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Driving Range: The Z Zooms Back

The folks at Nissan aren't shy about telling you that their all-new 350Z sports car is a hottie, a legitimate make-your-palms-sweaty-and-your-mouth-dry object of wanton desire. At the press launch for the car in Santa Monica, California, a cadre of Nissan engineers, marketing folks and PR reps made much of the philosophy behind the two-seater: "Lust, then love."

Yes, folks, the new 350Z is all about hot, steamy, palpable lust. And why not?The new Z ends a long stretch of abstinence for Z-car aficionados. In fact, the 2003 model marks the return of the line to U.S. shores after a seven-year absence. The years 1996-2002 were fallow ones for Z-car lovers—with no new Zs to ogle in Nissan showrooms, they were forced to lust in their hearts. Since word of the new-generation Z leaked out, those sports-car buyers have been burning up Internet chat rooms with gossip about it. Demand has been so fierce that by the middle of June, six weeks before the official launch of the 350Z, Nissan had already sold almost 8,000 new Zs—roughly 25 percent of its first-year sales target.

The new 350Z drives like a champ, looks sharp and is priced far below what you might expect to pay. And, oh yeah, as the Nissan PR woman who almost tackled me in the parking lot insisted, you can fit two full-size golf bags in its diminutive hatchback. The more time you spend with this machine, the more it seems to merit both lust and love. You can run it hard all night long, but you won't kick it out of the garage in the morning.

This reincarnation is no mere throwback to the old 240Z, which was introduced in the United States in 1970. Both are two-seat, six-cylinder coupes, built around the premise that a lightweight, affordable sports car would be a blast to drive and a hit with buyers. So far, so good. But while Nissan bills the 350Z as rightful heir to the 240Z's throne, there is nothing retro about this car. Its sheet metal, for example, doesn't pay stylistic homage to its forebears the way, say, the new Ford Thunderbird and Porsche Boxster do to their ancestors. No, the 350Z is its own vehicle. Crisp and angular on the outside, all business on the inside, it is first and foremost a driver's car, a sports coupe with a phenomenally well-balanced chassis and an engine that—unlike those of many competitors—features an extremely wide power band, and it is also quite tractable. The cockpit is roomy enough for drivers both tall and wide (like me), with the sort of ergonomics you expect from Nissan—legible gauges, controls that are easy to reach and use. The only drawback is that the swoopy roofline somewhat limits side-to-side visibility.

Now comes the most interesting part: Nissan is making five 350Z models for 2003, starting with a base 350Z with a six-speed manual gearbox that's priced at an amazing $26,269 plus a $540 destination charge. The raciest Z, the Track Model 6MT, is the most expensive, priced at $34,079 plus the aforementioned destination charge. Nissan is exerting the most pressure it legally can on its dealers not to gouge customers by selling Z cars for more than MSRP. Almost 90 percent of the first 6,000 sold were priced at sticker, Nissan officials say. But wait, there's more: By the end of the year there will be a 350Z convertible priced under $40,000 as well as an optional supercharged engine for the coupe.

I drove two 350Zs around Southern California: a Touring Model 5AT with leather seats and an automatic transmission; and a racier Performance Model 6MT, a six-speed manual with eighteen-inch tires. Each was a joy to maneuver. On tight, twisty roads in the high canyons north of Los Angeles, both Zs clung aggressively to the pavement, an admirable trait given the speed of my driving and the lack of guardrails on the mountainsides. Measured in its handling, the car grips well at both ends and is easy to hang onto. In other words, it is delightfully free of vices in the handling department, helped out no doubt by its six-speed manual gearbox and flexible 287-horse V-6.

The Z turned heads in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, drawing admiring glances from matrons in their Mercedes as well as balding, ponytailed Porsche drivers of midlife-crisis age. Yes, the Beautiful People looked at the 350Z and saw something they could lust for. What better endorsement can you get?

Scorecard - Nissan 350z
Base Price/As tested: $26,269/$32,129
MPG: 19/25 (est.)
ENGINE: 3.5-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER: 287
TORQUE: 274 lbs. per ft.
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 5.4 seconds

The coolest little car on the road can barely hold a couple of small golf bags—and then only if you fold down the backseat. But while the BMW-made Mini Cooper ($16,850 to start, miniusa.com) is but a supercharged shoe box, there's nothing small about its appeal. "Four years ago I sold the new VW Beetles out in Silicon Valley," says Chris Durkin of Westchester Mini in Elmsford, New York. "People would come in and just point, and that was the sale. I thought it was the best job in the world. But this is better."

Like the Beetle, the Mini is an old brand (first produced in 1959) that has cashed in on a wave of nostalgia. Durkin sold sixty-three of them in a month after the Mini was reintroduced in March. The car's grin factor is grand (retro-kitschy features like a cartoonishly oversized speedometer are a Mini trademark) as is the driving—this pint-size performer beat Ferrari and other BMWs in a slalom test designed by Road & Track.

Mini madness shifted into high gear with the summer release of the Austin Powers movie Goldmember, which features a red Mini with a Union Jack painted on the roof. Just for grins, the Elmsford dealership created a replica of the car and put it out in the lot. It sold in ten minutes.

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