What do the Acura NSX, Mitsubishi 3000 GT VR4, Toyota Supra Turbo, third-generation Mazda RX-7, and the Nissan 300ZX Twin-Turbo all have in common? Each car offers staggering performance, each has a cult following, and none of them have a modern successor since they left the marketplace. With the exception of the NSX (the mid-engine car stuck around a bit longer than the others), it wasn’t until early 2001 that Japan showed America it still cared about high performance with the arrival of the Subaru WRX. Shortly after that, Mitsubishi surprised the land of SUVs with its own rally car for the street, the EVO. We then carried on for a while, enjoying Japan’s EVO vs. WRX version of the pony car wars – but there was still a certain model that American enthusiasts pined for: the Skyline. This force-fed, all-wheel-drive beast was a car we all wanted to see in places like LA and on Woodward Avenue. Now, after many years of waiting, Nissan fulfills our dream with the launch of the GT-R, due at U.S. dealers this summer.
We’ve already driven a prototype GT-R on in Germany on the Autobahn and on the modern Nurburgring circuit. But, earlier this week, we had the opportunity to sample a production, right-hand-drive GT-R in Japan. While we aren’t able to tell you how the car will feel on U.S. roads, we were able to drive the super Nissan on some excellent twisty, challenging public roads around Sendai Hi-Land Raceway as well as on the circuit itself. But before we get to that, let’s look at the impressive attention to detail put into the most important and promising Japanese sportscar since the Acura NSX.
When you see the Nissan coupe in the flesh, you are quickly aware that it isn’t just a hopped up version of a pedestrian model like an EVO or WRX. The twenty-inch, seven-spoke wheels look spectacular and fit over fifteen-inch floating brake rotors clamped by large six-piston Brembo calipers. The Aston Martin-style recessed door handles are also a nice touch. While you wouldn’t call the overall design beautiful, it carries a perfectly befitting, aggressive Japanese design.
Nissan has gone to great lengths in regards to the build process of each GT-R. Every 480-hp, VR38 twin-turbo V-6 engine is hand assembled in a clean, dust-free room by one of twenty highly skilled technicians at Nissan’s engine plant in Yokohama. The facility turns out twenty-seven GT-R engines per day, each taking three hours and twenty minutes to build. This production number will double once a second shift starts before the end of the year. Once completed, the engines are run through both a zero and full load dyno test before shipment to the Tochigi assembly plant for installation. At that plant, the GT-R rolls down the same line as the Infiniti G35 and G37 but, once finished, it is put through a unique, eight-lap shakedown by one of ten trained drivers on a test track situated next to the factory.
According to Nissan, the goal of this procedure is to “ensure circuit driving high performance upon delivery to the customer.” Brake pads and rotors are bedded in and the dual-clutch transmission is put through a process to refine the clutch plate surfaces to ensure shift times of 0.2 seconds. Finally, once completed, the chassis alignment of each GT-R is rechecked to assure a perfect setup.
The attention to detail won’t stop once the Nissan is delivered to customers. While the particulars need to be ironed out with dealers in America, each GT-R comes with free maintenance and inspections for three years. The first visit will be around 600 miles and then at 12, 24, and 36 months after delivery. At each appointment, engine and transmission adjustments are made along with an ultra-accurate chassis alignment. Nissan wants to make sure owners are able to exploit maximum performance out of their GT-R at all times and in all conditions. But enough about the details on this Japanese sports car, let’s talk about how the GT-R is from behind the wheel.
As you slide into the driver’s seat, you’re met by a well-proportioned steering wheel, column-mounted paddle-shifters, and a stubby selector for the dual-clutch six-speed transmission. At the top of the center console is a color screen that displays just about everything you would ever want to know about the car. While lots of cars tell you the level of turbo boost and the engine oil pressure and temperature, the GT-R goes about twenty steps further, supplying occupants with transmission oil temperature and pressure; front/rear torque split for the all-wheel-drive system; front-to-back, side-to-side, and combined G force data, steering angle position, and a lap timing system. The complete unit was developed in conjunction with Polyphony Digital Inc, the company behind the Sony PlayStation video game series, Gran Turismo.
As we slowly drove down the bumpy access road leaving Sendai Hi-Land Raceway, we immediately noticed the GT-R’s stiff structure and suspension setup. We felt every crack and surface change along the road and we began to wonder if Nissan might have been a bit too aggressive with the setup. But a quick blast through the gears once we reached the main road told us our early concenrs were unfounded. While stiff, the GT-R reveals a level of dampening and overall suspension feel that few other cars carry. From the ultra precise and intuitive steering to the powerful brakes, the GT-R is able to maintain over-the-road speed that will, hold on for this, likely embarrass nearly every other production car in the world. Even with the adjustable Bilstein dampers in their stiffest setting, the GT-R is never harsh and it soaks up potholes and frost heaves like a rally car. Body control, front-end grip, overall balance, engine response, and transmission shift speed all come together to yield a mega car with a mega pace. You see, manufacturers don’t spend loads of time and bags of money at the old Nurburgring just for bragging rights. Sure, the Nissan GT-R is faster than a 911 Turbo around the intimidating circuit, but a regimented testing procedure on the lumpy and bumpy track also yields huge benefits to real world driving dynamics. The time Nissan spent in Germany developing the GT-R proves this point. But all this work results in a car that is very easy to drive quickly, does this result in a less rewarding car? While the GT-R dances on that fine line between outright speed and videogame-like ease of operation, the grins on our faces stuck around long enough after the GT-R was driven like a hooligan machine to tell us that it is the real deal.
