Nissan 350Z: Expert tips on buying, modifying and more

By Robert Bowen
May 7, 2024 | Nissan, 350z, Buyer's Guide | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Aug. 2012 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Nissan

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The late ’90s and early ’00s were dark days for American fans of the Nissan marque. Their 300ZX and its twin-turbo V6 died out in 1996, the Sentra SE-R became fat and slow, and the 240SX had pretty much fizzled out. The brand that had once been red-hot had lost much of its mojo. 

However, (then) Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn came to rescue the ailing Japanese automaker in 1999 thanks to the Renault-Nissan Alliance. First order of business was to inject some excitement into the American lineup. 

Nissan had toyed with the idea of a new Z-car a few times over the years, showing a 240Z concept in 1999 to lukewarm reception. The concept car was powered by the ubiquitous KA24 four-cylinder engine—the same one used in the Altima, 240SX and pickup. 

The all-new production Z-car arrived soon after for the 2003 model year. It was a clean-sheet design sporting a totally new chassis, fresh looks and a V6 engine—like its predecessors, this one would have six-cylinder power. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

That’s not to say the 350Z didn’t share anything with other cars. The new FM chassis was common to the Infiniti G35 coupe and sedan as well as the FX and EX crossovers. Its engine was set well back in the chassis for favorable weight distribution, and sophisticated multi-link arrangements suspended both ends.

Under the hood of the new Z-car was a 3.5-liter version of the corporate DOHC aluminum V6, which had powered the Maxima and Pathfinder models since the late 1990s. In the 350Z, it initially produced 287 horsepower thanks to a revised intake and exhaust plumbing.

Punching Above Its Class

With plenty of horsepower, an all-aluminum suspension, aggressive alignment settings and a refreshingly clean appearance, the new Z-car was a hit. Zero-to-60 times were in the mid-5-second range, and contemporary road tests put maximum lateral g-loads around 0.88. Overall, performance was on par with that of a Porsche Boxster S, a $50,000 car.

The new Z-car, though, was much more modestly priced. Thanks to a few cost-cutting measures—using rather ordinary materials for the interior, sharing platform development costs, and mildly pumping up a corporate engine—the new Z-car started at just $26,800. A loaded 350Z could approach $35,000, but even then it offered an amazing performance value at the time. 

Reviews at launch praised the Z’s excellent steering, brake and shifter feel, and lauded its overall performance. The VQ engine also received great marks for its broad torque curve and ability to induce oversteer seemingly at will. Gearing matched the engine well, with plenty of power to pull—even in sixth gear.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

A tendency to plow in faster corners, a less-than-sprightly curb weight, and an impractical cargo area received negative marks. However, most enthusiast publications branded the 350Z as a worthy successor to the original, returning the model to the performance-value balance that gave it such popularity in the early 1970s.

Typical of Japanese automakers, the 350Z did not have many à la carte options. Upgrades were possible through option packages, and in addition to the base model—it didn’t even have its own name—buyers could choose from the Enthusiast, Performance, Touring and Track trim levels. 

The base car really was basic—cloth seats, no cruise control, six-speed manual transmission and an open differential. Enthusiast-package cars were equipped more completely, receiving HID headlights, a viscous limited-slip differential, traction control and interior detailing, such as aluminum pedals. 

The Performance package added VDC—Nissan’s stability control system—and 18-inch wheels. Touring combined those 18-inch wheels and VDC with powered, leather seats, a Bose audio system and an optional DVD-based navigation system. Enthusiast and Touring were the only packages with an available automatic transmission.

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

The hardcore option was the Track package: no leather seats, no high-end audio and no navigation system on this model. Instead, buyers got Brembo brakes at all four corners, staggered 18-inch Rays wheels, an underbody aero kit and a small hatch spoiler. This package was available only with a manual transmission.

Broadening the Lineup

Nissan didn’t rest on their laurels, however: They updated the car during its model run. One year after its launch, a convertible version joined the lineup in 2004. 

The 350Z Roadster featured a powered soft top and was available only in Enthusiast and Touring trims. While it lost some of the coupe’s edge, the roadster added a dash of style that was popular with buyers more interested in cruising than racing. 

The 350Z saw a few horsepower bumps over the years, and for 2007, Nissan released another special package for the driving enthusiast: the Nismo 350Z. While mechanically it was basically a Track package, the Nismo cars had a special front and rear aero accessories and revised suspension tuning. Lightweight forged Rays wheels—18-inch-diameter fronts and 19-inch rears—further differentiate Nismo cars from the rest. According to Nissan, only about 1600 examples were produced. 

Photography Credit: Courtesy Nissan

You could say the 350Z ended on a high note, too, as the reincarnated Z left one year after the introduction of the Nismo. The Z-car wasn’t a temporary project to help get Nissan back on its feet, though; it was a sign of things to come. For 2009, Nissan released the 370Z—an even bolder, faster version of the beloved car. 

Things to Know

While no model year seems to be particularly troublesome, it’s best to buy the newest car you can afford. The Z received gradual improvements each year—including more engine horsepower—so every new car emerged better and faster than the one before it. 

