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2006 Nissan 350Z
Tom Lankard

Introduction
Upgraded for 2006, the Nissan 350Z remains the flag carrier for the rejuvenated Nissan lineup. Like the original Datsun 240Z, it's fast, it's fun, it's pure sports car. And, again like the original Z, it's affordable, or at least attainable.

The most fundamental change for 2006 is the expanded installation of the more powerful V6 previously reserved for the Track model and last year's 35th Anniversary Edition to all models with the manual transmission. Other functional upgrades include larger wheels, more responsive power steering, better brakes, improved lighting and added audio features.

Carried over are all those features that make the 350Z such a performance bargain: carbon-fiber driveshaft, drive-by-wire throttle, anti-lock disc brakes vented front and rear with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Add the convenience features that come standard, such as automatic temperature control and a premium stereo even in the base Z, and the price is compelling.

Available as a coupe or roadster, the 350Z delivers racecar handling, rear-wheel drive, and thrilling acceleration performance. The suspension keeps the tires glued to the road through fast chicanes. Bounce over the curbs on a road racing circuit and the Z will hold its line. Styling details like the controversial industrial-design door handles ensure this car will never be called bland.

Nissan says the 350Z was designed to be a sports car an enthusiast can live with every day. While its firm ride, abrupt throttle response, and awkward cup holders don't make it a great place to drink coffee, eat doughnuts, and make phone calls on the way to work, it is a comfortable car with usable cargo space, and getting in and out isn't impossibly awkward. Order a version with the excellent five-speed automatic, and you'll have a commuter for the daily stop-and-go that will still leave a grin on your face after a quick run down a favorite racer road.

Bottom line: The Nissan 350Z more than delivers on the promise of its stellar looks. It's a real sports car with serious GT performance. The Roadster adds wind-in-your hair freedom. Model Lineup
Eight variants of the 2006 Nissan 350Z are available: five Coupes and three Roadsters. All come equipped with one of two versions of the same 3.5-liter V6 engine, and all but two come with a choice of either a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic.

For 2006, all six-speed manual transmission models get the 300-horsepower engine. Automatics come with the 287-hp version. (This changes for 2007, when Nissan will certify the automatics with the more powerful engine.) Minimum wheel size increases an inch, to 18 inches; all non-Brembo brake-equipped models get larger rotors; bi-Xenon HID headlights and LED taillights are standard; steering power assist is now vehicle-speed related instead of engine-speed; and the optional Bose stereo adds MP3 capability. Three new paint colors are offered: Interlagos Fire, with a special, hue-shifting pigment that changes from dark brown to dark-bluish purple, depending on the viewing angle ($500), Silver Alloy and Magnetic Black.

The base 2006 Nissan 350Z ($27,650) comes standard with automatic temperature control, 160-watt AM/FM/CD with six speakers, power windows (with auto-up/auto-down on both sides), power door locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, vehicle security system, heated outside mirrors, cloth seats with eight-way manual driver and four-way manual passenger adjustments and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter boot. It comes with a six-speed manual transmission.

The Enthusiast model ($29,350) adds HomeLink universal transceiver, cruise control, traction control, viscous limited-slip rear differential, rubber-nibbed aluminum pedals, illuminated steering wheel audio controls and switchable electro-chromic rearview mirror. The Enthusiast model is also available with the five-speed automatic transmission ($30,350). The Roadster Enthusiast is available with the six-speed manual ($35,050) or five-speed automatic ($37,050) and comes with a four-way power/four-way manually adjustable driver seat.

The Touring model is available with the manual ($32,450) or automatic transmission ($32,950). The Touring comes with leather-appointed seats with a four-way power driver's seat, a two-way power passenger's seat, and seat heaters, and a 240-watt Bose CD6 with MP3 capability and six speakers plus subwoofer. The manual transmission Touring gets Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC), Nissan's electronic stability control system. The Roadster Touring models come with six-speed manual ($37,650) or five-speed automatic ($38,650) and offer as a no-cost option a blue top in place of the standard black.

The Track model ($34,550) gets vented Brembo brakes, 19-inch lightweight aluminum wheels and front and rear spoilers. It comes with the cloth, but is equipped with VDC, the viscous differential, HomeLink, the aluminum pedals and the electro-chromic mirror.

