Nissan 370Z to Spa on a fan's pilgrimage

Published: 04 August 2009

NB The photos are high-res and will take some time to render

What is a design icon? What gives a car company its soul? Questions that obviously Carlos Ghosn thought long and hard about when he took over the helm at Nissan at the end of the last millennium.

One of the first things that he did was to sanction the resurrection of a design icon, a key player in Nissan’s product line up – the Z car.  Marketed as the Fairlady Z in Japan, but known as the Z elsewhere in the world, the car had evolved since its 1969 debut as the 240Z, through numerous incarnations each involving an increase in engine displacement.  So the car that most of you will be familiar with is the 3.5-litre variant Nissan 350Z, developed with the sanction of the new CEO back in 2000 to bring the soul back to Nissan and create a buzz in the automotive market.

The Z car had built a strong following in the US, bringing affordable sports cars to the masses in the 1970s and offering dependability, style and fun motoring at the right cost.  Even Paul Newman and Jay Leno were part of the Z faithful, with the late Newman taking the cars to triumphant finishes in the SCCA and IMSA races in the US as a factory driver.  So Ghosn saw the return of the Z as critical to giving Nissan back its soul and tapping into the hearts and wallets of the US market.

All hail the new 370Z

Well now the 350Z is being replaced with even more displacement, upping the engine to a 3.7 litre VQ engine with fancy variable valve throttle control to keep the environmentalists happy and the car performing at its best.

I personally owned a 350Z, a car with a body designed by Leicester-born Ajay Panchal, and it was the shape that first wowed me away from Porsche.  There are hints of Porsche 911 and Audi TT, but also a purposeful, brutish look that hangs together from pretty much every angle.  They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but from my eyes Panchal had succeeded in creating a thing of beauty.

But now it is all change and the new Nissan 370Z, with its extra horsepower has a new body as well. But this is not the work of one man, as with the 350Z, where Panchal guarded his clay model and had a sole vision of the car he wanted to see on the road.  No, this is the result of an internal Nissan competition, where any member of Nissan Design could pitch his or her conceptual idea irrespective of their standing within the hierarchy of the global corporation.

So what do we know about the new design?  The concept was to make a car more nimble, more powerful, lighter and more responsive.  The reality though is that every car is getting heavier, due to increased safety measures and our demands for greater sophistication and comfort.  Sports car customers want the performance of a stripped out racer, but also low cabin noise so that they can make that all important phone call, a great stereo with every nuance of treble maintained and a thumping bass line to boot, air-conditioning, or even better, dual zone climate control, plus somewhere to stash the weekly groceries as well, not forgetting the obligatory cup holders.  So even before we consider the legal requirements and Euro NCAP ratings calling for pyrotechnic bonnet hinges, seat belt pretensioners, more supportive head restraints and a plethora of airbags we have a scale tilting mass of components waiting to be housed in our monocoque chassis.

Hmmm, no easy task; luxuries and safety versus weight and performance...

Well, the Nissan 370Z is shorter than its predecessor, it has borrowed from its new bigger brother, the GT-R, by using Carbon Composite technology to form a sub-frame to house the radiator and cooling assembly giving the car more rigidity for less weight.  To keep the grocery shoppers happy the rear strut brace of the 350Z has been removed giving one continuous load space, although the load area is smaller than on the 350Z due to the 370Z’s shorter length and the bracing now runs nearer the centre bulkhead.   Looking through the previous lists it appears that all the customer and safety requirements has been ticked off one by one, even the cup holders.

But is it any good?

The best way to find out what a new car is like to live with is to put it through its paces, with some typical everyday tasks and see how it fares against its predecessor, the 350Z. As Chairman of nissansportz, the owners club and forum for contemporary Nissan Sportscars; 350Z, GT-R and 370Z, I am in a rather privileged position to be able to borrow an early pre-production Nissan 370Z and find out first hand all about the new model.


The car delivered on a rainy Tuesday morning is a base model 370Z, finished in black with black cloth interior.  Retailing for just under £27,000 it has none of the fancy gadgets associated with the higher price models, but in this credit crunch times, I guess that many buyers will opt for the entry-level vehicle.

