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by Nissan 350Z

Nissan has just pressed the sports-car reset button. The new 350Z, hitting dealerships now, marks the return of the high-value, high-tech, high-performance sports car, complete with hot engine, stiff and light structure, good balance, and sophisticated underpinnings. It’s also a head-turner. The base model starts at just $26,000; the tricked out top-of-the-line iteration goes for $34,000. That’s Boxster power at a Miata price. Here’s a look at the technology that makes it possible.

–William G. Phillips

1. Body and Chassis

Built on the FM platform, the same rear-drive foundation as the Infiniti G35 sedan, the 350Z has a 71.5-inch width and an unusually long wheelbase of 104.3 inches, making it 1.5 inches wider than the Porsche Boxster and 8 inches longer than the BMW Z3. This wide stance increases stability. Also aiding balance: The engine is positioned so that its center of gravity is behind the front axle. Overall weight distribution is 53.5/46.5 percent front to rear.

2. Engine

Code-named VQ35OE, the 24-valve 3.5-liter aluminum powerplant makes 287 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 274 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. An Everest-esque horsepower curve means no gluteus-moving off-the-line power of, say, the Boxster S. But once the revs get going, the car does too–we got it to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds.

The double overhead cam engine features Nissan’s continuously variable valve timing control system (CVTCS). Similar in concept to the Honda S2000’s “intelligent” arrangement, CVTCS alters the opening and closing of the engine’s intake and exhaust valves to maximize power while limiting emissions. The result: a broad torque range–in fact, we found plenty available in stop-and-go city driving. Oil jets cool the underside of each piston, reducing overall engine operating temperatures.

The new Z features another burgeoning technology: throttle-by-wire. There’s no mechanical linkage between the accelerator and the engine; instead, signals are sent via the engine computer.

3. Transmission

Both transmission options, a 6-speed manual and 5-speed automatic, are lighter than those on previous Z’s yet handle more torque. The key: New double-cone synchronizers are made from sintered steel instead of a copper alloy. A carbon-fiber-reinforced driveshaft (a first for a sports car) is 40 percent lighter than steel, decreasing not only overall weight–the new Z is 300 pounds lighter than the previous version–but also power lost to the rear wheels during acceleration. In an impact, the driveshaft simply shatters, a safety improvement.

4. Handling and Braking

As with most high-performance cars, the Z’s four-wheel independent multilink suspension is predominately aluminum, for a 25 percent weight reduction. Aluminum also provides better steering and adds to the car’s nimble feel. In addition, “ripple control” shocks dampen small bumps on rough roads. A prominent rear brace under the back hatch (shown, with the Z’s logo on it) stiffens the body to aid handling; the sheetmetal hides two other structural braces.

Along with the front, the rear brakes are vented–a somewhat rare find in a front-engined car. The result: much faster dissipation of heat. The top-of-the-line Track model gets enormous (by 3,200-pound-car standards anyway) Brembo brakes, complete with aluminum calipers. The big Brembos also feature a “bleeding nipple,” which allows you to change brake fluids without taking off the wheels.

5. Aerodynamics

The lower-end models (base, Enthusiast, Performance, and Touring) all have a coefficient of drag of 0.30. The top-of-the-line Track model is as sleek as the current-generation Corvette, at 0.29, thanks to a small rear spoiler, a front “chin” spoiler, and four tiny spoilers near the rear wheels (one in front and in back of each tire). In fact, the Track model achieves zero lift in the front and rear.

6. Cockpit Computer

Along with all the usual stuff, the dash-mounted computer displays individual tire pressures, and you can adjust the rpm level at which the shift-warning light appears. The computer also features a stopwatch. Why? “Well, you know,” says John Stramotas, 350Z product planner, before adding something about the Z’s racing heritage.

7. Options

There are only two available: a navigation system and side airbags.

Fuel Economy

The EPA hadn’t tested the new Z as of press time, but we measured 13 mpg during rush hour commuting and almost 25 mpg during a weekend of highway driving. The Z qualifies as a low-emission vehicle, so no power-robbing catalyst will be necessary for California.

NISSAN 350Z

0-60 acceleration: 5.5 seconds

0-100 acceleration: 14.0 seconds

Peak acceleration g’s: 0.66

Peak braking g’s: 1.12

Cornering g’s: left 0.94, right 0.92

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