If the popular models from BMW and Honda represent the proven path for the pragmatic, Nissan’s venerable 350Z might be the pick for the iconoclast. NASA SoCal driver Michael “Stubz” Hillo admits he started developing the Z way back when because he was eager to pave his own way.

“I like the underdog story — or at least I used to,” he said.

Not to say that his idealism ever carried him away on a crusade. Actually, he’s not sentimentally attached at all these days. After 12 years of running several Zs in Super Touring 4, he’s still working with the platform because has made partnerships he’d like to maintain. Beyond the business concerns, he still wants to see an undersold platform succeed, but he’s realistic about its chances.


Easy Entry

The entry point for the Z market is relatively low, and, even with Nissan’s build quality being just above average with this car, upkeep remains relatively cheap. The Z’s stout build allows it to withstand abuse happily, and when something does break, replacement parts are plentiful.

There is the tried-and-true route to building a medium-sized ST4 car, and while that reduces the guesswork needed to nil, it doesn’t come cheaply. Those who swear by the established E46 M3 also will acknowledge that running one costs considerably more in the long run. Hell, even the purchasing price of a Z is sometimes half a comparable E46, and that’s before the rod bearings, VANOS, and rear subframe are addressed.

Others see the Z as more than just a cost-effective alternative. Chad Aalders is hopeful about the big Z’s prospects as a road racer. He learned to hone his craft in Spec Z, where the mechanical parity, easy operation, attractive contingencies, and close competition helped him become a front-runner in less than a year. When that series fizzled out in his region, he felt it was time to begin fine-tuning his car to suit the looser ST4 rules.

Tracking supercars hasn’t diminished Chad Aalder’s enthusiasm for the cost-effective Z.

He started by weighing the various combinations of power, pounds, and aero that would work best. After running through several different permutations and trying dampers from midshelf to top, he found what he believes to be the best overall compromise to help this undersold GT give the established brands at the sharp end of the pack a hard time.

For a Z, his is fairly light at 3,010 pounds. It wears 255-section Hoosier R7s and the motor makes an average 257 horsepower at the wheels. That combo and a string of local wins have given him faith in the car — so much so, he believes it could win the NASA Championships this fall.

Aalders’ Z weighs in at a tick over 3,000 pounds. Getting down to a respectable weight required more work than a comparable BMW would.

Some of his confidence comes from the fact that he can put so much seat time in easily. The Z is an affordable car. For instance, the Z’s motors are ubiquitous and can be had for a thousand dollars — try finding an S54 for less than five grand.

Cheap Cubes

There are three variants of the 3.5-liter V6 which powers the 350Z: the 2003-2005 VQ35DE, the 2006 VQ35 Rev Up, and the 2007-2008 VQ35HR. Because these engines were also shared with the Infiniti G35, they’re all fairly easy to come by, and they all have their own shortcomings.

The DE is stout and simple, and all that should be replaced are the connecting rod bolts, but they don’t have to be replaced. Because of the cost of the job, some forgo the better bolts altogether — they just wait until the engine blows and then buy another. It makes sense to be a little lazy sometimes.

With an intake, an exhaust, and a tune, the VQ35DE should produce somewhere around 250 to 260 at the wheels with similar levels of torque. However, this power is concentrated around the middle of the rev range and it falls flat north of 6,000. With long gears and limited revs, its torque can only do so much. In practice, it seems to lack straightline speed compared to BMWs with nearly identical power and weight.

“They’re roomy and easy to work on. Now, I can drop a motor in two hours,” Aalders says.

The second iteration called the “Rev Up” was released in 2006 and phased out of production by the end of that year. Such a short run is due to it suffering from an oil consumption issue that was never dealt with by the factory. The Rev Up offers no performance advantages, either. “Avoid that one like the plague,” Hillo warns.

Those looking to extract more power from the engine should consider Nissan’s last attempt at a 3.5-liter V6: the VQ35HR (High Rev). The salient takeaway with this engine is that it shifts the powerband to the right, and it gains considerably more up top with a more efficient head design. This is the best package around, and the price reflects that. However, a nice example is still just a third of the cost of a decent S54.

Aside from the heat issue, there’s one other flaw: the gearbox mated to the HR motor suffers from a faulty internal slave cylinder. There are many aftermarket slave kits that remedy this problem.

There are two more setbacks with the HR. One is the flaw in the oil gallery gasket design, and the OEM gasket and hardware must be replaced with the updated OEM versions. Considering the HR commands closer to two-thousand per motor, it makes sense to do a little preventive maintenance with this one.

The VQ is also a thirsty engine, even when heavily detuned for endurance racing. Z’s also suffer from fuel starvation, and will start to starve with as much as two-thirds (13 gallons) left in the tank. Running a topped-off tank is a gamble for a forty-minute ST4 feature length race. Thankfully, there are several aftermarket solutions available.

Stout Structure 

The first thing that the Z conveys to a driver is how nicely the steering is weighted. There’s a good deal of feel coming through the wheel, and feeling the weight build intuitively inspires some confidence. “It’s a great platform to learn how to balance a car,” Aalders adds.

