TOCHIGI, Japan — It's beginning to look like Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is going to pull this thing off.

Two years into the radical “Revival Plan” crafted to bring it back from the brink of fiscal ruin, Nissan and its no-bullcrap President Carlos Ghosn bet the farm on, among other things, a drastic consolidation of vehicle platforms in order to slash costs — but more important to us, also to serve as the foundation of a new generation of highly competitive, highly invigorating vehicles.

Nissan — along with presumably more-objective analysts — claim the cost-cutting is working to a fare-thee-well. But can Nissan really come through with exciting new vehicles while simultaneously rearranging its entire business structure?

To prove not only that it can, but that it's actually happening, Nissan gamely brings some U.S. auto scribes to its proving grounds here for an early run-up with two new cars vital to its “comeback.”

These two cars, not incidentally, also provide our first exposure to “FM,” one of those all-new platforms upon which Nissan's future sorely depends (see sidebar, p.63).

I feel personally privileged to be one of the first outsiders permitted a flog of the reborn “Z” sports car, which when it arrives this August, will be badged 350Z. The other car is more imminent and equally intriguing: the Infiniti G35, a rorty 4-door rear-drive sport sedan that will mix it up with the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Lexus IS 300.

Now, the 350Z in which Nissan's engineers turn us loose has some caveats: It's a development mule without a finished interior and, more imperatively, its normally aspirated 3.5L DOHC V-6 is not developing production-ready horsepower, which is claimed to be about 280 hp or better. Nor are other details finalized, like spring/damping rates and other suspension calibrations, steering, and transmission nuances.

I know when I get out of a car that makes me feel like a hero, it's a well-balanced car. This rough-and-ready mule shows signs of an outstanding chassis balance dictated by the platform's nearly perfect weight distribution. The steering is linear and absolutely direct, combining with the punchy V-6 to make it child's play to flick around the rear end with the throttle. It's always controllable and stable, mind you, just highly engaging. And I guess there will be stability control (although I didn't ask) for when the weather's bad or you just want to be able to plant your right foot whenever you please.

I haven't heard anyone totally dissing the new Z's styling, although some have said it's derivative, with too many Audi TT overtones. To my mind, it's a handsome car that can't quite shed the Japanese-coupe look; I definitely like the widely flared rear haunches, but the front isn't all that inspired and the beltline's too high for my taste. Fact is, the car looks pretty much like what it is going to cost: less than $30,000 to start.

For that kind of money, I want it to look better than a Celica (it does), but the styling doesn't quite make the stretch to genuinely premium machinery like the Porsche 911. It could with a few tweaks, though.

And a quick word about quick: it's hard to judge the production performance given this car's prototype status, but judging from the 90% of available claimed engine power, I think Nissan will have its hands full when it says the all-new 350Z will top the performance of the twin-turbo 300ZX we last saw in '94.

Highly impressive, at least in part because we did get to try a production car, is the Infiniti G35, the fetchingly styling sport sedan coming in March. It, too, is on the FM platform, and it's startlingly performance-oriented, to my mind fully the driving equal of what BMW's got going these days. The handling is fabulous — like a 4-door version of the Z350 I'd just driven — and that stunningly refined 3.5L “VQ” V-6 gives its all, offering up gorgeous power slides from low- and medium-speed turns, if that's your fancy.

I predict this sedan will enjoy highly favorable review, not only for its smart, crisp styling but for offering the kind of performance to which mid-priced Japanese sport sedans historically have paid lip service — but didn't truly deliver.

After driving these two cars on this outstanding new platform, it looks like Nissan's not only cut the fat, it's bulked up the product-development muscle, too.

The company's president's motto comes to mind: There's no problem at a car company that great product can't solve.

Nissan's FM: No Static at All

Steely Dan sang of FM radio, “No static at all.” In other words, no problem, everything's fine.

“FM,” then, is more than appropriate as the handle by which Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. engineers refer to their first all-new platform developed since the advent of the “Nissan Revival Plan” (see WAW — Dec.'99, p.55).

No static at all with FM: Nissan seems to have recognized the current dynamic and packaging attributes necessary for competition against the mighty European automakers. It didn't hurt that FM was being developed while the company was fighting for its very existence. A little desperation never hurt anybody.

FM is shorthand for “front midship,” referring to the platform's basic layout, situating the engine in front, but with most of its mass nudged rearward behind the front-axle centerline, to a degree artificially replicating the fancy handling balance of “midship” engine placement. Drive goes to the rear wheels (and to all wheels for some future variants).

And because the engine sits back in the chassis, the front overhang can be reduced, yet a generous wheelbase also can be specified, making possible good ride quality and commodious interior accommodations. For the upcoming Infiniti G35, for instance, the wheelbase is 112.2 ins. (285 cm) — almost 4 ins. (10 cm) greater than a Ford Taurus, yet the G35's overall length, 186.6 ins. (474 cm) is 9 ins. (23 cm) less. The G35 appears much more compact than a Taurus.

Or put another way, the G35 wheelbase is just 7.8 ins. less than Infiniti's flagship Q45, but the G is more than a foot shorter overall.

Nissan engineers say a typical FM application sees the engine 5.5 ins. (14 cm) further behind the front axle. They claim this not only provides for excellent balance and handling, but makes the stylists' lives easier, too.

Then there's wheel placement. Because the new platform allows for pushing wheels out to the extreme at each corner, engineers say larger wheel/tire packages can be accommodated. Again, that translates to better ride and comfort, as well as for the big-tired styling that seems to be connecting with contemporary buyers.

Another, more esoteric FM advantage comes from the ability to site the fuel tank in such a fashion to allow for greater volume. Nissan engineers gush about the 20-gal. (76L) capacity — that is a couple of gallons better than a typical midsize car — but do many people drive far enough at one sitting to make extended range a real treat?

Both FM-platform cars Nissan provides for testing — a production-ready G35 (actually, a Japan-market Skyline) and a rough prototype 350Z (see previous page), evince an easily recognizable balance and poise, and both ride with assuring stability.

Rear-wheel drive is hip again, and platforms like Nissan's FM prove that the front engine/rear-drive layout often is termed “classic” for a reason.
Bill Visnic