2009 Automobile of the Year: 2009 Nissan GT-R
The Nürburgring weapon impresses us mightily.
Angels don't start singing when you spot a Nissan GT-R. Inside and out, the car looks anything but heavenly. Even in the so-called Comfort mode, it rides like a New York City subway car, shuddering over bumps and clattering from station to station. The engine sounds like a demonically possessed household appliance. The car weighs a ton - nearly two tons, actually - and understeers accordingly. The video-game vibe is so pervasive that a conventional manual transmission isn't even offered.
And you know what? We're still naming the GT-R Automobile Magazine's 2009 Automobile of the Year.
Nissan's newest dream machine is the first Japanese supercar to call out the opposition - we're talking to you, Porsche - and whip its butt on its home turf at the Nürburgring's Nordschleife. It's also the suddenly attainable object of desire for a generation of enthusiasts who drew up driving slammed Honda Civics, watching Video Option, and playing Grand Turismo 2/3/4/5. For decades, previous versions of the GT-R - sold as the Skyline GT-R but known for good reason as Godzilla - have been icons in Japan, but they were never exported to the United States. Now we know what we were missing, and man, are we happy that we've been invited to the party.
Check out these benchmarks: a conservatively rated 480 hp. 430 lb-ft of tire-smoking torque. Zero to 60 mph in a tick more than three seconds. A top speed of 193 mph. But numbers don't tell you how much fun the GT-R produces getting from point A to point B. We're talking about neck-snapping acceleration as you paddleshift through the brutally fast dual-clutch gearbox - buh-BANG, buh-BANG, bug-BANG, buh-BANG! The brakes are so good that a HANS device ought to be standard equipment. All-wheel drive translates into unparalleled traction. Oh, and you get all this for a mere $77,840, which is a fire-sale price by supercar standards.
Critics of the GT-R tend to be Eurocentric sports car fanatics who feel threatened by the brawny competence of this Japanese upstart, and they drone on and on about how the car feels clinical and detached. It's not a car, they say; it's a video game. It's no coincidence that the GT-R's debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2007 was scheduled to dovetail with its appearance in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Or that the GT5 designers helped create the slick graphical readouts featured on eleven screens of not especially useful but amazingly cool data ranging from lateral and longitudinal g's to front and rear torque distribution.
Outside the video game community and a handful of cultists, the GT-R scores a big, fat zero in terms of cachet, and it doesn't earn many points for sophistication and grace. But Nissan wasn't out to emulate the 911 Turbo, the GT-R's acknowledged bogey; it was out to emasculate it. As a Porsche-killer, the GT-R is all about in-your-face styling and take-no-prisoners performance, and the traditional rules don't apply.
Going fast in the Nissan requires you to relearn the lessons taught in Race Driving 101. GT-R protocol calls for hammering the brakes and hurling the car into corners to cancel out its inherent understeer. Then, before reaching the apex, plant the throttle and let the computer figure out how to keep the car on the road by apportioning power among the four wheels. And while a 911 is teetering on the verge of slewing sideways and down a ravine, the GT-R is clawing ferociously out of the corner and rocketing down the next straightaway.
In the States, Nissan's sports car heritage rests primarily on the Datsun 240Z and its follow-ons. But in Japan, Z-Cars are sold as Fairladies, and the GT-R has been the premier high-performance totem since 1969, although it disappeared between 1973 and '89 and again went away in 2002. The top-of-the-line versions of the R32, R33, and R34 Skylines of the '90s showcased twin-turbo six-cylinder engines with all-wheel drive and two-plus-two seating. It was only natural that Nissan chose to follow this template with the sixth-generation GT-R. But CEO Carlos Ghosn wanted to make a global statement with the new car, so he gave chief engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno a clean sheet of paper and told him to go crazy.
Like its predecessors, the GT-R is a techno-geek's fantasy sprung to life. The handcrafted 3.8-liter V-6 benefits from variable intake valve timing and twin turbochargers mounted to the exhaust manifolds to help tame turbo lag. (It also manages a respectable 16 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway in EPA tests.) The dual-clutch transmission swaps gears with no interruption in torque delivery. The ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system can route up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear wheels or up to 50 percent to the front wheels. Although the body looks like a blunt instrument, it has a remarkably low 0.27 coefficient of drag.
