Roadsters aren’t necessarily top of our list when it comes to choosing a car. They’re generally just too compromised to make up for those rare moments when good weather and spectacular scenery conspire to make driving topless an enjoyable enterprise. But Nissan’s latest ragtop is one of the few that gets most things right, regardless of what you do with the roof.
When Nissan launched the original 350Z in the early 2000s, it reverted back to a tried and trusted sports car formula: compact dimensions, handsome looks, a snug two-seat interior and plenty of muscle.
The result was an arresting, involving and thoroughly convincing sports coupé that made Nissan a lot of friends, while also proving that sports cars don’t have to be exotic, with equally exotic price tags, to succeed.
Fast forward to 2009, and the arrival of the 350Z’s successor, the 370Z. Again, Nissan played the sports car game well, refining rather than redefining the 350Z with a series of nips and tucks that added further aggression and presence to the original shape.
At the same time, the design team shortened the car and extended the tracks for even wieldier handling, and upped the power output to add more punch to the two-seater’s performance characteristics. If the 350Z was good, then the 370Z ended up being even better in every respect.
That the debut of the 370Z wasn’t completely overshadowed by the arrival of Nissan’s no-holds-barred GT-R supercar at about the same time says a lot about the Zed’s own crisp appeal. It is one of those rare machines that gets almost everything right, making it one of Nissan’s most effective brand ambassadors.
In the motoring world, the launch of a coupé is almost inevitably followed, some months later, by the arrival of a convertible version.
Just why people want to pay more money for a drop-top version that is almost inevitably compromised in every way, remains one of motoring’s great mysteries. But it’s also true that open cars exude a certain glamour and sex appeal that compels people to buy them, usually against their better judgement.
Whether it’s a Ferrari Spyder, a BMW Cabriolet – or, in this case, a Nissan 370Z Roadster – the allure of wind-in-the-hair motoring, of balmy nights spent cruising the boulevards, seems just too inviting to ignore.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to topless cars. Traditionalists prefer to stick with the tried and tested formula of a lightweight canvas hood that doesn’t need a lot of space to stow, is simple (and therefore relatively cost-effective) to construct, and can be raised and lowered quickly.
In recent years, the metal folding roof has become increasingly popular. Yes, it’s heavier and a lot more complex to engineer. It also usually takes up more space, has to be electrically operated and takes longer to open and close.
But a metal roof also implies improved rigidity, better noise insulation and superior security. With the roof raised, the car becomes a real coupé, rather than just a canvas-draped cabriolet. And the entire construction just feels a lot more solid and secure.
Nissan has stuck to the tried and trusted classic approach, and equipped the 370Z Roadster with a canvas top. And the car is all the better for it. It’s certainly truer to the purist roadster spirit, even if, in this case, the top is raised and lowered by electric motors.
That it is also lightweight and compact means the Roadster’s surprisingly practical luggage compartment isn’t compromised. And because the hood is decently lined, and has a proper (and heated) glass rear screen, it’s not nearly as noisy inside, with good rearward visibility to boot.
But Nissan’s greatest achievement with this car is the fact that the chassis dynamics have remained almost completely impervious to vagaries usually plaguing topless cars. It feels every bit as solid, as taut and as composed as its tin-top coupé stablemate.
Usually, one of the heftiest prices to pay for the privilege of driving a ragtop is the increased flex of the chassis, which leads to unpleasant scuttle shake and vibration, especially when you start driving with gusto, or encounter compromised road surfaces.
But the 370Z Roadster seems unaffected by such vagaries. It has the same solid, planted feel as the coupé, with no unpleasant shakes and rattles to unsettle and displease its occupants. And while it is undoubtedly noisier, it also gains a unique character borne out of the greater immediacy that ragtop allows.
All of this is, of course, underpinned by a mechanical package that does everything to warrant the 370Z’s reputation as a satisfying sports car. That long, prowling bonnet is home to a muscular 3,7-litre all-aluminium V6 powerplant with one of the best exhaust notes in the business.
The menacing growl at near-idling speeds rapidly rises to an aggressive roar as the revs rise – a sound that is, of course, savoured to much more impressive effect when driving with the canvas hood safely stowed away.
There’s more to the 370Z roadster than beautiful noise, though: The V6 delivers a full 245kW of maximum power while spinning at 7,000rpm, while the 363Nm of torque ensures ample in-gear shove and incisive overtaking.
That urge is delivered to the rear wheels in another reference to the classic roadster formula, although the seven-speed automatic gearbox, complete with F1-style paddle shifts on the steering column, is a thoroughly modern feature.
Yes, I can hear the traditionalists growling; an automatic gearbox? Is this a hairdresser’s drop-top, after all? In reality, however, that auto box does everything right: it shifts with staccato-like rapidity, but also offers the convenience of full-auto mode for those who just feel like cruising. And no, it never blunts the dynamic experience of the car.
It also allows one to keep both hands on the wheel when tackling the twisties of the mountain pass, while the lack of a clutch pedal means that the left foot can be more meaningfully occupied with the task of dabbing the brakes when required.
If that sounds like serious driving, then yes, the 370Z is a serious sports car that will reward the committed pilot with a thrilling, high-velocity motoring experience. The factory figures claim a 5,8 second sprint time from zero to 100km/h, and a top speed limited to 250km/h, all of which feels perfectly feasible from behind the wheel.
But, as already alluded to, the road manners of the Zed are what impress most. The chunky steering wheel has a resolute action and a certain weighty heft that aids overall precision and incisive input.
The all-independent suspension, with double wishbones up front, and a multi-link rear arrangement, is surprisingly compliant, but always feels composed and in control. Fat Bridgestone rubber – 245/50 R19 in front, and even wider 275/35 rear tyres – occupy the 19-inch alloy wheels, and deliver tenacious grip.
Give it stick, and the Nissan roadster shoots off the mark with unbridled enthusiasm. The car delivers feedback in abundance. The steering wheel feels alive in the driver’s hands, the chassis translates its dynamic message with clipped precision, and the crescendo of the V6 provides a thrilling soundtrack to underscore the action.
In curves and corners, the Nissan becomes a finely honed tool that slices from apex to apex with a surgeon’s precision. There’s no body roll, allowing flat, composed cornering, while the car’s stability control will contain any urge to oversteer. Switch off that assistance, and the rear is still easily kept in check, but with the added appeal of throttle steer, especially on wet or slippery surfaces.
With the roof stowed away, there’s a limit to the buffeting the Roadster’s occupants can endure. It’s great for relaxed late-afternoon cruising, but spirited driving at speed needs to be conducted with the roof in place.
That said, tackling the tightly coiled roads of a mountain pass, with the growl of the V6 echoing off the rock faces as you flick between second and third gears, needs to be savoured roofless. The aroma of hot oil and scorched rubber, the rush of the slipstream, the rise and fall of V6 – combined, they provide a sensory feast.
The Nissan 370Z Roadster is not a car for poseurs or dilly-dalliers. It’s a sports car with enough urge and presence to intimidate and sufficient dynamic talent to demand committed driving. But as far as a thrilling driving experience is concerned, the Nissan delivers – topless or not.
By Deon Schoeman
Nissan 370Z Roadster
All-aluminium V6, 3 696, DOHC per bank
245 kW @ 7 000 rpm
363 Nm @ 5 200 rpm
250 km/h (governed)
11,2 l/100 km (combined cycle
Carbon dioxide emissions
R561 000 (before options)
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