Nissan 370Z rocks despite an automatic transmission

Everything about the 21st century just totally rocks, dudes and dudettes.

E-mails, texting, pinging, tweeting – supercharged communication that lifts us to, what, caveman scrawlings with electrons? “R U OK?” “I M.” Pure poetry, huh?

And how about New Age television? Do you want to watch a show on some guy gathering chicken droppings with his hands or would you prefer the drama of a deep-fry cook from Ohio singing “Satisfaction” – and twirling like a runaway barrel in a fat-boy faux-Jagger dance?

Video images for the ages, I say. But here’s the deal, YouTubers and DotComplicators: You can have my share of everything from the 21st century – iPhones, Steve Jobs, greenies, Facebook, Big Al Gore, Obama Nation. All of it.

Just let me keep the dramatic advancements made in cars over the last decade – the best story of this century, in my highly biased view. Consider the Monterey blue 2010 Nissan 370Z I had recently.

As you know, Z-cars are probably as pure a sports car as you can buy for less than $45,000: Rear-wheel-drive, independent front and rear suspension, great steering, fabulous balance and a little tsunami of a motor – a gutsy 3.7-liter V-6 churning out 332 horsepower.

But what in modern Hades are you supposed to do when your hot-rod Z-car shows up with just two pedals and an automatic transmission lurking in the darkness behind that fine V-6 engine. An automatic Z-car? Isn’t that what museum curators in San Francisco drive? Nissan Terry says the 2010 Nissan 370Z is probably as pure a sports car as you can buy for less than $45,000, with rear-wheel-drive, great steering and a 3.7-liter V-6 engine. View larger More photos Photo store

Probably. But one of the many auto accomplishments this decade was vastly improved automatic transmissions – and as an old-school clutch-and-stick guy, I acknowledge this with grave misgivings.

But here it goes: The new seven-speed automatic in the 370Z is quicker, about as sporting and easier to live with than a six-speed manual. Is that heresy? Maybe. But when the vaunted and highly anticipated Ferrari 458 starts arriving at dealerships, it will be available only with a manual-automatic transmission.

What do you suppose that bodes?

I’m not sure. But the shocking fact is Z goodness is not diminished in any way by what we stick-heads used to call slush-boxes.

Shifting to benefits

My blue Z was a Touring model in which the seven-speed auto was part of the $42,595 sticker price – along with paddle-shifters on the steering column and some computer program that blips the throttle effectively between shifts.

In tests by Car and Driver, the automatic Z leaped to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and sped through the quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at 108 – both slightly quicker than the manual-transmission car.

Moreover, the auto got a slightly better fuel rating than the stick: 19 miles per gallon city (the six-speed manual is rated at 18), and 26 on the highway.

In addition, as a true automatic – as opposed to a slightly lurchy, sometimes clunky manual automatic – the Z Touring car was pleasant in slow stop-and-go traffic.

Even stuck on the Dallas North Crawlway, though, the Z looked fast and furious. Radical headlamps swept onto the tops of seriously flared fenders. Strong character lines in the hood were cleverly mimicked in the steeply sloped top. And Z’s still look edgy and contemporary, still flaunting those crazy stainless-steel- looking door handles.

The car I had was equipped with the optional ($3,000) sport package, which included fine-looking 19-inch alloy wheels carrying 245/40 tires up front and 275/35s on the rear. (I would opt for that package and say no to the $1,850 navigation system – the two big options on my car.)

Though a bit pudgy at nearly 3,400 pounds, the new Z – which got shorter a couple of years ago – has great dimensions. With a height of 52 inches and width of 73, it slips easily into any lane, feels absolutely flingable in corners and can easily be washed by midgets like me. What more can you ask?

The improvements extend inside. The black plastic on the dashboard and door panels looked kind of average. But the car sported simple, fairly elegant gray leather – or leatherette – seats and a fine little three-spoke steering wheel.

A black center stack housing legible controls flowed gracefully down into a sleek console, and gray suede inserts added some class to the door panels.

You may grumble some about the low seating position and limited visibility out the back. But the moment you slip the Z into gear, you’ll forget those irritations quicker than the last text message you got.

Nice anger issues

This car has anger issues – fortunately. It fires off with a great hoarse growl and, from idle, has the sullen kick and thrust of a V-8. Get accustomed to being shoved into the seat.

The Z can easily spin its meaty rear tires in first or second and pulls aggressively to its 7,000-rpm peak – though it gets a bit coarse above 5,000. If you choose to row the boat, the paddle extending from the right side of the column provides upshifts and the left paddle is for downshifts.

As strong as it is in a straight line, the Z prefers the less-traveled road. Throw it into a fast corner and it turns in quickly, clinging to curves with resolute balance and grip. And with the paddle shifters, you can find – and hold – the right gear for the corner.

At every speed I attempted, the Z stayed absolutely flat in curves, resisting body lean. Its precise, quick steering also made those arduous “tests” even more fun.

The downside is a firm ride that can get a bit fidgety over some of Dallas’ lumpy pavement. Also, the last two Z’s I’ve had were cursed with the worst hatchback locks I’ve encountered. You can stand in a blazing parking lot for 10 minutes fumbling with the tiny button above the license plate that is supposed to open it – and often does every third day or so.

I personally have no interest in surrendering just yet to cars equipped with these highly efficient, techno-marvel transmissions. But they are shoving their way into the sports-car segment – like an uninvited guest at a party who brings a CD of funky roots music and tells great jokes.