The new 2006 Grand Touring model comes with the Track model's wheels and body aero parts and VDC. The coupe is available with the six-speed manual ($35,850) or five-speed automatic ($36,850); likewise, the Roadster is available with the manual ($40,000) or automatic ($41,000).

A DVD-based navigation system with upgraded graphics and functional improvements for 2006 is available on the Touring and Grand Touring models ($1800). A choice of Sirius or XM Satellite Radio is offered on the Touring and Grand Touring Coupes ($350).

Safety gear on all models includes dual-stage front airbags, with seat-mounted side airbags on the Roadster Touring and Grand Touring. Antilock brakes with Electronic Brake-force distribution and brake assist and traction control are standard. So is a tire pressure monitoring system. A side air bag and curtain air bag package is optional ($620) on the base Coupe and a very good idea, as is the supplemental side air bag option ($250) on the Roadster Enthusiast. Walkaround
Not much has changed with the looks of the Nissan 350Z, though there have been some revisions for 2006. A modestly altered feature here, a sharper looking trim piece there, just enough that those in the know will know, but not enough to upset the proud owner who put together such a great deal on a 2005.

Specifically, fewer, but more prominent horizontal bars fill the grilles of the 2006 models. The headlights look the same, but aren't; both beams are now xenon high-intensity discharge units. HID headlamps produce whiter light. Taillights fit in the same openings but now consist of LEDs, in place of last year's filament bulbs. Light-emitting diodes offer quicker response for the brake lights than traditional bulbs.

The bulging fenders and fastback and short front and rear overhangs give the Coupe its aggressive stance. This taut body layout, coupled with weight savings gained from a carbon fiber-reinforced, plastic driveshaft and an aluminum hood (and on the Roadster, a plastic trunk lid), balance the Z well for responsive handling.

The Coupe's sleek shape helps the Z slice through the air with a minimum of drag (0.29 Cd on the Track model). The Roadster's cut-off backlight (rear windscreen) isn't nearly as slippery (attaining a drag coefficient of 0.34 Cd). Underbody airflow is managed well, with zero lift on the front (and zero lift on the rear of the Track model). Interior
The Nissan 350Z cockpit is designed for driving, helping the driver quickly become one with the car. The cloth seats are form-fitting, supportive and comfortable, made of a soft, carbon-fiber colored material that grips the body in the corners. The driver's seat bottom features a mound in the center at the front to restrain the driver from sliding forward under deceleration, known as submarining. Aggressive side bolsters grip the waist to hold the driver in place, especially in the Roadster models, which give the driver a more aggressively bolstered seatback. The leather seats in the Touring model feel a little firmer than those in cloth, and are available in charcoal, burnt orange or frost. Cloth or leather are good choices in this car. The supportive seats and a driver's dead pedal mean you never feel like you have to hang on.

The seating position should be good for drivers with long legs, though the steering wheel felt a little close when the seat was adjusted for the legs of a six-footer. It's worth noting, however, that this feeling went away the moment the key was turned in the ignition as is often the case in race cars. The Roadster boasts an inch more headroom than the hatchback, thanks to the articulation of the top's various mechanicals.

Tilt the steering column and the main pod of gauges moves with it, ensuring a clear view of the instruments for drivers of all sizes. The instruments consist of a big tachometer and flanking speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges. Nestled in three pods on top of the dash are a voltmeter, an oil pressure gauge and a digital trip computer. Reminiscent of the original Z, they look retro-cool, but reading them requires more than a glance.

Two toggles to the right of the steering wheel operate the trip computer, used to check outside air temperature, distance to empty, speed, average mileage, and average speed. It has a stopwatch function (to check out those 0-60 times), and a tire-pressure monitor. With the Trip Computer, the driver can program a shift light to come on at a certain rpm. The small red indicator on the tachometer begins flashing about 500 rpm before the preset engine speed is reached, whereupon it comes on solid. You can program it for the ideal shift points for acceleration or for fuel economy, then let your peripheral vision pick up the indicator, which might prove more precise than using the seat of your pants. We've seen race cars with this feature (though the red shift light in those is sometimes as big as a golf ball). If you don't like this feature you can turn it off.

