Our day starts off at what we'd consider neutral and friendly territory - a racetrack. Gathered at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California, are four cars that have in common a base price close to $85,000 but nothing else. We have four completely different engine configurations (flat six, V-6, twin-turbo V-6, pushrod V-8) in three different locations (front-engine, mid-engine, rear-engine), powering the rear wheels or all four wheels via manual transmissions and dual-clutch automatics. There isn't even an international agreement when it comes to turning on the ignition, with keys going to the right and left of the steering column, or nowhere at all.
Never mind the details, though; let's wring out these contenders on the tight Streets of Willow course. West Coast editor and alpha-dog driver Jason Cammisa wastes little time charging out in the red GT-R. Our 2009 Automobile of the Year is not only the quickest production car we've ever tested from the land of the rising sun, it also may be the most stridently Japanese.
Sequestered to the Japanese domestic market for its first five generations, the GT-R evolved from something of a three-quarter-scale muscle car to a singular technological tour de force. At 3939 pounds, it's far and away the largest and heaviest car here, and it lumbers to the starting line like a sumo wrestler entering the ring, groaning and creaking as if in warning of the violence that lay ahead. Throttle pinned on the opening straightaway, the twin-turbo V-6 responds with a ferocity that never ceases to be startling. Physics says the nose-heavy GT-R should understeer hilariously, and the Dunlop tires howl to that effect as it enters the first turn, but Nissan's sophisticated all-wheel-drive system shuffles power adroitly to keep the suspension balanced under throttle. The GT-R, you see, is all about putting its computerized minds over matter.
It works, as the car pulls off what would be the fastest lap of the day, at 56.5 seconds, and the highest average speed - 61.8 mph. But relying on so much technology requires a unique approach. "Getting the most out of the GT-R means trusting the electronics to sort everything out," Cammisa says, adding, "and that's a tall order given its capabilities." His wariness proves warranted, as the brake boost on our test car seems to disappear intermittently, and the GT-R has a meet-and-greet with the rocky runoff on three separate occasions. We also manage to overheat the driveline, briefly sending the 485-hp Nissan into holy-crap rear-wheel-drive mode. On the bright side, this introduces us to the wonders of lurid, Godzilla-size power slides.