First Drive: 2012 Nissan GT-R
Whether you like the Nissan GT-R's particular brand of computer-controlled, emotionless speed, you simply cannot fault its performance, where it racks up head-scratching numbers more quickly than Oprah's accountants on April 14th.
When the GT-R finally came to America for the 2009 model year, we promptly named it our Automobile of the Year. But it wasn't perfect, which we admitted when we handed it our biggest award and which we reiterated when we said good-bye to the GT-R after it spent a year in our Four Seasons fleet. Still, we remain in awe of its performance capabilities.
For the 2012 model year, the GT-R gets a light visual makeover. None of the metal body bits have been changed, just the front and rear fascias, so chances are that only serious GT-R fans will notice the subtle differences. The easiest way to spot the 2012 GT-R is by the horizontal row of LED daytime running lights. However, closer inspection reveals that the front fascia has been completely reworked, with a larger air opening that now has a frowning (instead of smiling) upper grille. There are now two side strakes on the bumper cover (up from one), and the lower splitter protrudes farther forward. The rear fascia gains two small air exhausts behind the wheels, and the headlights feature darker-tinted elements behind the clear skin.
Aside from the angrier-looking upper grille, which was marketing-driven, all the changes were made to improve aerodynamics. The 2012 GT-R slips through the air with a coefficient of drag of just 0.26, down from 0.27, with a claimed improvement in downforce of ten percent. The larger opening and better airflow results in additional cooling airflow, too, which, combined with a larger thermostat housing, drops coolant temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at a constant 300 km/h (186 mph) according to Nissan.
IMPROVED AUTOBAHN RIDE
The GT-R's ultra-stiff ride is well-documented, but at U.S. highway speeds, we were spared the worst of it. At very high speeds (i.e., on the German autobahn), the GT-R can be particularly nervous and unwieldy. The GT-R's engineering team spent the last few years camped out near the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and as a result, some changes have been made to the programming in the suspension's Comfort Mode. Like before, there's little difference to be felt between normal and comfort modes at U.S. highway speeds, but the new programming has relaxed high-speed damping for increased comfort at autobahn speeds, according to Nissan.
Additional changes were made to the suspension with the goal of improving both ride and handling. New aluminum-piston Bilstein shocks were chosen for less internal friction, and they're bolted farther to the rear of the lower control arm for increased caster. More caster often means more steering feel, and that's definitely the case in the 2012 GT-R. The Nissan still has nothing on a Porsche, a BMW, or even a Mazda where steering feel is concerned (especially on center), but it's no longer completely numb at the limit and comes alive quite nicely at very high speeds.
Assisting chassis rigidity is a new carbon-composite brace that connects the front shock towers. Not a traditional strut brace, the bar helps reinforce the front firewall to reduce diagonal twisting under heavy cornering loads and bumps—or, in other words, on the 'Ring.
Whereas previous U.S.-market GT-Rs rode on either Bridgestone Potenza RE070A or Dunlop SP Sport 600 tires, all GT-Rs worldwide are now fitted with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600 run-flat tires. Like the previous tires, the Dunlops are slick when cold but generate huge amounts of both road noise and grip. New forged-aluminum ten-spoke Rays wheels knock 6.6 pounds off the car's weight and are stiffer than the outgoing wheels. (Optional six-spoke wheels are another 3.5 pounds lighter still.)
Overall, the GT-R's ride is marginally improved. Impacts are slightly less harsh, but you'd likely need to drive the cars back-to-back to notice. The 2012, like its predecessor, still rides very hard.
The revised 2012 GT-R also has some changes under the hood. Engine output has been increased from 485 hp at 6400 rpm to 530 hp at the same engine speed. Peak torque, previously 434 lb-ft from 3200 to 5200 rpm, is now 448 lb-ft, available until 6000 rpm. The higher upper limit doesn't mean more lag—the peak starts at 3200 just like before. With unchanged IHI turbos, the engine feels the same, just stronger. Higher maximum boost pressure (up from 10.8 psi to 13 psi) and better breathing (thanks to larger turbo inlets and less restrictive exhaust and catalytic converters) team up with revised engine management to boost both the maximum torque and the speed at which it occurs.
