Nissan goes Boxster-baiting

Britain and Portugal have more than a time zone in common, it seems. As the A8 motorway snakes its way north from Lisbon, its surface fluctuates from sublime to ridiculous and then back again, like a hastily patched and sporadically maintained UK road. The hard-working chassis of the 350Z I’m driving only gets four or five miles respite at a time.

Here comes a smooth section. The speedometer’s reading 90kmh, and there’s a dusty caravan of traffic to pass. In goes the clutch, and a modest flick of the throttle sets the rev counter’s needle spinning beyond 5000rpm. At the same time Nissan’s rorty 3.5-litre V6 opens it lungs, and I slot the precise gearlever between sixth and fourth. The car squirms slightly in the direction of the fast lane, and we surge towards 276bhp, 6200rpm and well into three figures.

We enter a tunnel and another blip on the throttle followed by a step back down the gearbox has the V6’s exhaust note rebounding off the steel above and, with no roof in its path, directly back into the cabin. For this is the 350Z Roadster, and it opens for business in the UK on 3 March.

Lifting the lid

Those at Nissan’s California design centre will tell you the drop-top 350Z has been planned from the 350Z’s inception. That’s believable; although the silhouette is not quite the same without the coupé’s sweeping roofline, overall it looks cohesive. And with the canvas stowed, the Roadster’s stunning.

Under the skin it’s the same as the tin-top – the same aluminium 3498cc V6 mounted longitudinally under the bonnet, connected to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox, a carbonfibre prop shaft and a limited-slip differential. No automatic gearbox will be offered for European buyers, unlike those Stateside.

For structural rigidity, extra steel has been welded into the Roadster’s doors, sills and around the A-pillars, and diagonal spars have been added under the floor. What results is somewhat less stiff than the coupé and more than 100kg heavier. At 1647kg the 350Z Roadster weighs more than a BMW 6 Series.

Inside, the only notable changes are powered, heated seats as standard (they’re optional on the coupé), and the deletion of the option for a mobile phone receiver, which also means the wheel-mounted audio controls bite the dust. The coupé’s sizeable boot has also been reduced to 130 litres of well-packaged storage running the full width of the car’s stern – enough for a golf bag, Nissan says.

The rest of the space is filled by the folding roof that unclips at the tug of a handle, and electrically motors backwards into a compartment behind the cabin using a button beside the steering wheel. The process takes 20 seconds, and only works when stationary, with your foot on the brake.

On the road

Stir the Roadster’s V6 into life with the roof down and it almost instantly justifies the £1500 Nissan will charge over the coupé’s asking price. Up to motorway speed, the cabin remains serene enough to really enjoy the performance. Go much faster and the exhaust’s rumblings begin to get lost amid the whistling, but this isn’t excessive – you have to be well past 100mph before it becomes a problem.

In fact, with the roof up, the 350Z Roadster is more refined that its tin-top sibling. The coupé’s open boot bounces a lot of road roar towards the driver. With the boot separated there’s much less unwanted noise in the cabin, and although the hood is made of just a single layer of cotton and PVC, the only detectable wind noise creeps in around the side window glass.

The Roadster is also the better-riding car. Suspension spring rates are unchanged, and that extra mass keeps the car’s body pinned down, increasing the chassis’ absorbency. Over an uneven road taken at a steady cruise, there are few unwanted shocks or vibrations conducted by either steering column or body structure. The Roadster’s definitely the more comfortable of the 350Z twins.

Rather predictably, it’s not quite the keen driver’s choice. Take the same uneven road at a faster clip, and the Roadster’s body begins to buck and dive long before the coupé’s would. Its movements aren’t uncomfortable, and they won’t knock you off-line; they just make the drop-top a marginally less planted car at high speed.

Over a slower, twistier route, the Roadster is more impressive. There’s plentiful power on tap at almost any point in the car’s first four gears, and incredible levels of grip. Even in topless guise, Nissan’s sports car also remains pleasingly familiar with oversteer, and a stranger to understeer. Turn in is still pin-sharp, body roll well-contained, and second-gear powerslides are as easy to prompt as to check.

For out and out pace, the 350Z Roadster feels like it would comfortably out-punch BMW’s 231bhp 3.0-litre Z4 and Audi’s 247bhp open-top TT V6, be on terms with Mercedes’ 268bhp SLK 350, and only lose out to Porsche’s excellent new Boxster S over the most challenging bitumen.

Where it towers above all four of those cars is in the value for money race. Order this car at some point in the next four weeks and it’ll cost just £26,000. You can factor in metallic paint, ventilated leather seats, premium Bose audio, cruise control, 18in alloys – in fact, you can add every option on the list and the Roadster will still work out cheaper than all of those rivals. Quite something, when you consider that the 350Z Roadster is also the most charismatic and powerful of the bunch.

Nissan will sell 600 of these cars this year, and it already has orders for 250. If you want one – and we reckon you’ve got every reason to – don’t hang around for the good weather to place your order. And if March 3 happens to be a sunny day, be prepared for a queue.

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