Nissan is attracting rave reviews from car magazines following press launches for its new 350Z sports car, unveiled last January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and on sale in the United States and Canada this August as a 2003 model.

A variety of base, enthusiast, touring, performance and track models range in price from $US26,269 to $34,079 and the order book has been open since 15 January.

The lowest price 350Z is positioned not as a base model, but as a starting place for enthusiasts who wish to modify their new Zs with their own selection of aftermarket equipment. Nissan’s own NISMO performance parts operation will be offering a wide selection of parts and accessories from this autumn.

Inexplicably, the new model is not being imported to the UK leaving the market open to the independent importers who did so well with the Skyline, initially another official non-starter.

Nissan says the stylish, 287-horsepower 350Z continues the heritage of design, performance and value that has remained unchallenged since the original Datsun 240Z – introduced 33 years ago as a 1970 model and a hit Stateside.

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A key goal was performance and design with a US price tag under $30,000 and the designers also went looking in car DNA banks for the passion, performance, practicality and value that they claim has marked every generation of Nissan’s Z since the original.

“Must haves” from that 1970 original included a front engine/rear-wheel drive drivetrain configuration, two-seat interior, powerful six-cylinder engine (now a V6) and an essentially simple design for the hatchback body.

Design cues passed on from the first-generation Z include the long nose and short deck styling, triangular cabin form and the lines extending from the arch-shaped roof to the hatchback opening.

The body’s centre of gravity is placed in the middle and the tyres are positioned at the four corners to emphasise the car’s agility.

“A long wheelbase and wide stance provided a great starting place,” said Red Studio chief designer Diane Allen at Nissan Design America (NDA).

“Our first thought was to recreate the sensation of an open-wheeled Formula 1 car – all wheels and an intimate centre structure.”

While the design strongly accentuates the bulge of the fenders, the volume at each corner has been pared to emphasise the shortness of the overhangs. The 17-inch wheels also serve as a design element that hints at performance.

Projector-type headlamps provide a wider illumination pattern and greater brightness and there are distinctive vertical door handles and twin exhaust tailpipes.

In addition to the hatchback coupe, a convertible version of the new Nissan Z is planned.

The instrument panel features three gauge pods, similar in design to the 240Z, consisting of the drive computer, oil pressure gauge and voltmeter as well as modern touches such as a navigation system with video display. The door vents and centre console are intended to have a solid, chiseled-from-block-of-aluminum look.

Though the 350Z has been designed as a sports car, attention has also been paid to storage capacity, with sufficient luggage space for carrying two golf bags behind the seats, a lockable luggage floor box capable of storing a briefcase and other storage places.

Another interior feature is an integrated aluminium rear suspension strut tower brace which critics say will mark too easily.

The brace is finished to match the rest of the rear compartment and carries a Z logo, which is visible from outside the vehicle.

The 3.5-litre VQ35DE V6 engine produces 287 horsepower and 274 lb-ft of torque, an expanded power range that comes as a result of reworking the intake port design and adopting Continuously Variable Valve Timing Control System (CVTCS) technology.

Drivability has been further improved by adopting an electronically controlled throttle, and the use of a highly rigid cylinder block combines with other measures to produce engine sounds worthy of a sports car.

Suspension for the rear-wheel drive vehicle is a four-wheel independent design. Both six-speed close-ratio manual and 5-speed automatic transmissions are available.