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Engine and Drivetrain

The 350Z’s most serious problem is excessive oil consumption, and it affects a few of the 2005 and ’06 cars fit with the Rev Up engine. Fortunately, all is not lost: “Most of the oil-burning engines have probably been replaced by the dealer pretty early on,” Stillen’s Kyle Millen affirms. 

We have heard of the occasional failed crank and cam position sensor.

“The most common issue we’ve seen,” Kyle adds, “is worn second- or third-gear synchronizers that lead to a crunchy shift. Otherwise, it’s a great car with very few issues.”

A few good bolt-ons can help. “The engines like headers and high-flow cats,” Kyle explains, “and you can pick up as much as 20 horsepower with just intake and exhaust modifications.”

The VQ loves turbocharging, but the high compression ratio is not compatible with high boost levels.

Body and Interior

Like most Nissan products, these are good, reliable cars overall. The paint quality is not the best, though, and the thin quarter panels are easily dented.

Watch out for weak power window motors. 

As with almost any hatchback, failing hatch struts aren’t uncommon. 

Suspension and Brakes

Excessive front-tire wear is a frequently reported problem with the 350Z, especially the 2003-’04 models. A few factors deserve the blame: the very sticky OE Bridgestone RE040 tires, the aggressive toe-in settings at the front, and the quick-wearing front suspension bushings. These issues were corrected in later years, and the aftermarket has solutions if the replacement Nissan parts don’t hold up.

“One thing we run into with lowered cars is a lack of camber adjustment, especially at the front,” Kyle says. “If you try to add more negative camber to counteract the cars’ natural understeering, you will very quickly need to go to aftermarket upper control arms. This can happen at the rear, too.”

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livinon2wheels GRM+ Memberand New Reader
7/13/22 11:55 a.m.

wish I had found one of these onmolested a long time ago....odds of that now are essentially zero.

jimbob_racing SuperDork
7/13/22 12:31 p.m.

These have replaced the 240sx as the car of choice for questionable mods, zero maintenance and unending abuse from legions of of wannabe drift kings everywhere.

dannyp84 Reader
7/13/22 2:08 p.m.

In reply to jimbob_racing :

I've been drifting for about 6-7 years and even within drifting these cars get next to no respect, even though they work really well out of the box. It's almost universally agreed upon that the cars are ugly, sound terrible with anything other than stock exhaust, and they're so easy to drift it's almost boring. As such, very few are put together with care and or cleanliness. When these cars came out I thought they looked so cool in photos, but then in person they're a bit oddly proportioned. I once parked my old IS300 Sportcross next to a 350Z and the wagon was smaller in basically every dimension, which is strange to think about. With that said, the Z is a lot of performance for the price, and imo it always has been.

ralph63 New Reader
7/15/22 9:01 a.m.

I purchased a 2004 Touring a few years ago, needing a college car for my daughter.  Not much space for moving stuff, but great reliability and a good price at the time.  Now my son drives it and I keep finding excuses to put down my '04 Miata keys and take the Z for a spin.  Really responds to the right foot.  Negatives - the mess of underbody panels at the front are easily damaged and a pain to disassemble/reassemble.  The rear end is noisy (typical?), but has been for years.  Can't say much for the seats.  Interior panels scratch easily.  Ride is a little stiff, but body is solid after 180k.  Styling kinda grows on you.  Now if only I could find a wrecked Nismo for some upgrades...

JAdams Reader
7/15/22 9:26 a.m.

I regret selling my clean unmolested 350z for reasons already discussed here (rare). I do like the car a lot but it is a bit of a porker compared to cars I normally drive. 

shane86 New Reader
8/16/23 1:47 p.m.

I'll add a buyer's watch point for all VQ35 engines of rear-timing cover oil gallery gasket failures:  

They're under the timing cover, and have a propensity to blow out.. they're a little bit of a PITA to change as you have to pull the timing chain and re-time everything.. but they don't leak externally, just back into the pan, reducing oil pressure to the heads.

Their external symptom is low oil pressure at idle/low RPM, and if you pull the pan you'll probably find the little chunk of gasket that gives way.  Thankfully the Z comes with an oil pressure gauge, and not just an idiot light, so you can spot the problem if it's just getting started (how much gasket is gone..)

Dootz Reader
3/10/24 7:37 p.m.

The 350Z is the balance of car I wish to attain today. Not too heavy, not too fast, relatively reliable, analog feel, etc.

Closest car today would be some blend of the GR86/Supra or base Camaro V6

Duckzero GRM+ Memberand New Reader
3/10/24 10:42 p.m.

I keep an eye on good deals for a 350z, but they are getting harder and harder to find (that are in good shape). 

QuikMcshifterson New Reader
3/11/24 1:05 p.m.

Nobody mentioned the (solvable) fuel surge / starvation issue for track days. 

300zxfreak Reader
5/8/24 3:28 p.m.

My buddy had a 370 convertible. Compared to my Z32 version, the driving position is much like scrunching down in a bathtub and trying to see out of the bubbles.

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