However, its power steering rack is weak. “Once I started running slicks, I was breaking racks all the time. It’s now a wear item that I have to keep an eye on,” he says.

Little else on the Z could be called flimsy. Clouting curbs never bends an arm and nowhere on the car is reinforcement necessary. Actually, the only real wear item worth worrying about are the wheel bearings. “I change them every three races,” notes Patrick Chio, whose ST4 350Z has taken him to the podium many times.

The sturdier construction makes it difficult to put on a diet. “You have to get really creative with your weight loss measures (read: carbon fiber) to meet the minimum weight,” relays Hillo. For a car with aluminum arms, aluminum uprights, an aluminum subframe, and aluminum hood, it is a little porky.

Chio agrees with this — basic weight saving measures aren’t as effective with the Z. “After I stripped my Z, it still weighed in about a hundred pounds more than my E46 with the same things removed.”

For Hillo, adding aero has helped the Z’s high-speed stability and improved tire wear.

So-So Suspension

The front is a dual wishbone and the rear is a multi-link. There’s a lot of space in the wheel wells for wrenching, and enough room to comfortably squeeze a set of 275s without rolling the fenders.

Fitting a fat footprint isn’t tough. 275s fit under the factory bodywork without the help of a baseball bat.

After trying several different budget options, Hillo moved onto MCS, Penske, and Godspeed. In the end, he settled on MCS two-ways with 18K springs up front and 9K in the rear. He opted for a true coilover conversion because of the greater number of spring options and the fact that it moves the motion ratio closer to 1:1.

Largely due to weight, it’s not quite as eager in transitions. However, the shape and the length of the wheelbase aid the car in faster corners, where it demonstrates remarkable stability. “All of my best races were at Thunderhill or Laguna,” Chio adds.

Bugbear Braking

There’s no getting around it: the brakes are the least appealing part of the car. The Track Edition 350Z’s Brembos are known for their knockback issues due to the steering knuckle flexing. Chio had to get used to dabbing the brake pedal with his left foot while accelerating to make sure the pads were seated properly before braking.

Chio went through a few big brake kits, including the Alcon monoblocs, and found little improvement until installing the Stoptech Trophy Race kit, which moves the caliper closer to 3 o’clock.

More than unseated pads, it’s the ABS that limits the Z’s braking performance. It intervenes while going straight over crests and cambers, and much trailbraking usually pushes the car into ice mode. “It not only hardens the pedal, it will also disable the ABS altogether; sending all the bias to the rear and flat spotting the tires. We have wasted many sets of new tires due to this,” Chio elaborates.

The ABS did not get better over model years, but several aftermarket companies like Race Harness Technologies have since developed a transplantable Bosch Mk60 kit, which is now legal in NASA.

Hillo bought the kit because wanted some E46-like braking for himself, but after all that work and expense, he’s less than thrilled. Partially due to weight and swept surface of the rotor, he has only seen an additional 0.1 g in deceleration, though its trailbraking has improved.

Going for the big-brake kit isn’t necessarily an easy solution. After trying four different calipers, 15 pad combinations, and spending over ten grand, Hillo’s given up on finding a setup that makes a major difference.

Maybe the right way forward costs less. Aalders doesn’t mind the brakes as much as some — though he started driving an ABS-less Spec Z, which helped him improve his cadence braking. Currently, he uses a set of Z1 four-piston calipers and two different pad combinations: either the Pagid ST29 and Blue 42, front and rear, or the Carbotech XP24 and XP8. Aside from persistent knockback issues, he’s mostly satisfied with the binders — they do a reasonable job. They haven’t set him back much, either.

The tried-and-true Z1 brakes, sans ABS, are a solid option for a budget-minded driver.

Something for All Stripes

Hillo’s experience has made him philosophical in recent years. “It might not be that competitive, but it represents great value until a point — I don’t think there are cheaper ways into ST4. So many people are just looking for a way to get started. You have to ask yourself: are you more interested in getting into racing or winning races?”

It’s a valid question. With the cost of an ST4 M3 tripling what a ST4 Z could command, the Nissan makes it cheaper to earn one’s spurs. The Z has the potential to win in the right circumstances, as Hillo’s record shows.

That’s the summation of a man who’s spent his last decade racing an unloved car. Striving to find the additional speed has taken some of the wind out of his sails, but it’s also given him some of that underdog glory with his occasional wins. His pragmatic take might not galvanize huge groups of people, but he recognizes the realities of racing and would rather see people get involved than sit on the sidelines — even if the likelihood is that they’ll finish mid-pack.

Aalders is more optimistic. “After dialing in the suspension and improving the braking performance, I believe this car could win a National Championship. Since my home track will be the site of the 2024 Nationals, maybe my experience will make up for any of the car’s flaws.”

With its reasonable running costs and its so-so level of development, it might be the candidate for cost-effective ST racing to those who don’t have the budget for a BMW.
Maybe a little hope and a home track advantage are the only remaining points needed to carry this unloved middleweight to the sharp end of one of the sharpest packs in the country. Come September, we’ll get to know for sure.
Images courtesy of Chad Aalders, Patrick Chio and Michael Hillo

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