There are currently four Nissan 370Z variants on sale in the UK; base, GT Pack, Ultimate and a Limited Edition Yellow version.  Unlike the Nissan 350Z, a 7 speed paddle-shift automatic gearbox is also available on all variants except the base version, this adds an additional £1,400 to the on the road price.  Prices range from £26,900 (manual base) up to £33,750 (auto Ultimate with optional Metallic/Pearl Paint).  The Metallic or Pearlescent Paint also includes Nissan’s new Scratch Shield technology for the additional price of £450.

So, back to the car delivered and how best to find out all about it…

Loading the car up with camping gear and cameras the call of Europe and the open road beckons.  What better opportunity than to combine road testing the car with a trip to the Total 24 Hours of Spa to support Nismo/Gigawave Motorsport with their FIA GT1 Nissan GT-R entry in the 24 hour race and also RJN Motorsport’s Nissan 350Z in the FIA GT4 European Cup races?

Ferries booked and car packed ready for the trip we start our trip with a late night trip to Dover on the first leg of our journey…

Day 2 - Wednesday

A dawn arrival in Dunkirk, the autoroute leads us North towards Bruges and then inland across the European continent, through Belgium and into Germany. 

The car is full to capacity; we are carrying two tents, cooking equipment, clothes for the week ahead, as well as the driver and passenger.  Even so, once the unregulated autobahn is reached the car has no problem in meeting its limited top speed with ease.

Leaving the main roads, we venture on to more entertaining tarmac as we enter the Eifel Mountains.  The twists and turns of the mountain roads are a joy for the 370Z, whether you choose to make the most of the engine’s torque, leaving the car to pull through the complete rev range or, for more spirited acceleration, use the gearbox to keep the engine buzzing and the car accelerating at a rate of knots.

The Nurburgring hoves into view

The area is truly one of beauty, with picturesque castles and churches dotted throughout the hillsides and huge areas of lush forests covering the mountainous terrain.  A few stops for photo opportunities just could not be avoided.  Amongst the mountains there is one further jewel in the Eifel region’s crown and a motorsport jewel at that, the Nürburgring.  A trip to the region is not complete without a visit to the Nürburgring, whether that is to the Formula 1 circuit or the infamous Nordschleife.

The Nürburgring has become increasingly well known amongst motorsports fans and sports car drivers, as the Nordschleife is increasingly used by car manufacturers to develop, test and market new cars. For Nissan, much of the R35 GT-R’s development and marketing was based upon lap times set at the Nordschleife’s 13-mile circuit and the keen motorist can drive the ‘Green Hell’ in tourist training laps.  One thing to remember though is that the Nordschleife is no modern racetrack.  Opened in 1927, the track has many blind bends, steep gradients and treacherous crests as well as changes in track surface, from tarmac to concrete, constantly affecting the grip available to the spirited driver.

The smaller Formula 1 circuit is the home of the German Grand Prix and the whole complex surrounding the circuit has recently undergone a huge redevelopment.  Inaugurated on 9 July, just in time for this year’s F1 race, there is still a considerable amount of building work going on around the Nürburgring complex, but one area that was completed in time for the circuit’s inauguration is the Nissan Sportscars Shop in the Ring Boulevard.

A visit to the Nürburgring was something that we had to include in our itinerary!

Arriving at the Ring, the 500 square metre shop had three Nissan sports models on display; the European Nürburgring Special Edition 370Z, limited to a production run of 80 cars, a GT-R Premium Edition finished in Ultimate Metal Silver and also the GT-R SpecV in Storm White.

The European Special Edition Yellow 370Z is different to that recently displayed at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.  Whereas the UK version is a fully loaded Ultimate Edition in bright yellow, with optional side stripes, the European model features special 19” gunmetal finish alloys, a custom exhaust, an interior badge and different side stripes (to the UK variant).