The interior of the Z suggests the carbon-fiber tub of a prototype racecar. The material surrounding the shifter and forming the center dash looks like carbon fiber. Likewise, the large expanse of gray material lining the door panels suggests carbon fiber in appearance. The quality of the materials is okay, though some of the pieces would never be allowed in an Audi. It looked austere at first, but grew on us. Stylish interior touches, such as the inside door handles integrated into aerodynamic pods for the side vents, give the Z a racy, modern look; with the AC at work on hot days, the handles chill to fit their frosty look. Passengers often grope for the door release the first time they try to get out, distracted by the big grab handles adorned with genuine aluminum and relieved by the Z's dot motif.

Stylish audio controls include a big volume knob, clearly marked buttons for channel seeking, and six station buttons that can be preset simply by holding them down. Below the radio are three large knobs for the automatic climate control system, which comes standard.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel looks and feels great, and comes with cruise controls. Overhead in the Coupe are well-designed map lights and a bin for sunglasses; in the Roadster, map lights beam out of the underside of the rearview mirror. Power window switches are auto-up/auto-down. Nissan has responded to drivers' pleas for a place to plug in a radar detector by moving the power point previously located in the center console to the lower dash on the passenger side. A second power point remains in the bulkhead between and behind the seats, so you can power your cell phone, too.

The Z does not invite the consumption of beverages, hot or cold. There's a pair of cup holders in the center console, but they're mounted too far to the rear for easy access by the driver, and passengers will find them awkward. It might be best to ditch the cup holders and use the center console for storage. Each door hosts a cup holder molded into the forward portion of the map pocket, but the fit is tight and the door panel too vertical to accommodate anything broader than a soda can. The firm suspension makes drinking hot coffee from an open cup while underway a risky proposition on all but the smoothest highways. We recommend drinking your coffee at the coffee shop. This is a sports car, not a cruiser.

At first it doesn't seem like the Z offers much in the way of storage. For starters, there's no glovebox. Cars without the navigation system get a nice lined storage pocket above the radio; Nissan has fitted it with a lid hinged so that it closes easily and naturally, replacing the previous system that required grasping the lid between thumb and finger, pulling it out and carefully pressing it closed. There's a small, lined ashtray-size compartment (not recommended for ashes) on the center tunnel, another small, drawer-like bin in the dash to the right of the center stack, a spot on the outside of each seat for a pen or pencil and a net tacked to the drive tunnel in the passenger footwell.

Turn around, though, and the picture brightens considerably where a thoughtfully designed system of storage compartments provides handy places to stick stuff.

From the driver's seat, you can access a large lockable box, bigger than a shoebox but smaller than a breadbox, built into the bulkhead behind the passenger seatback. When stopped, but without getting out of the car or opening a door, it's easy to flip the passenger seatback forward via a handle in the center of the seatback. Then, it's a simple matter to open a lid that reveals the storage bin. The lockable lid has a quality feel to it and the bin is lined to keep things from rattling about. But as the only lockable storage inside the car, this bin becomes a critical feature in the Roadster, and it falls short of expectations. Unlike with the Coupe, the passenger seatback in the Roadster has no mechanical release for tipping it forward. Instead, you press a rocker switch ungainly situated on the back side of the seatback; conveniently, it's an automatic, press-and-release process for tilting the seatback forward, but re-reclining the seatback requires holding the button during the entire process, often leaving you with a somewhat cramped arm. Also, in the admittedly unlikely event the car's battery dies or becomes disconnected, you're stuck with whatever you locked up securely out of your reach, too. A smaller bin is mounted higher and somewhat more awkwardly toward the center that could hold a map, checkbook, PDA or cell phone. Identical bins on the driver's side in the Coupe are accessed when standing outside the car by flipping the driver's seatback forward; in the Roadster, the larger of these gives way to the subwoofer that comes with the uplevel stereo in the Touring and Grand Touring models.

Cargo in the Coupe rides in an hourglass-shaped well, squeezed in the middle by the shock towers and the big strut-tower brace that ties them together. (That cross brace is functional: large openings, like hatchbacks, allow body flex and the Z's chassis engineers wanted to ensure a rigid monocoque.) The Z offers more cargo capacity than a Mazda MX-5, but less than a Porsche 911 or Boxster. We're comparing small boxes here. An avid golfer at Nissan says two golf bags will fit in the cargo compartment, if you pull the big woods out of the bag and load them separately. The Roadster's trunk at 4.1 cubic feet is the smallest of the lot. Nissan alleges accommodations for a golf bag, however, posting a diagram on the underside of the trunk lid depicting which end of the bag to insert first.

