Nothing shakes off transatlantic jet lag like jumping into an unfamiliar sports car, merging onto an unrestricted section of German autobahn, and accelerating across the flawless tarmac until reaching an indicated 300 kph (186 mph). This is especially true if the car is right-hand drive and has most of its gauges draped in cheap, black vinyl–and there’s a Nissan engineer riding shotgun while monitoring test instruments and, most likely, wondering whether this will be the journalist who ruins his day by heading off into the trees. Still settling into the car, we discover that the steering-column stalk we just engaged controls the windshield wipers, not the turn signals, as we merge into the passing lane at 100 mph. Quickly, very quickly, the mind focuses, senses go on high alert, and palms go damp as the German landscape, luxuriant in the textures of spring, goes by in a green blur.
Yes, we were in Germany to sample one of the year’s most anticipated vehicles. The GT-R we drove there was a semidisguised preproduction car, but Nissan claims that, in dynamic terms, it was very close to production-spec. Our brief drive left us panting for more. (Go to automobilemag.com to read about our drive of the production version shown here).
We were in Nürburg, where GT-R development engineers have spent months–and more than 3000 miles–on the Nordschleife, or north loop, of the original Nürburgring racetrack. Nissan has a rich history at the ‘Ring, since the last-generation GT-R, the R34-series, held the production-car lap record (eight minutes, twenty-eight seconds) in the late 1990s.
When we arrived, back in April, Nissan reported that its new GT-R had achieved a time of 7:44 around the 12.9-mile track, but by September, it had been reduced to 7:38, beating the Turbo’s 7:40 and coming dangerously close to even the Porsche Carrera GT supercar’s record of 7:32.
As soon as we climbed into the GT-R prototype, it was clear that this is a serious sports car, not simply a gussied-up 350Z trying to cash in on GT-R heritage. The well-bolstered seats are covered in black Alcantara fabric with a special antislip finish to keep your body in place during hard cornering. The steering wheel is small, like a racing car’s, feels good in your hands, and is decorated with the famous GT-R logo. Our right-hand-drive car had a sizable dead pedal. The paddles for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox are fixed to the steering column rather than to the steering wheel, just like they are in a Ferrari. Naturally, you start the GT-R with a red button that sits in the center console just behind the gearshift lever–no self-respecting performance car can be started with the simple twist of a key these days.
It’s also immediately evident that technology is an important part of this car’s package, as the center stack is a tech geek’s dream. The large, multifunction display was designed in collaboration with Polyphony Digital, the company behind the Gran Turismo video games for Sony’s PlayStation. The system, which has nine modes, can be accessed either by touching the screen or by twisting a knob. It will track speed; acceleration, cornering, and braking g-forces; steering angles; and lap times for two different drivers. It also shows the standard all-wheel-drive system’s front-to-rear torque distribution, oil pressure, turbo boost, and the like, all in an intuitive and easy-to-use display. Three rocker switches in the center stack allow the driver to control the transmission’s shift characteristics; adjust the suspension’s dampers to Comfort, Sport, or Race mode; and turn off stability control.
Those who are familiar with GT-R history won’t be surprised to learn that Nissan decided to stick with a boost-fed six-cylinder engine for the new GT-R, but this time it’s a twin-turbocharged V-6 rather than an in-line six. Displacement is up from the R34’s 2.6 liters to 3.8 liters, and power rises dramatically, by about 200 hp, from 276 hp (which admittedly was a conservative figure). The V-6 is mated only to the paddleshift automatic; a manual gearbox is not offered, which is sure to disappoint some GT-R fans.
The V-6, code-named VR38, was specifically developed for the GT-R. Unlike the flat six in the 911 Turbo, the car that Nissan unabashedly claims as its performance target, the GT-R’s engine doesn’t wear its turbochargers on its sleeve, preferring a more linear power output to the Porsche‘s sudden kick in the pants. The V-6 will perhaps be too subdued for some, as we noted no outstanding characteristic to its tonal quality. That might have changed for the production car, though, and there’s no question that the turbos help deliver a bountiful seam of torque in the usable midrange, from 3200 to 5200 rpm. During our brief run on the autobahn, the twin-turbo V-6 easily propelled the GT-R to an indicated 280 kph (174 mph) repeatedly, in addition to the aforementioned 300 kph. (We later learned that the speedometer error was as high as ten percent, but you get the picture: this is a fast car.)