The GT-R SpecV meanwhile sports carbon-ceramic brakes, a Nismo developed titanium-coated exhaust system, Bilstein suspension and lighter Rays Alloy wheels with special compound tyres.  Subtle carbon fibre changes have been made to the bodywork and interior.  Externally, this means brake cooling ducts to the front bumper, a carbon grille insert and carbon rear spoiler.  Whilst inside there are carbon dashboard inserts, Recaro carbon shell bucket seats to the front and the rear seats have been removed and replaced with quilted covers and a carbon housing for the Bose subwoofers.  Whilst the engine remains essentially the same as the standard GT-R model, the 485PS 3.8-litre twin turbo V6 engine has an overboost function delivering an additional 15Nm of torque for a period of 80seconds taking the standard torque figure from 588Nm to 603Nm.  The SpecV has yet to be confirmed as available for sale in Europe, but based upon the cars appearance at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed and now at the Nürburgring showroom it looks like those looking for the ultimate GT-R should get saving as the car is rumoured to be priced about twice the price of a fully-loaded standard GT-R.

Also on sale at the showroom is a range of accessories for the Nissan Sportscar owner, with both 370Z and GT-R models catered for.

It looks like the Nürburgring will feature heavily in Nissan’s future plans for their sportcars in Europe.

Leaving the F1 complex, we venture out to the public entrance to the Nordscheife, but find the circuit being used for industry testing, even a casual drive of the circuit is out of the question.  Quite fortunate really, as I have not slept for 36 hours… time to head for a campsite and get some sleep methinks...

Day 3 - Thursday

An early morning storm reminds us that the Eifel Mountains have their own microclimate and we wake to the sound of thunder and rain pounding the tent’s fabric.  The sun soon appears and we make the most of the dry weather to repack the car and head off to explore further.

We drive to Nissan’s test and development centre, to see whether we can stumble across some new vehicles under test, or some other concept or facelift in the early stages of approval.  The test centre will be familiar to those of you that followed the development of the Nissan R35 GT-R as it has featured in numerous magazines and even TV programmes, particularly those linked with Polyphony’s Gran Turismo TV.

Even though the test centre is deserted, the link with the Gran Turismo video game gives us another idea for photo opportunities and we decide to visit one of the cities featured in the game’s menu screens.

Ahrweiler is a beautiful walled city with ancient stone archways leading into the city centre.  A backdrop to the city is formed by the Southerly facing slopes, packed densely with vineyards providing the Pinot Noir grapes for the many locally based red wine producers.  Many of the roads within the city walls are now pedestrianised but we managed to find what we were looking for, the two locations used by the video game.  ‘Hotel zum Stern’ stands adjacent to the city church, whilst the stone archway seen in the game is accessible from one of the narrow alleys threading its way into the city.  The architecture is stunning and we were able to manoeuvre the 370Z into position beneath the archway, very reminiscent of the video game menu screen and much to the amusement of the locals.

Belgium and beyond

A chance to stretch our legs and explore the streets of the city not accessible to the car, then it was time to set off towards Belgium and the circuit at Spa-Francorchamps for the FIA GT Championship.

We make our way down from the Eifel Mountains, into the Ardennes.   The winding roads continue all the way to the our destination in Francorchamps; twists and turn, coupled with rapid changes in elevation do not worry the 370Z and we find the ESP far less intrusive than in the previous 350Z.  No sudden cut in power with this driver aid, just a gentle slide of the rear and the computer brings the car back to continue its swift progress through the forests.

By late afternoon, we have collected our tickets for the race meeting and are making our way into the circuit complex, in good time for the FIA GT Championship Qualifying Practice sessions.  The teams are obviously busy making final checks to their cars, as there is not one Qualifying Session, but three.  Each driver must secure a qualifying time in the first session and then take to the circuit in the dark to set a further qualifying lap-time in the dark.

We leave the Nissan 370Z on display in the Nismo/Gigawave Motorsport paddock joined by two other vehicles from Nissan Europe – another 370Z, this time an auto Ultimate finished in Storm White with Persimmon Orange Leather interior, and a GT-R Premium Edition finished in Gunmetal.

Realising that all efforts are building towards setting a good qualifying time we leave the team of mechanics and technicians to practice their refuelling procedures, tyre changes and driver swaps until everything flows seamlessly.  It is obvious that there are two crews working together to get the GT1 GT-R ready for the 2010 season; with a mix of Japanese and English team members, the pit garage buzzes with a mix of Nismo and Gigawave Motorsport staff, with both Japanese and English spoken and both crews learning each others work methods.

Eau Rouge in the wet...