The Roadster's power top operates similarly to that of the Boxster's. Prepping for windblown hair is a simple matter of pressing the foot brake and working a flat, rocker-type switch in the lower dash to the right of the steering column. Manual manipulation of a handle mounted in the center of the top's front bow is required to latch or unlatch it. The top retracts into a recess occupying the upper part of the trunk and is covered by a cleanly sculpted body panel that opens and closes as needed, avoiding the hassle of dealing with one of those detachable covers that many people throw into some dark corner of the garage. The top is unlined, with all the bows and links and pivots exposed. Driving Impressions
Turning the key and hearing the engine roar to life is the first indication that the Nissan 350Z is no poser. Turning onto a winding road proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Sharp steering, terrific handling, and excellent grip make it a real driver's car. This car is very fast with brilliant acceleration. The Roadster's additional weight, a result of the platform strengthening to increase rigidity, no doubt adds a tick or two to the 0-60 measurement but isn't noticed in everyday driving.

Mounted longitudinally and driving the rear wheels is Nissan's excellent VQ V6 engine. It's smooth and has a distinctive sound, the sound of a big sports car engine. It generates lots of torque at low rpm, pulling smoothly from about 2000 rpm. Maximum torque of 260 pound-feet comes at 4800 rpm, tapering off as 300 horsepower is reached at 6400 rpm; equivalent figures with the automatic transmission are 274 pound-feet at 4800 rpm and 287 hp at 6200 rpm. The engine is still pulling smoothly as the rev limiter steps in at 7000 rpm with the manual and 6600 rpm with the automatic, but this engine is more about low-rpm torque than high-revving horsepower. Nissan's Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System helps the V6 produce a nice, linear band of torque. Drive-by-wire technology reduces mechanical weight and complexity.

The short-throw shifter feels good, and it's effective. The six-speed gearbox shifts quickly and deliberately. It feels perfectly synchronized, making shifting easy and enjoyable. Clutch pedal effort has enough heft to remind the driver that this is a serious sports car. With the Roadster's top down, the exhaust tone is music to the driver's ears, rising and falling melodiously and crisply as the gears are worked through the turns on a twisty road. What isn't music to the ears in the Roadster is the ever-present road noise, even with the top up; we're not as sure about wind noise because, if there were any, it was masked by the hiss of tires on pavement and the hustle and bustle of nearby cars. Conversations in almost normal tones with the top up had to be ratcheted up several notches with the top down.

The automatic transmission works great, really smooth and responsive, and it didn't leave us feeling like we were missing out by not having the manual. With manual mode selected, the automatic holds lower gears right up to the rev limiter, upshifting only when the driver desires. Downshifts are electronically managed to ensure an overly rambunctious pilot doesn't over-rev the sweet V6. The delicious exhaust tone is wasted on Roadsters fitted with the automatic, though, when it wanders almost aimlessly up and down the scale as the engine slips seamlessly from gear to gear.

Handling feels taut and well controlled in both hatchback and Roadster, and the latter experiences very little of the dreaded cowl shake common in lesser conversion convertibles. These cars really stick through fast sweepers, allowing the driver to keep the throttle down. The steering is sharp and accurate, and the Z changes directions brilliantly in transient maneuvers, without excessive understeer turning in or sloppy oversteer coming out. Cornering is flat, without much body lean. The tires generate lots of grip, even when driving in a rebellious manner. It's hard to imagine using up all that grip, save for a competitive event or an emergency maneuver. This car doesn't beat you up, but the ride gets jouncy on bumpy roads most noticeably when cruising slowly, whether fitted with 18-inch or 19-inch wheels, although more so with the latter. But we expect a firm ride with a sports car like this.

Buffeting at highway speeds with the top down was much less than expected, thanks to the tempered glass deflector mounted between the rollbars behind the seats and to racy body panels tapering back from each of the seat positions. Anti-flap seatbelt retainers further reduce the perceived buffeting effect. Rear side vision loses little to the convertible top, as the Coupe's quarter panel already blocks a sizable area of blind spot. The uplevel Bose stereo in the Roadster comes with AudioPilot, which re-mixes the sounds from the speakers specifically to counter ambient noises unique to top-down motoring. Not being technophiles with the proper equipment, we can't testify as to Audiopilot's effectiveness, but we can say anecdotally that the stereo sounded great top up or down, and we didn't feel compelled to adjust the volume as much as we might have in other convertibles.

