, and definitely get a trusted professional mechanic to give any 350Z you’re seriously considering a very thorough pre-purchase inspection.