As night draws in so do the clouds and, yet again, we are at a circuit with its own microclimate.  A cloud burst at Eau Rouge can still leave La Source perfectly dry, as the circuit twists and turns, first dropping down from the pit straight then climbing up through the forest slopes.  This time though the circuit is in the middle of a torrential deluge, with driving rain forcing everyone except the marshals and the cars out on track to cover.

The team at RJN Motorsport have just finished one of their practice sessions for the FIA GT4 European Cup and are sheltering in the dry of their transporter.  A great run for both Alex Buncombe and, GT Academy winner, Lucas Ordoñez is required in qualifying tomorrow to assure the team of a front row start for their GT4 Nissan 350Z.

The dry of the truck seems luxury compared to what the Nismo/Gigawave Motorsport GT1 GT-R team have to endure in their first qualifying period though.  The rain is now falling harder than ever, gutters to the pit building are overflowing and rivers of water are rapidly turning the paddock into a lake.  Meanwhile the drivers are tasked with setting their fastest time to get the GT-R up the grid.  Lateral rear grip can prove to be a problem in the dry, so heaven knows how the car will cope in this weather.  Michael Krumm and Darren Turner have both experienced the car in the wet, as the previous round of the FIA GT Championship at Oschersleben was held in the rain, but for the rigours of a 24hour race the team have recruited Anthony Davidson as the third driver.  Let’s hope he likes the rain!

Qualifying for GT1 continues until nearly midnight and whilst RJN Motorsport leave the complex for their hotel, Bob Neville, team principal of RJN Motorsport, takes pity on us, knowing that we were meant to be camping for the weekend and offers us the team bunks for a night in the team’s articulated lorry.  Our new home away from home…  Thank You Bob!

Rain, rain and more rain…  The second qualifying period and there is a small break in the rainfall.  The track remains soaked through, although there is a hint of a dry line somewhere out there, in the dark.

A 15minute break and the final night qualifying period bring more rain.  All three drivers are suited and booted, whilst the team study the two screens above the car in the pit garage.  A broken gutter to the side of the garage does not help, as we look out across the pit-lane the water gushes down even heavier than it actually is outside.  All drivers have set their qualifying times, but still Michael Krumm wants to get some more track time and perfect his lines in the wet.  The clock ticks on and after much discussion between Michael and the Nismo Team Manager he is despatched into the rain with just 5 minutes remaining on the clock.  Out on track for as long as possible, he is the last car to reach Park Fermé for the night.

Day 4 – Friday

RJN Motorsport get their GT4 Nissan 350Z ready for a full morning of qualifying, the track is still wet but the rain has stopped for the time being. Qualifying sessions can bring such changes to the circuit and the afternoon’s first race for the team is getting ever closer.  Again, the pit lane is still wet, but the track has a dry line and Lucas is the first to take the 350Z on to the track.  His approach to qualifying and general demeanour belies the fact that he is the Gran Turismo competition winner; he looks every bit the seasoned driver.  A handover to Alex Buncombe and debrief with team principal, Bob Neville, it is obvious that all the team are keen to repeat their success at Oschersleben, where they achieved two podium finishes.  Both drivers post respectable times with Alex Buncombe qualifying second and Lucas Ordoñez sixth.

The European GT4 Cup comprises two races at each meeting, with the first Spa race being on the Friday afternoon and the second race on Saturday morning.  The afternoon sees the track dry and Spa takes on a completely different character to that of the practice sessions.  Lucas Ordoñez is on the grid in the RJN Motorsport Nissan 350Z waiting for the green flag, whilst the rest of the team watch on from the pit shelter, or by standing on top of the tyre trolley to get a view over the pit wall.

The race

They’re off!  Then a Porsche spins backwards into La Source with its rear wheel rammed free and pieces of Aston Martin grille and cone air filter are strewn across the track.  Lucas dodges the debris and makes headway, holding position as the race enters the pit stop phase.  A rapid driver change and Alex Buncombe is now at the wheel, but within his first few laps the Pirelli rubber lets go and turns itself into a something that looks more like a raffia basket than a race slick.  The rear arch takes some damage, but Alex returns the car to the pit and rejoins the track with a new set of rubber.  Unfortunately in a 40minute race such a failure can only result in a lower finishing position, but RJN Motorsport finish in a very respectable 11th position with a few repairs required to the 350Z to allow them to race another day.