The brakes are easy to modulate, fun to use, and do a good job of stopping the car. Electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist come standard on all 350Zs. Just like it sounds, electronic brake-force distribution improves stopping performance by dynamically balancing front and rear braking forces. Brake Assist is a mechanical system that applies full braking if it senses an emergency-braking situation and the driver may not be pressing hard enough and long enough on the brake pedal to keep the ABS engaged. Push the car too hard into a corner or find yourself on a slippery surface and Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) and traction control come to the rescue by reducing power or applying brakes at individual wheels. All of this stuff helps the driver maintain control of the car at the limit of the tires. Just as important, careful refinement over the years of the VDC's threshold has left plenty of room for all but the most expert of drivers to play at the edges of the Z's performance envelope without VDC stepping in uninvited.

If your weekends involve lapping on racetracks, then you should select the Track model for its Brembo brakes. The weight of the Z challenges the stock brakes when they are used over and over, lap after lap. Also, the Z understeers when driven to the limit, meaning you need to get it slowed down a little more for the corners, then use the torque to power out. The big Brembos probably won't significantly reduce stopping distances, but with four front and two rear caliper pistons and bigger discs, they should resist fade better than the standard brakes, an advantage when turning laps on a racing circuit. The Track model may be a bit much for every day use, however. Thus, for enthusiasts using their Z for daily driving, Nissan has thoughtfully fitted the Grand Touring models of both Coupe and Roadster with the Brembo brake package. Summary
The Nissan 350Z is the car for drivers who want serious sports car performance in a GT body without shelling out the big bucks. Its rear-wheel-drive chassis is rigid, and its suspension is taut for excellent handling. The V6 delivers lots of torque for strong acceleration performance. Whether you opt for the six-speed manual gearbox or the five-speed automatic, there are no dogs in the lineup. The interior is the weakest link, but you can get comfortable with a little time spent living with it.

NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.

Model as tested
Nissan 350Z Roadster Touring 6MT ($37,650)
Basic Warranty
3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in
Tochigi, Japan
Destination charge
605
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
27650
Price as tested
38845
Options as tested
side-impact airbags ($250)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Nissan 350Z 6MT ($27,650); Enthusiast 6MT ($29,350); Enthusiast AT ($30,350); Touring 6MT ($32,450); Touring AT ($32,950); Track 6MT ($34,550); Grand Touring 6MT (35,850); Grand Touring AT ($36,850); Roadster Enthusiast 6MT ($35,050); Roadster Enthusiast AT ($36,050); Roadster Touring 6MT ($37,650); Roadster Touring AT ($38,650); Roadster Grand Touring 6MT ($40,000); Roadster Grand Touring AT ($41,000)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage, frontal airbags; seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters; passenger side child safety seat tether anchor; ABS with EBD and brake assist; tire pressure monitor system
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Transmissions
6-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
automatic temperature control; 4-way power driver's seat; 4-way power passenger seat; power windows, mirrors and keyless-remote, central locking; 240-watt, AM/FM/CD/MP3 RDS Bose stereo with six-disc, in-dash changer, 6 speakers plus subwoofer and Bose AudioPilot noise compensation; tilt steering with integrated gauge cluster; cruise control; HomeLink universal transceiver; switchable, auto-dimming rearview mirror; trip computer; oil pressure gauge; voltmeter; cross-drilled aluminum pedals; dual-illuminated visor vanity mirrors; leather-appointed steering wheel, shift knob and heated seats; vehicle security system; vehicle immobilizer; bi-xenon, HID headlamps; seal-tight windows

Engine & Transmission
Engine
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
rear-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
300 @ 6400
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
19/25
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
vented disc/vented disc with ABS, EBD, and Brake Assist
Suspension, front
independent 3-link, coil springs, dual-piston gas shocks, stabilizer bar and strut bar
Tires
P225/45R18 / P245/45R18
Suspension, rear
independent 4-link, coil springs, dual-piston gas shocks, stabilizer bar

Accomodations
Seating capacity
2
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
39.2/53.2/42.6
Head/hip/leg room, rear
N/A

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
4.1
Wheelbase
104.3
Length/width/height
169.8/71.5/52.5
Turning circle
35.4
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
not recommended
Track, front/rear
60.5/60.6
Ground clearance
4.7
Curb weight
3600


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