The transmission is actually the more viscerally appealing part of the powertrain. It offers three settings: A for fully automatic mode; M for manual mode; and R for race, the sportiest mode. In R, shifting becomes almost violent, and you feel and hear the transaxle–whomp, whomp, whomp–handing off each gear behind you, sounding a lot like Ferrari‘s F1-Superfast gearbox. After a few perfectly blipped downshifts, you might forget you ever wanted a manual in the first place.
During his technical briefing, chief engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno presented numerous EKG-style graphs showing that the GT-R’s acceleration, speed, steering, braking, longitudinal g’s, and other dynamic parameters were on par with those of the Turbo. “Around the Nürburgring,” he pointed out, “the cars are mostly similar, but the GT-R is a bit better on steering and acceleration, because it allows the driver to make smoother inputs.” As he said this, he grinned and mimed grasping a steering wheel, moving his hands back and forth.
That image came to mind later, when we had a chance to drive a 911 Turbo that Nissan provided for a back-to-back comparison with the GT-R prototype. The Nissan’s steering, believe it or not, is better than the Porsche Turbo’s. The 911’s steering has great feel and communication but utterly lacks the precision of the GT-R’s. Just as Mizuno-san claimed, the GT-R required far fewer minute corrections to the steering wheel to maintain the intended path through a twisty stretch of narrow, German country road. The 911 Turbo felt a little sloppy compared with the Nissan, quite frankly. The Porsche gets the nod in ride quality, though, as the Nissan was a bit stiff-legged, even when the suspension was set to comfort mode.
During two brief laps of the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit (not the Nordschleife), the GT-R felt like a thoroughbred, but it didn’t inspire any particularly heroic driving. Still, the Nissan prototype was stable, predictable, and quite poised, with excellent body control and strong, fade-free braking from the fifteen-inch front, fifteen-inch rear Brembo rotors.
Although the GT-R is built on a new platform that Nissan calls PM, for “Premium Midship,” this is a front-engine car. However, the front wheels shoulder only 52 percent of the car’s weight, partly because the engine is mounted far enough back that four of the V-6’s cylinders are located behind the front axle. And with the transaxle located aft, it’s fairly easy to rotate the car. Enter a corner from the wrong angle, as I did, neglect to turn the stability control back on, as I did, and try to correct midway through the corner by adding lots of throttle, as I did, though, and you’ll be greeted with nasty driveline jolts as the rear tires scramble for traction. Um, can I try that again, please?
A better demonstration of the car’s capabilities in extremis was provided by Japanese racing driver Toshio Suzuki, who slid the GT-R around the track in a beautiful symphony of power oversteer, turbo boost, and tire smoke. True, he was slightly overzealous as he entered a left-hander, nearly spinning the car, but he expertly gathered it up, exiting the corner with tires squealing and the transmission ripping through the gears.
This new Nissan supercar is clearly capable of carrying the GT-R torch. Previous Skyline GT-Rs (Nissan is dropping the Skyline name for the new car), although not widely known here in the United States, were performance icons in Japan and elsewhere. Their turbocharged straight-six engines were ripe for aftermarket tweaking that routinely and reliably took power to stratospheric levels–up to 800 hp. The ability of the GT-R to accommodate such modifications made it a legend in Japan but also drew the attention of authorities. “It is quite a sensitive area,” says chief engineer Mizuno, smiling. “The GT-R name is on the Japanese government’s blacklist.”
That’s because, in Japan, GT-R fanatics are notorious for racing on the freeways in pumped-up GT-Rs. Such people are known as bosozoku, or, roughly translated, “driving hooligans.” In a nod to the Japanese authorities, Nissan claims that it has taken steps to prevent such naughtiness from occurring with the new GT-R. “There is a black box,” Mizuno says, “so the car’s electronics will be very difficult to mess with.” If persistent speed freaks do succeed in breaking the GT-R’s electronic codes, they’ll void the warranty. Actually, you can probably replace that “if” with a “when.”
But now that Nissan’s long striptease is nearly over, most people will likely be quite satisfied with the new GT-R’s 473 hp and its ability to reach 62 mph in a claimed 3.5 seconds and to top out at 193 mph. Those are impressive figures, indeed, especially when you consider that the GT-R likely will cost the same as a base Porsche 911 Carrera–about $75,000–yet provide performance similar to that of the $126,000 911 Turbo. So stick your tongue back in your mouth and quit salivating: the new GT-R, the most exciting car to come out of Japan in this decade, goes on sale here in summer 2008.