The GT-R is built on Nissan's new Premium Midship platform with lots of carbon-fiber and forged-aluminum components to minimize weight. The car is big enough to hold two full-size adults and two munchkins. Factor in the Comfort mode, a fully automatic shift setting, and a legitimate trunk, and you might reasonably conclude that the GT-R could be used as an everyday driver. True, but would you hire Pablo Picasso to paint your house? Our position is that every trip to the supermarket ought to be a pretext for imagining that you're making a Time Attack run on the Tsukuba Circuit. That's what the GT-R was built for, and that's when it really shines, and that's why it's our Automobile of the Year.
All cars are compromises-between comfort and speed, between price and performance, between engineering and marketing. What we love about the GT-R is that it refuses to compromise where it really matters. It's not pretty. It's not comfy. It's not trying to make friends and influence people. It's not out to change the world. It exists for one reason and one reason only-to kick holy ass. And kick ass it does. You don't have to like it. You just have to stay the hell out of its way.
King of the 'Ring
The Porsche 911 Turbo was the target in Nissan's crosshairs when the GT-R was being developed. Naturally, that meant meeting benchmarks for 0-to-60-mph times and top speed. But above all, the GT-R also had to outrun the 911 in Porsche's own lair in the Eifel Mountains-the historic Nordschleife at the Nürburgring.
Lap times on the North Loop are strictly unofficial, but the bragging rights for manufacturers are immense. Dozens of Nissan engineers, technicians, and test drivers devoted several months to logging thousands of laps at the 'Ring. Early on, the GT-R beat the times set by the C6 Corvette and the Corvette Z06. Then, former Formula 1 driver Toshio Suzuki clicked off a lap at 7:29, which eclipsed not only the 911 Turbo but also a 911 GT2 driven by legend Walter Röhrl.
Nissan's chest-thumping over this feat aggravated Porsche enough that the company conducted its own test of the GT-R. After failing to get within 25 seconds of Suzuki's time, Porsche accused Nissan of using slicks on the Nordschleife. Nissan responded by posting in-car video of its record lap and photos of its street tires. And in a masterstroke of passive-aggressive trash talking, it also offered Porsche free driver training.
"I Had This Car In My Head" -Kazutoshi Mizuno
by Joe DeMatio
It is the custom at Japanese car companies to endow one person, the chief vehicle engineer, with absolute and total authority over the development of a new model. The company's practically unlimited resources are at his disposal in bringing his vision of the car to reality. It is an unusually autocratic position for organizations that, in general, do not celebrate the role of the individual over the group, and it is a role that Kazutoshi Mizuno, who is both chief vehicle engineer and chief product specialist for the Nissan GT-R, clearly relishes. "I had this car in my head-the performance, the dynamics-completed in my head," he told me in April 2007, when I drove a preproduction GT-R in Germany, "even before [Nissan CEO] Mr. Ghosn asked for it. People at Nissan did not believe me when I said my car would be as good as a Porsche 911 Turbo, but in a different way," he grinned, broadly. "But it is."
Mizuno-san, an intense but jovial man prone to sneaking cigarettes at any opportunity, toiled for years in the engineering trenches at Nissan after graduating from college in 1972. He joined Nissan's racing efforts in 1987 and rose to direct the company's 1994 Le Mans campaign with the R33-series Skyline GT-R. By 2000, he was in charge of the team that developed the 350Z, the first Infiniti FX, and the last-generation Skyline, among other cars. Nearly five years ago, he turned his attention to the GT-R celebrated in these pages. The crowning moment of his career came at the Tokyo show in October 2007, when he unveiled his baby. "There are three requirements for a supercar," he proudly declared. "One, it must weigh four kilograms [8.8 pounds] or less per horsepower-our ratio is 3.6 kilograms. Two, it must have 300-kph [186-mph] capability on public roads. And, three, it must be able to circle the Nrburgring Nordschleife in less than eight minutes." One man, one car, one mission accomplished.