WHETHER DESERVED or not, topless versions of tin-roofed sportscars are often seen as poser-spec boulevard cruisers with all the chassis rigidity of half-cooked spaghetti.
Nissan’s Z-car family hasn’t been immune when it comes to such stereotypes. The Z32 300ZX Convertible of the 1990s was a stylistic disaster, and the Z33 350Z Roadster that followed traded the great dynamics and butch image of its hardtopped brother for sloppy handling and an unappealing design.
Now, ten months after it brought the excellent Z34 370Z Coupe to Australian showrooms, Nissan has followed it up with the rag-topped Roadster variant.
Even just standing still, the 370Z Roadster possesses an aura of athleticism.
The dumpy rump of the 350Z Roadster has been exchanged for a far more curvaceous rear end, with the high rear deck, fat wheelarches and near-vertical rear bumper giving it, in the words of one admirer, “substantial booty”.
Top down, it looks even better. Sitting on the shortened wheelbase of the 370Z (100mm trimmed from the 350Z between the trailing edge of the doors and the rear wheelarches), the Roadster, with its long nose and short tail, looks muscular, agile and ready to pounce.
The improvements aren’t just skin-deep either.
As with the 370Z coupe, you get Nissan’s outstanding VQ37VHR 3.7 litre naturally-aspirated V6 engine, beefy Akebono brakes, a viscous limited-slip differential and the option of a six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic.
The use of aluminium in the roof mechanism, bootlid, bonnet, doors and suspension keep weight down, while the A-pillar covers and doorhandles are made of lightweight plastic.
The Roadster gains about 60kg over the Coupe’s kerb weight (for a grand total of 1608kg for the manual), but front-to-rear weight distribution stays at 53/47.
Chassis rigidity has not been compromised by the loss of the Z’s roof. Additional structural reinforcement to the side sills, A-pillars, door apertures, boot aperture and rear crossmember, results in a chassis that boasts roughly 60 percent more torsional rigidity than the 350Z Roadster’s body.
It’s a change that’s evident from the driver’s seat. With the electro-hydraulically actuated roof up, there’s no rubbing or creaking from the junction of roof and windscreen, and the roof feels remarkably sturdy.
Admittedly, folding the roof is a noisy, slow and clunky affair, but at least it no longer requires a locking latch to be undone manually. The roof can also be folded from outside the car by holding down the locking button on the doorhandle.
The Roadster's cabin, like the Coupe, is a relatively roomy one. There is a reasonable amount of storage room available in the centre console, door bins, glovebox and a small shelf behind the seats. Compared to the BMW Z4, it’s a roomy cockpit.
Tall drivers, however, may find it difficult to get comfortable, as the steering wheel adjusts for tilt only and the bulkhead behind each seat limits how far the backrests can be tilted back.
But at least there’s a commendable level of quality to the Z’s fit-out. Suede graces the door cards, armrests and centre console knee pads, while the deeply-bolstered leather/fabric seats are both grippy and comfortable.
Those noises disappear with the top down though. Having the roof folded and the windows down is the recommended way to travel in the Z. After all, it's a Roadster, and 'wind in the hair' is what it's all about.
We also recommend driving next to some kind of wall: like a cliff-face, tunnel or cutting.
The VQ37 produces a wonderfully bassy exhaust note when under load, overlaid by a roaring induction noise from its two air-intakes. Dropping the roof adds to the auditory experience from the driver’s seat, and allows you to better appreciate the 370Z’s sonic delights.
The 370Z Roadster is a pleasant surprise along a twisting road. Far from being a floppy-handling pose-mobile, it feels taut, well-damped and responsive. Sure, 1600kg is a fair amount of heft for a car the size of the 370Z, but dynamically speaking it hides its weight well.
Reef the tiller left or right, and the Roadster’s nose responds with a crispness that echoes the handling of the hardtop.
The steering wheel is communicative and nicely weighted. The chunky wheel is satisfying to grip; it’s just a shame it’s not possible to bring it closer to your chest.
The new 19-inch forged Rays wheels are an excellent fit for the Z. With 275-section Bridgestones now fitted to the rear wheels and 245-section tyres sitting up front, there’s more rubber contacting the road, thus creating more grip.
Being forged, the larger Rays rims aren’t substantially heavier than the Coupe’s 18-inch cast alloys, and the increase in total unsprung weight is negligible. Consequently, ride quality is unaffected.
Do the latter at your own risk though: with its shorter wheelbase the 370Z’s chassis is unforgiving of ham-fisted attempts at drifting, and such activities are best confined to the racetrack.
With 245kW and 363Nm at its disposal, the 370Z Roadster can pile on speed at a rate that challenges the BMW 135i Convertible and BMW Z4 sDrive35i. In terms of other Japanese roadsters, the Z soundly bests the Mazda MX-5 and the ageing Honda S2000 in the go-fast stakes.
Nissan doesn’t quote any performance figures for the 370Z, but we managed to get our test car from 0- 100km/h in a sprightly 5.7 seconds.
Our tester was equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, which also brings Nissan’s SynchroRev Match system. SynchroRev Match is no gimmick, and by automatically blipping the throttle on downchanges it all-but eliminates drivetrain shock during hard driving.
Not only does that make spirited jaunts through mountain passes less taxing, but it also reduces the likelihood of losing traction at the rear wheels when downshifting on the approach to a corner.
The brakes are just as capable as the engine, and rein in the Roadster with no fuss, no screeching and no fade.
With 355mm front discs and 350mm rear discs clamped by four-piston and two-piston calipers, they should be more than robust enough for the odd track day too.
After the disappointing performance of its predecessor, the 370Z Roadster finally gives Nissan a properly sporting modern convertible.
Not only that, but it’s also a viable (and perhaps - dare we say it - more desirable) alternative to the 370Z coupe.
In the hardtop you’re insulated from what’s around you, but not so in the Roadster. With the ability to drop the roof, you’re no longer disconnected from the sights, the sounds and the aromas of your surrounding environs.
In exchange, you lose a fair bit of boot space (Nissan reckons you can still shoehorn a golf bag into it though) and the car gains a few kilos.