We would have loved to thrash the GT-R on the twisting roads of Japan all day long but time was getting tight and we were due back at the circuit for the track portion of the test. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we hit a load of traffic on the return leg. This allowed us to test the Nissan in everyday driving. The first thing we noticed was how the steering began to feel a bit dead on center and rubbery on initial turn-in when the car is driven at more sane speeds. The wide, 255-section front tires tended to grab ruts a bit more than we would’ve liked. In automatic mode, the transmission was slow to downshift and we felt a few shudders through the drivetrain during shifts. And that early concern from this morning about stiff ride quality started to rear its ugly head. To be honest, the car started to feel a bit boring. So, we took a turn off the main route onto a deserted road to try out the launch control system.
Toggle the transmission switch to its fastest shift-speed setting, flip to manual mode, and turn off the traction and stability control. Left foot on the brake, right foot pinning the throttle, and the engine revs rise to around 4500 rpm. Release the brake and the GT-R rockets off with a transmission shudder and a lovely four-wheel burnout. Grab the right paddle for a quick upshift at 7000 RPM and you’ve passed sixty mph in around 3.5 seconds according to Nissan. OK, we’re not bored anymore. It was so much fun that we tried two more launches, maybe that was a bad idea. Just after the third try, a warning light labeled AWD lit up telling us, “Houston, we have problem”. This light show reminded us of Tokyo at night and also brought along a load of heat radiating through the rear center console. Maybe this is why Nissan equipped the GT-R with an array of logging equipment and anti-modification software. The GT-R is the most powerful car with a dual-clutch gearbox other than the million-dollar Bugatti Veyron. We wonder if this quick-shifting transmission will prove to be the weak link when the tuner crowd cracks the code and turns the boost up to eleven on the dial. A Bill Gates style shutdown and restart brought the GT-R back to normal but we decided to be nice to the two-door rocket ship for the remainder of the flight.
With the road drive done, it was time to exercise another GT-R on the track. We were limited to two sessions behind the wheel, with only seven laps total on the 2.5-mile, 17-turn circuit. As with the road drive, the car is very quick and very easy to drive at the limit. Overall, the car feels very secure and fast with a well-balanced chassis. The GT-R is able to put down its power early and feels excellent in medium and high-speed corners. That said, we wish the engine was a bit more vocal in operation and the weight of the car, a hefty 3858 pounds, really starts to rear its head in tight, second gear corners. You have to remember that this car weighs 696 pounds more than a Corvette Z06 – that’s 22% more! It just doesn’t have the precise, tactile feel through low speed corners that it carries at higher speeds and on the road. The final session of the day was in the passenger seat for a ride along with a Nissan factory driver. It was impressive to see what the car could do with a driver who carries a bit more experience on this track than our seven laps could provide. Funny, it was still apparent from the passenger seat that the GT-R was a little piggish through low-speed corners, but it was amazing the speed he could carry into and out of the faster sections of the track.
In the end, the GT-R is an amazing car and a welcome return of a Japanese company back into the ultra-performance sports car world. It has been too long coming, so congratulations to Nissan for investing the time and money into a car of this type despite the present overly ecologically concerned world. When the fast Nissan arrives in the USA in June, it will cost $69,850 plus a yet to be determined destination charge (most likely about $800). There are very little changes from our Japanese test cars other than which side of the car the steering wheel sits. As with the first Mitsubishi EVO that come to the USA, the seats are slightly wider for larger Americans. We also get the cool-looking anthracite-painted wheels as standard. On these dubs, buyers will be able to choose between two run-flat tires, the Bridgestone RE070R summer performance tire or the Dunlop SP Sport 7010 all-season tire. All GT-Rs, whether bound for Japan or the U.S., have the same suspension tuning – which includes a comfort mode that was developed specifically for the U.S.-market. Despite this, we still reserve our final judgment on ride quality until we drive the cars on our soil next year. That initial impression still holds – the GT-R may prove to be a little too stiff in everyday driving for some buyers.
The GT-R no doubt has amazing performance for the money. While it doesn’t have the prestige of a 911 or the established following of a Corvette Z06, it is an amazing competitor to the German and the American while carrying full-on Japanese feel in the most wonderful way possible. Sure, we would love for the GT-R to shed a few pounds, OK a bunch, but we still hop on the Boeing 747 for the long flight back to the States knowing that we have just driven one of the best cars to come out in a long time.