Like the study of history, the appreciation of classics and modern classics is an exercise in context. If you climb out of a new hot hatch and into a 350Z, it won’t impress you with straight line speed. You’ll wonder why there aren’t more buttons and especially why there isn’t a turbo.
But then you will have missed the point entirely. You should immediately return to your German hot hatch and think about what you’ve done.
Will your turbocharged, highly-stressed bratmobile still be working perfectly in 10 years? Will anyone even care if it does or doesn’t? The answer to both questions is probably no.
The mid-2000s brought us some special cars that allowed South African petrolheads to experience proper sportscar ownership without the need for three mortgages and a divorce. The USD/ZAR exchange rate of around R7 and the petrol price of R7/litre certainly helped matters.
Nissan launched the 350Z Roadster in 2005 at a price point more expensive than the Alfa Romeo Spider 3.2V6 with the magnificent Busso engine driving the wrong wheels, the Audi TT Roadster 1.8 Quattro with its iconic shape that has aged beautifully and the BMW Z4 2.5i which was always far prettier in coupe form anyway.
It also had to beat the Chrysler Crossfire 3.6l V6 Roadster (not difficult) and the Honda S2000 (extremely difficult). The Honda has a firm place in the car hall of fame. The Chrysler has a firm place near the bottom of any classifieds search that has been sorted by price.
Despite this fiercely competitive market, the 350Z was South Africa’s best-selling car in the segment soon after its launch.
In those economic boom years, there was even a healthy local touring car series in the form of Bridgestone Production Cars. An astonishing 17 cars competed in Class A alone in 2006, which almost sounds too good to be true. Leeroy Poulter brought the title home in the 350Z (coupe of course), endearing the car even more to South African petrolheads.
So, an exercise in context indeed. You’ll need that context, because it is true that the 350Z Roadster is not going to blow you away with outright performance.
This car was among the first Roadsters brought into South Africa. Later models pushed out 216kWs and finally 230kWs, but this car’s 3.5l V6 produces 206kWs and 363N.m of torque.
It sounds quite potent even by today’s standards, but the Roadster unfortunately skipped leg day and many other days at gym. At over 1.6 tons (100kgs more than the coupe), we know who ate all the pies. A 0-100km/h time of 6.4s certainly isn’t pedestrian, but it doesn’t feel particularly urgent either.
Despite this, there is no doubt that the 350z is a cult car. Why?
Let’s start with the styling. Unlike many other rag tops, this Roadster is definitely not feminine. There are no cute angles here. The shape looks purposeful and has great road presence. The 370Z that replaced the 350Z is universally accepted as being even prettier, but the 350Z has aged well and still looks good parked next to modern sports cars.
Once you settle into the comfortable cabin awash with leather and brushed aluminium, you realise very quickly that this car is entirely usable as a daily drive. The sporty position of the stubby gear lever reminds you that it is equally usable at the track.
A turn of the key later and you are greeted with a barking exhaust note that could only be a V6. The 350Z makes a beautiful noise even before the tuners get involved. Nissan tweaked various elements of the car to heighten the aural experience in the Roadster.
As the echo of the V6 off the mountains assaulted us through Franschhoek Pass, we were thankful for a time when cars were designed and built with passion, not just fuel efficiency targets.
The chassis offers a genuinely safe entry point into rear-wheel drive ownership. Where lighter rear-wheel drive cars can be twitchy and potentially lethal, the 350Z’s bootylicious weight ensures that the car is poised in the corners and easy to handle under hard braking. You never feel like the car will surprise you with a poor turn-in or uncontrolled corner entry, at least not in safe enthusiastic driving on public roads.
Even during a spirited drive, the clever wind deflector means that you can easily have a conversation with your passenger about how great the car sounds.
The mid-2000s were the swansong years for the V6 engine in its purest and most beautiful form. The 350Z is one of the best ways to experience that V6 magic, combining a great soundtrack with decent reliability and of course a rear-wheel drive platform.
And a word of warning – whilst many Zociety members won’t really care if your hot hatch beats them at the traffic lights, you should be careful taking on every 350Z you see. There are more than a handful of 350kW+ tuned versions prowling our streets, seeking their next German victim.