2011 Nissan Z Coupe

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The Nissan 370Z: 40 years of hardcore sports-car heritage.

SOME OF US gearheads still moon about the splendid heritage of certain Euro sports cars while pooh-poohing the Japanese as newcomers whose “soul-less” mechanical reliability is no substitute for DNA forged in the heat of wheel-to-wheel combat.

Yes, a Porsche or a Ferrari brings with it the burnt-Castrol haze of hundreds of wins in decades of racing at the world’s storied tracks. Yes, most Japanese cars are pretty vanilla. But oh, the exceptions . . .

They are, well, exceptional. Get your grandfather to tell you about the Datsun 240Z, that wondrous coupe that rode out of the Far East 40 years ago to challenge the world’s top two-seaters.

It’s still around. By now it has a more than adequate heritage of its own—it’s only 20 years younger than Porsche and Ferrari—and its price, performance, looks and reliability still make it a winner. Fortunately, it was never offered here under its home-market name of “Fairlady.”

Like many of us, over the decades the Z put on weight and got slower, but then it went to the gym, slimmed down and became the athletic 350Z and then this 370Z. (Meanwhile, Datsun somehow became Nissan and, of the original Z’s peers, the Porsche 911 has become a six-figure sports-touring car, the Mazda RX-7, Jaguar E-Type and Toyota Supra are extinct, and Corvettes can now cost more than $100,000.)

The formula remained intact: high performance and build quality at a mysteriously low sticker. For 2012 prices start around $30K; the top hardcore Z, from Nissan’s Nismo skunkworks, costs maybe ten grand more. Each one is a flat-out bargain. There is also a droptop roadster.

The high-winding, raucous 3.7-litre V6 is rated for 332 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque (the Nismo numbers are a bit higher) and is attached to a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 7-speed autobox with paddle shifters.

More money buys the usual step-ups such as seat heaters, bigger wheels, a limited-slip rear diff and so on, and the SynchroRev transmission feature that blips the throttle on downshifts to match gear RPM. Very cool, if you never learned to double-clutch. Satnav, Blueteeth and all that FaceTube-USB stuff is available, if you feel disconnected without it.

The entry-level Z is “basic” only in that it is pared down to sports-car essentials. Punch the starter button and the big motor whirrs and whines, then awakens with a bark.

The clutch grabs like steel Velcro; backing out of the driveway, the wide Yokohamas stutter on fallen leaves. In town the suspension has all the give of a slightly warm rock. It’s mechanical and growly and it reaches down and grabs your man parts and inquires, “Are you paying attention?”

But the seat is adjustable, comfortable and supportive. The steering tells us what’s going on. Slip out of town and when there’s an opening in traffic, point the nose out, downshift and go. With a stirring baritone howl the car shoots ahead. Hard corners, emergency maneuvers, full-bore OMG stops—the Z stays planted, never discomposed.

On the interstate it can clear the left-lane slugs simply by showing up hungry in their mirrors. At speed it’s noisy enough to discourage cellphone use, which is all to the good, but yesterday’s nonstop 230-mile run was both exhilarating and comfortable.

So here we have many of the characteristics of a supercar—terrible visibility to the rear and quarters, a stiff ride, a steering wheel that hunts back and forth over rough pavement, the decibel level of a grain combine, room for one passenger and a weekend’s worth of swimsuits—but at the price and the drip-dry reliability of a boring family sedan. How great is that?