Topless Pleasures

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2004

All too often, television commercials are overblown hype. So you have every reason to be skeptical when Nissan advertises its new 2004 Z Roadster as "a little piece of heaven." Yeah, right.

But wait. Time spent in a top-down, fun-to-drive, great-looking roadster is indeed a little piece of heaven on Earth, an experience that lifts the spirit and washes cares from the mind. And, if it matters, it can do it for an appealing out-the-door price of $34,720, fully equipped right down to the side air bags.

The new Z is the latest in a long history of mostly terrific Z model sports cars dating back to 1970, when Datsun-later to change its name to Nissan-introduced a swoopy, two-seat sports car called the 240Z. It was terrific. Yes, there were some forgettable Z models over the years. Like the Ford Thunderbird and a few others, Nissan opted to make a four-passenger model, stretching the aerodynamic Z shape until it looked pregnant. Mostly, and thankfully, those cars are gone. A sports car seats two, thank you. It does not have a huge trunk. It is not a comfortmobile on uneven pavement.

The Z Roadster is a top-down version of the Nissan 350Z introduced last year after the company's half-decade hiatus from offering a Z model. That break in the lineage came because Nissan's Z cars soared to prices few could afford. A desirable 300Z could reach $50,000. Too much. The company went back to the drawing board, and last year's 350Z coupe is the result.

It's powered by a 3.5-liter V6 producing 287 horsepower, plenty for a car this size. Easily within reach is the standard six-speed manual shifter. Clutch action is light; brake effort is easily modulated. As is the case with the Honda S2000 two-seater at about the same price, the Z Roadster is easy to drive around town. It doesn't brutalize a driver or wear one out from effort. Leg room is terrific; head room, however, is only so-so with the top in place.

The top powers open after being released manually from the windshield. It tucks into the trunk area, leaving a pair of teardrop shapes on the Tonneau cover behind each head restraint. It's a terrific styling touch harking back to '50s racing D-Jaguars. A glass wind deflector is permanently in place between those head restraints, with a Z etched into it.

A cruise down a beach road during test week proved what a head-turner this little beauty is. It elicited much the same response as the Audi TT roadster did when it first appeared several years ago. Both draw styling inspiration from the Porsche Speedster of the mid-'50s.

There are virtually no options for the Z Roadster, which has a base price of $33,850. Our tester had floor mats at $80 and side air bags (do not buy any vehicle without these) for $250.

Entry and exit are fairly easy for the reasonably flexible. A driver will tend to rotate against the back of the seat and then slide down into place. Getting out with a slight assist from pressing down on the door is easy.

A little piece of heaven? In the case of the Nissan Z Roadster, the words fit. 

Speaking of Convertibles

Since this is convertible season, it's worth noting that I recently tested the 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK 500, four-passenger Cabriolet, $62,650. The CLK is beautiful almost beyond words, and the convertible with the V8 power is a dream come true. It provides all the comfort of a standard Mercedes-Benz, with the freedom of top-down motoring and the safety of pop-up roll bars behind the rear seat. As quiet as it gets in a convertible with the top up.

Previously tested models worth considering:

ß Mercedes-Benz SLK Special Edition, $47,000. A memorable, glorious two-seater. Supercharged four-cylinder gave decent fuel efficiency and plentiful power.

ß Ford Thunderbird, $39,190. Ford's retro T-Bird is beautiful to behold. It's not a performer, like the Corvette, but is a superb boulevard cruiser. Get it while you can. Keep it in a garage with your other collectibles, using it only on the best of days.

ß Lexus SC430, $61,800. A hardtop convertible two-seater, like the Mercedes-Benz SL. Very comfortable and smooth. Can't go wrong with this choice.

ß Audi TT Quattro Roadster, $42,725. Drop-dead gorgeous! The baseball-glove leather interior draws oohs and ahs wherever a driver parks. It's the closest lookalike to the Z Roadster, but has better exterior door handles and all-wheel drive. $5,000 to $7,000 more than the Z.

ß Jaguar XK8, $77,185. Awesome power and stunning looks in a ragtop that instantly conveys prestige. I've loved few test cars as much as I loved this one.

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