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Nissan 350 Z

Test venue: Shropshire

Very rarely these days are car manufacturers brave enough to stick their necks on the line and develop a rear-wheel drive, two-seater sports coupé, which relies on a normally-aspirated engine, bags of power and a slick gearchange. It has become fashionable to market front-wheel drive sports cars, with high-revving engines and turbochargers to appeal to the mass market.

But Nissan has persevered with a tried and trusted formula with the 350Z. The result is one of the most desirable sports cars on the road, for the discerning driver who wants brute performance, looks, styling and sheer driving appeal.

Nissan's Z range was first introduced to the UK market back in 1970, when the 240Z hit our shores from Japan. It was superceded by the 260Z, 280ZX and the brutish 300 ZX. But the 350Z has taken the world's most improved company in terms of profitablility to another level.

The 350Z went on sale last October in the UK and has already gained a reputation as a quality product in a fierce market place, where it lines up against the BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster and Audi TT. But this car does not attract the stereotypical buyer you can envisage parading his new purchase for all to see. The 350Z is a driver's car and an absolute pleasure to drive hard.

With Aston-like rear looks and a Ferrari side profile, the 350Z has an undoubted presence on the road. Stop at the traffic lights and you are immediately struck by the interest shown in Nissan's new sporting flagship. But this car is about more than just looks. It handles superbly and is very quick indeed.

The 350Z is powered by a 3.5-litre V6 VQ series engine, which creates a punchy 280 bhp and develops a massive 363 Nm of torque at 4,800 rpm. That is sufficient grunt to take you into illegal speeds in under six seconds and on to a restricted top speed of 155 mph.

These figures are largely irrelevant on today's roads, but the mid-range acceleration, go-kart-like handling and precise gearchange make this a formidable competitor on the road. The car also benefits from a lightweight carbon fibre propshaft, developed by Nissan's racing department, to transfer power to the rear wheels.

Fire up the engine and you are greeted by a delicious growl from the specially-developed exhaust system, particularly when the engine is cold. The close-ratio, six-speed transmission is excellent for rapid gearchanges and you can make very swift and safe progress with the 350.

The positioning of the engine and low centre of gravity give it more neutral handling than most powerful rear-wheel drive cars and giant Brembo brakes ensure that you stop on a sixpence when the need arises.

There is no body roll, thanks to a wide track chassis, independent suspension all round and low profile Bridgestone tyres fitted to 18-inch alloy wheels. The steering is precise and inspires confidence. However, you need to become acclimatised to the handling characteristics before you attempt to drive the 350Z without its optional electronic traction control. When activated this destroys the fun element of driving the 350 to its limit, but the car can quickly step out of line if its not treated with respect, particuarly on wet or greasy roads.

On dry tarmac it handles superbly. Switch off the traction control system and you are in charge of a potent sports car with bags of performance and sheer driving appeal. I didn't get the opportunity to drive the car on snow and ice, but the traction control system would be an absolute necessity.

Nissan has not neglected the safety aspects of the 350 either. Dual air bags and side and curtain air bags are fitted as standard, in addition to the latest EBD anti-lock braking system.

A larger 80-litre fuel tank is fitted as standard, although you won't see many more than 20 mpg when the car is driven hard. Nissan claims a range of 435 miles for a full fuel tank. The 350Z falls into the Group 18E insurance bracket.

On the downside, there is limited interior storage space and you would be hard-pushed to fit a set of golf clubs into the rear. But the interior is plush, practical and offers an excellent driving position and comfortable surroundings.

The 350 Z is also one of the most competitively-priced of all the sports coupés. The basic version is available for an on-the-road price of £24,000, although the figure rises to £26,500 for the GT Pack, equipped with cruise control, electric charcoal leather seats and a Bose audio system. Compare that with prices in the high 20K bracket for the BMW Z4 and 30K-plus for the Boxster.

Forget the Nissan name badge, I would prefer this car any time.

Ends

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