LAS VEGAS – Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. delivers on its promise of affordable, stylish performance with the all-new ’09 370Z coupe, but prospects for near-term success in this battered economy are not good.

The modern iteration of the Z car arrived in ’03 and was overdue for updating. Four years ago, a facelift seemed like a great idea in a sport-coupe segment that lacked compelling entries. Even the giant of the sector, the modern Ford Mustang, didn’t break cover until ’05.

But today, Americans are more concerned with keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on the table than whether they can afford 332 hp and 0 to 60 (97 km/h) in under 5 seconds.

Even Peter Bedrosian, regional product manager for Nissan North America Inc., understands the challenges associated with launching the sixth-generation Z car now.

“The segment’s been dropping like a rock,” Bedrosian tells journalists during the recent media launch here. “But this segment really responds to the latest and greatest.”

Yes, the sector is product driven, but it’s saturated at a time when most buyers cannot indulge a midlife-crisis purchase.

Other vehicles in Ward’s Middle Specialty 2-door segment are either all-new or have been recently refreshed, including the Dodge Challenger, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Pontiac Solstice and Volkswagen Eos convertible.

Every one of those vehicles outsold the long-in-the-tooth 350Z in 2008. Mustang sales topped the old Z by a 9-to-1 margin. The Z car suffered a 45.5% drop in deliveries in 2008, to 10,337 units – more than any competitor, according to Ward’s data.

Plus, the much-anticipated Chevrolet Camaro launches next month, followed later in the year by a new Mustang.

The cards appear to be stacked against the 370Z. But a new day is dawning for Nissan’s storied Z nameplate, and the spiffy new coupe is destined to pass some of its competitors, certainly on the highway and likely in the sales race.

Fans of the Z’s taut sheet metal and wide hips under narrow shoulders will appreciate that the styling philosophy has not changed. With its dramatically pointed headlamps, the car still looks like a lithe feline, its head lowered in the reeds as it prowls for supper.

While styling is a priority to the 370Z buyer, equally important is performance, and a spectacular new transmission delivers it.

In addition to the wonderfully capable 7-speed automatic with standard paddle shifters, the 6-speed manual for the first time offers synchronized downshift rev matching.

The optional “SynchroRev Match” allows drivers of any skill level to experience race-quality gear shifts by automatically adjusting engine speed to the exact speed of the next gear position, smoothing out harsh up/down shifts and blipping the throttle for a dash of Formula One aural magic.

Before the arrival of sophisticated electronics, driving enthusiasts achieved this nifty feat on their own with a contorted maneuver known as “heel-and-toe” that places the right heel on the accelerator and the right toe on the brake pedal.

With an unsynchronized manual gearbox, this difficult tap dance allows the driver to strike the proper balance between throttle and brake inputs, which are crucial in corners to shaving seconds off lap times.

At the track and on the highway, the SynchroRev Match system works marvelously and is sure to force the art of heel-and-toe shifting further into oblivion. For the loyal practitioner, the system can be deactivated with a button next to the shifter.

The rear-wheel-drive 370Z gets its power from an updated version of the 3.7L DOHC V-6 under the hood of the similarly sporty Infiniti G37.

’09 Nissan 370Z Touring
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger coupe
Engine 3.7L DOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 332 hp @ 7,000 rpm
Torque 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Compression ratio 11:1
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase 100.4 ins. (255 cm)
Overall length 167.1 ins. (424 cm)
Overall width 72.6 ins. (184 cm)
Overall height 51.8 ins. (131 cm)
Curb weight 3,314 lbs. (1,503 kg)
Base price $35,760
Fuel economy 18/26 city/highway mpg (13-9 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Mustang, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, Mazda RX8, Honda S2000
Pros Cons
Snappy good looks Ergonomically challenged
So long heel-and-toe VQ V-6 feeling a bit lazy
Touring interior inviting Base fabric collects dust

This fourth generation of Nissan’s VQ engine series produces 332 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque and adds the efficiency-boosting Variable Valve Event and Lift system, which allows the engine to breathe easier at higher rpms. Specific output climbs from 87.4 hp/L in the previous car to 89.7 in the 370Z.

But this VQ does not feel that strong, and the razor-sharp throttle response that has dazzled the industry for more than a decade has lost its edge. The horsepower and torque peaks require more rpms than the previous 3.5L V-6, and premium fuel is mandated.

For the first time in 15 years, the VQ failed to make this year’s Ward’s 10 Best Engines list, partly because it has not kept pace with competitive 6-cyl. gasoline mills that are more refined and have deployed direct injection and forced induction to great effect.

The VQ is still a fine engine, and it is monumentally quieter in the 370Z than in the old 350Z, which sounded like an M-1 Abrams from the driver seat.

Z car customers complained of the racket, and the auto maker responded with a new rigid structure that helps isolate the cabin, while adding new damping materials. The revised low-backpressure dual exhaust reduces noise, too.

Nissan also considered tweaks to the front end that would have reduced tire noise – but also would have taken away some steering feel and feedback. Wisely, the engineers opted against the changes.

The result is a dynamically well-balanced chassis that holds steady in hard corners and exhibits minimal body roll. The 53/47 front/rear weight distribution mimics that of the previous 350Z. A new 3-point brace anchored to the front strut towers and the firewall enhances stability, compared with the 2-point brace in the old car.

With a shorter wheelbase (by nearly 4 ins. [10.1 cm]) and broader applications of lightweight materials, the 370Z is about 95 lbs. (43 kg) lighter than a similarly equipped 350Z.

Nissan shaved 160 lbs. (72 kg) from the body structure, partly with the use of an aluminum hood, hatchback and doors.

The weight savings were necessary to offset 200 lbs. (91 kg) of additional content required to meet new regulations. The items include structural reinforcements, curtain and side airbags and electronic stability control, which will be mandatory by 2012.

Like its predecessor, the 370Z deploys a 4-wheel independent multi-link suspension with aluminum components, while the front end gets a new double-wishbone configuration.

Inside is evidence that Nissan had to keep a lid on costs. Some Z car customers prefer a bare-bones driving experience, but the base trim level is only suitable for those who adore industrial-grade coarse black fabric that collects dust and lint.

Regardless of trim, climbing in and out poses an ergonomic challenge as the low roof line and high seat bolster forces occupants to scrunch down to avoid a bruise on the noggin.

About 60% of buyers are expected to spring for the upgraded Touring model, which adds power heated seats with synthetic suede and leather; 8-speaker Bose audio system; and satellite radio. Optional with either trim is a touch-screen navigation system and 9.3GB Music Box hard drive.

Now on sale, the base Z starts at a suggested retail price of $29,930 with 6-speed manual, while the Touring model with 7-speed automatic goes for $35,760. A sport package, which adds 19-in. forged wheels and SynchroRev Match and viscous limited slip differential, tacks on $3,000.

The 370Z pays homage to a legacy of Z cars that have defined the Nissan brand – and the Datsun brand before it. Sales volumes of the coupe won’t make or break the auto maker, but the snappy good looks are sure to generate showroom traffic.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com