Evening approaches and Stéphane Ratel, the organiser of the GT Championship and founder of the SRO, has a new car to show to the crowds for the 2010 GT1 Championship.  The new regulations mean that factory teams will not be allowed to compete in 2010 and stricter regulations mean that the 2009 cars will not be eligible to enter, so new cars have to be developed.  That is exactly what Nissan and Nismo have already done and why they do not expect the car to be competitive in the 2009 season.  In fact, the only 2010 cars developed for the forthcoming season are the Nissan GT-R and the Ford GT, until now…

A cloth cover is draped over the central car, flanked by the GT-R to one side and the GT to the other, then as the crowd pushes forward the cover is removed to reveal the Lamborghini Murcielago LP670 R-SV from Reiter Engineering.  The third car for the 2010 season, with carbon-fibre aplenty, even the engineers from Nismo had to have a look and check out the competition.

With the Nismo/Gigawave GT1 GT-R out of the garage, I could not resist asking Nismo to line the car up with the other Nissan road cars to get the ultimate shot of a road going GT-R with its racing bigger brother along with the new 370Zs.  It was truly striking to see all the cars together.

... To be continued...

Day 4 – Friday

RJN Motorsport get their GT4 Nissan 350Z ready for a full morning of qualifying, the track is still wet but the rain has stopped for the time being. Qualifying sessions can bring such changes to the circuit and the afternoon’s first race for the team is getting ever closer.  Again, the pit lane is still wet, but the track has a dry line and Lucas is the first to take the 350Z on to the track.  His approach to qualifying and general demeanour belies the fact that he is the Gran Turismo competition winner; he looks every bit the seasoned driver.  A handover to Alex Buncombe and debrief with team principal, Bob Neville, it is obvious that all the team are keen to repeat their success at Oschersleben, where they achieved two podium finishes.  Both drivers post respectable times with Alex Buncombe qualifying second and Lucas Ordoñez sixth.

The European GT4 Cup comprises two races at each meeting, with the first Spa race being on the Friday afternoon and the second race on Saturday morning.  The afternoon sees the track dry and Spa takes on a completely different character to that of the practice sessions.  Lucas Ordoñez is on the grid in the RJN Motorsport Nissan 350Z waiting for the green flag, whilst the rest of the team watch on from the pit shelter, or by standing on top of the tyre trolley to get a view over the pit wall.

The race

They’re off!  Then a Porsche spins backwards into La Source with its rear wheel rammed free and pieces of Aston Martin grille and cone air filter are strewn across the track.  Lucas dodges the debris and makes headway, holding position as the race enters the pit stop phase.  A rapid driver change and Alex Buncombe is now at the wheel, but within his first few laps the Pirelli rubber lets go and turns itself into a something that looks more like a raffia basket than a race slick.  The rear arch takes some damage, but Alex returns the car to the pit and rejoins the track with a new set of rubber.  Unfortunately in a 40minute race such a failure can only result in a lower finishing position, but RJN Motorsport finish in a very respectable 11th position with a few repairs required to the 350Z to allow them to race another day.

Evening approaches and Stéphane Ratel, the organiser of the GT Championship and founder of the SRO, has a new car to show to the crowds for the 2010 GT1 Championship.  The new regulations mean that factory teams will not be allowed to compete in 2010 and stricter regulations mean that the 2009 cars will not be eligible to enter, so new cars have to be developed.  That is exactly what Nissan and Nismo have already done and why they do not expect the car to be competitive in the 2009 season.  In fact, the only 2010 cars developed for the forthcoming season are the Nissan GT-R and the Ford GT, until now…

A cloth cover is draped over the central car, flanked by the GT-R to one side and the GT to the other, then as the crowd pushes forward the cover is removed to reveal the Lamborghini Murcielago LP670 R-SV from Reiter Engineering.  The third car for the 2010 season, with carbon-fibre aplenty, even the engineers from Nismo had to have a look and check out the competition.

With the Nismo/Gigawave GT1 GT-R out of the garage, I could not resist asking Nismo to line the car up with the other Nissan road cars to get the ultimate shot of a road going GT-R with its racing bigger brother along with the new 370Zs.  It was truly striking to see all the cars together.

... To be continued...

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By Giles Meyrick (aka nissansportz)

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