This sector has seen a raft of new entries in the past few months, with the Chrysler Crossfire joining the party from across the pond, Mazda unleashing its bargain-priced rotary-engined RX-8 and Honda making suspension tweaks to its S2000 roadster.
And Audi has responded to the threat with a new range-topping TT featuring a 3.2-litre V6 engine coupled to a clever gearbox which uses two clutches to ensure smoother upchanges than any other semi-auto box on offer.
So whereas buyers in this sector used to have just one choice – courtesy of the local Audi dealer – now there is a wealth of options available.
The Mazda majors on quirky appeal and a low entry price, the Crossfire's raison d'etre is styling and the Nissan's key selling point is sheer grunt. But which of the new coupe breed is the best all-rounder and which, if any, will take over from the TT as the coupe of choice for user-chooser drivers?
Well, I'll get straight to the point – the 350Z is the coupe that any self-respecting user-chooser should go for.
As well as the aforementioned V6 engine, the Nissan is clothed in a sleek body which blends subtle curves and angular details to create a muscular look. It all comes together so well, although the ungainly door handles stick out like a sore thumb.
The only downside visually is the interior, which looks a little drab and is spoiled by the large hinged flap which dominates the centre console and reminds you that you haven't specified the optional satellite navigation.
Inside, the Nissan is strictly a two seater, although there is a decent sized boot, even if its usability is impaired by the large strut brace which cuts the boot in two and also reflects badly in the rear screen.
But these are minor moans in the grand scheme of things. Once you get on the road the 350Z soon impresses.
With 276bhp on offer from the 3.5-litre V6 engine, there is plenty of performance – top speed is limited to 155mph and the 0-60mph benchmark sprint takes a fraction under six seconds.It also handles well, remaining composed under hard cornering without being so stiff as to make long distance work unbearable. And as it is rear-wheel drive, the 350Z offers tail-out thrills if you want them.
The traction control system allows only the slightest bit of power sliding before it interrupts the fun, but with the system turned off you can really kick the tail out when accelerating from a corner. But getting it back is easy thanks to the forgiving chassis and a steering rack which gives plenty of feedback.
And then there's the noise from the engine bay as the V6 engine approaches the red line. It gets quite addictive nailing the throttle pedal and listening to the gloriously throaty soundtrack as it goes from a low growl to a mad bark as the red line approaches.
So in driving terms the Nissan has this contest sewn-up – it outpaces the Chrysler, offers more involvement than the Audi and has more accessible performance than the Honda – but how does it fare on wholelife costs?
Nissan 350Z GT
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £26,315
CO2 emissions (g/km): 273
BIK % of P11D in 2004/05: 35%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 18E
Combined mpg: 24.8
CAP Monitor residual value: £11,550/44%
Depreciation (24.60 pence per mile x 60,000): £14,760
Maintenance (5.12 pence per mile x 60,000): £3,072
Fuel (15.39 pence per mile x 60,000): £9,234
Wholelife cost (45.11 pence per mile x 60,000): £27,066
Typical contract hire rate: £534 per month
Three rivals to consider
WITH the GT pack fitted, the Nissan comes in at a fraction over £26,000, easily undercutting its rivals here. But there is an even cheaper 350Z if you want it, priced at £24,000 – although this model does without the bigger alloy wheels and leather seats which come with the GT pack. The Chrysler, at £27,000, comes fully loaded, while the Honda tested here is also a GT, meaning it is fitted with the optional hard top for year-round comfort. The Audi is the most expensive of the four.
IT is surprising that the TT proves to be the cheapest in servicing, maintenance and repair costs because of the hi-tech gadgetry fitted to it. The semi-automatic DSG gearbox should mean more work is needed when the car goes in to the garage. But it wins this section, costing £2,598 over three years and 60,000 miles, compared to £2,670 for the Honda, £3,072 for the Nissan and £3,198 for the Chrysler.
FUEL economy won't be at the top of the agenda if drivers choose one of these coupes and they will struggle to match the official consumption figures because they will want to explore the performance potential of these cars. The Crossfire is the cheapest in fuel terms, just shading the Audi. The Honda is third, although the temptation to accelerate right up to its 9,000rpm red line will see fuel economy plummet. The Nissan, with its 3.5-litre V6 engine, is a distant fourth.
ALL four cars here are desirable and also new, meaning their residual value predictions are very strong. CAP Monitor estimates the Crossfire, with its novelty value and limited production run, will retain 47% of its cost new after three years and 60,000 miles, compared with 43% for the other three cars. With the lowest front-end price here, the Nissan finishes second in this sector, a penny per mile cheaper than the Honda. The Audi's high P11d price counts against it, leaving it well adrift of the Chrysler in this section.
A CLEAR victory for the Chrysler in wholelife cost terms thanks to its performance in both fuel and depreciation cost terms. It will cost 41.68ppm over three years and 60,000 miles, nearly 2ppm clear of the S2000 and almost 4ppm clear of the Nissan and Audi. The Audi's high front-end price and residual value performance count against it, while the 350Z's fuel bill sees it finish third. The Honda's challenge is blunted by third place finishes in the fuel and depreciation sectors.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
NO surprise here that all four cars are hovering around the top end of the benefit-in-kind tax table – after all, they are performance focused sports cars with big engines and high power outputs. The Audi has the lowest CO2 emissions, putting it in the 33% band for 2004/05 along with the Honda. The Crossfire and 350Z, with their big V6 engines, fall into the maximum band. For a 40% tax-payer, the Nissan will cost £307 a month in company car tax – pricey, but definitely worth it.
NISSAN's gorgeous 350Z is the coupe of choice here – it may not be the best in wholelife cost terms but its styling and performance, as well as that glorious V6 soundtrack, means it offers the best all-round option. The Honda is too banzai for everyday use (9,000rpm can get a bit tiring after a while), the Audi is desirable but perhaps a bit too common these days, while the Crossfire is underpowered and the quality of the interior is dubious for a car of this price.