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Nissan's iconic roadster is meant to be driven hard

THE BASICS
Base price/as tested: $39,800/$40,495
Fuel economy: 20.2 miles per gallon in Globe testing
Annual fuel cost: $1,931 (at $3.00 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)

THE SPECIFICS
Drivetrain: Rear-wheel drive
Seating: Four
Horsepower: 300
Torque: 260 lb.-ft.
Overall length: 169.8 inches
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Height: 52.5 inches
Width: 71.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,580 pounds

THE SKINNY
Nice touch: The amazing quiet of the car driven with its top down -- and no shudders from the cowl.
Annoyance: We had to pay extra for carpeted floor mats

I've driven many cars lately, literally from A to Z. There was a Model A Ford, which I double-clutched for shifting purposes through the sweetgrass lowlands of my father's South Carolina neighborhood. And there is today's test car, the 2006 350 Z roadster from Nissan. It doesn't require double-clutching but tempts drivers with clicking, close gears through all six settings of a manual gearbox.

Some cars rumble through time as classics: including the Model A, of course, five-window Ford coupes, certain Cadillacs, and the Barracuda.

Others are affordable and reliable sports cars that will stand the endurance race of time. I include among these great ones the Mustang, Corvette, Porsche, and Mazda Miata.

And, of course, the Z series from Nissan -- specifically the 350 Z roadster GT. While I usually like to start by writing about where the rubber meets the road -- and how it grips -- this time I'll first describe how the buttocks meet the seats: Cool. Real cool. The firmly bolstered seats feature a mesh net base that lets air flow between you and the seat. It makes for a comfortable ride.

The Z car arrived here many years ago as a Datsun (which mostly featured tiny pickup trucks) and was called the 240Z. Expectations for it eventually got too high, resulting in the 350ZX and, in 1996, the end of an icon.

But in 2003 it came back as the 350 Z . Good timing, good choice.

For 2006, Nissan has done some fine-tuning. It has added an aggressive, bladed grille, and given the rear fender line a muscular punch. It also features a drop-top with added horsepower. But today's car comes without the attendant cowl shudder that power, a cut-off roof, and forward-balanced weight would normally bring to a convertible.

Instead, you get a balanced feel, a tactile response from the steering wheel, and seat-of-the-pants stability. The speed-sensitive steering makes it an aptly docile car in parking lots, and responsive on interstates.

Granted, you sit low. But you should. By looking out over the hood, well ahead, you can anticipate rather than just react .

And if you buy this car, you had best drive it hard or sell it. To do otherwise would be like owning a Swiss Army knife without fully opening it.

The basic 350 Z features a 287-horsepower V-6 with a five-speed automatic transmission, while the hot test car boasted a 300-horsepower, six-speed manual, which made it more fun.

There is some oversteer, but that's to be expected, given the horsepower that is driving our rear-wheel-drive test car.

The trunk -- if you want to call it that -- is tiny. The best storage space is a bin between the front and the rear seats (which are basically useless). Nissan may call them buckets, I call them pails.

But you can live with it for a weekend cruise.

If you want totally stiff upper-structure, go with the coupe with its bracing top. If it's wind-in-the-hair freedom you're after, then this is your ride. Both come with great safety appointments. For example, our test car featured an antilock brake system, standard side impact air bags, and stability and traction control.

All cars will offer this much safety someday. Shop only for those that do it already.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

Shop it against:
PORSCHE BOXSTER Priced up to the mid-50s, but arguably the best handling car in its range. Nearly 250 horsepower at entry level, about 280 at high end. And so much fun.

BMW Z4 Choice of two new power plants, derived from the new 3 Series cars: the 3.0i and the 3.0si. Choose from 215 horsepower (up from 184 in the original) and 255 horsepower (up from 225). You'll pay mid-30s to mid-40s.

FORD MUSTANG You can have 300 horsepower, a leather interior, and tons of retro fun for less than $30,000. Hard to beat this bargain.

CHEVROLET CORVETTE A sports car with 400 horsepower, world-class performance, and less than $50,000? May be the best buy on the planet.


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