It's a sad reality that 0-to-60-mph times sell cars, so it's important for Nissan to get the best number possible. In reality, when you're dealing with this much power, the single most important factor in obtaining a stunning number is the launch. 2009 model year GT-Rs launched with a 4000-to-4500-rpm clutch dump (Launch Control version 1, or LC1, as enthusiasts have named it). However, after a series of warranty claims resulting in damage from abuse, the function was removed from 2010 model year cars. Those cars were fitted with LC2, which was effectively not a launch control system at all, allowing only 2000 or so rpm of clutch slippage before making its way off the line. 2011 model year cars had LC3, which brought the launch speed to between 3200 and 3300 rpm.
The 2012 GT-R uses the fourth-generation launch control, or what we'll call LC4—Nissan calls it R-mode start. Blame the lawyers for that. Anyway, like LC1, it operates with stability control in R-mode, so it won't void the warranty (any transmission damage that occurs with stability control turned fully off, in any GT-R, is not covered under warranty.) Also like LC1, it allows the engine to rev to between 4000 and 4500 rpm before launch, but instead of a hard clutch dump, it releases the clutch more progressively to avoid wheelspin.
At a press event earlier this year, Nissan achieved one run in which the 2012 GT-R accelerated to 60 mph in 2.886 seconds. On cold pavement with less grip, we watched as a Nissan test driver did repeated launches. He wasn't able to get under 3 seconds—achieving 3.0 seconds twice, 3.1 twice, and 3.4 several times. These are times without a foot of rollout, as Automobile Magazine publishes, so you'll likely see even faster times in magazines that use twelve inches of rollout.
Whether the repeatable number is 3.0, 3.1, or even 4.0 seconds, it doesn't change the fact that the GT-R is a monumentally fast car. And a side-by-side race of the 2012 LC4 car versus the 2011 LC3 car provided dramatic evidence of just how much faster the new car is off the line.
BETTER ON TRACK
We were allowed to drive several laps of the west half of Buttonwillow Raceway Park in both 2011 and 2012 GT-Rs, and the difference is substantial. Continual development of shocks and springs had brought the 2011 to acceptable levels of understeer (earlier cars were far more understeer-prone, requiring substantially more power to help rotate the rear end), but the 2012 model suffers from no such handling demerits. Like all cars, you can induce understeer if you try, but the new GT-R's setup is far more neutral, allowing the computer-controlled all-wheel-drive system even better flexibility in keeping the GT-R pointed where the driver wants it.
The dramatically improved balance comes with absolutely no penalty—the new GT-R is not only less upset by midcorner bumps, it remains unbelievably forgiving, largely shrugging off bad driving while still responding to all of the driver's inputs immediately. Where last year's steering was completely numb, the new car transmits valuable information about what the front end is doing. In short, the GT-R has now become a Mitsubishi Evo-like handler; a vehicle so incredibly adept at reading the intentions of the driver that it feels like an extension of the driver himself.
Larger 15.4-inch front rotors both react to inputs and dissipate heat more quickly than the previous 15.0-inch front brakes and are still cooled by air that has already been heated by the intercoolers and engine radiators. Still, they put up with a tremendous amount of abuse before the pedal starts to go soft—and even then, they continue to work well.
Nissan hasn't yet published an official Nürburgring lap time, but preliminary runs show an improvement of two seconds over the original GT-R's 7-minute, 26-second time, in slightly wet conditions. Even if the new car hadn't beaten the old GT-R, the difference in at-the-limit behavior would be enough.
PRICING AND AVAILABILITY
The GT-R's price increases by almost $6000 for 2012 models, which should go on sale in February. The base car starts at $90,950 (including destination), and a new Black Edition starts at $96,100. The Black Edition includes black-and-red Recaro seats, a black headliner, and the aforementioned six-spoke wheels.
Non-Black-Edition GT-Rs also get a seat upgrade. The new seats are wider, softer, and more comfortable but also more supportive. The seat heater switch moves forward on the seat side and is now easy to reach (although the button, originally a toggle and then replaced by a push-switch, is once again a toggle switch).
Several interior material upgrades also phase in for 2012, the most noticeable being a carbon-fiber weave pattern on the center console.
IT STILL AIN'T PERFECT
Although it's a great performance bargain, the GT-R still isn't perfect. Unlike the world's best sports cars, which are as fun at 15 mph as they are at 150 mph, the GT-R only comes alive at the limit. Its ride is brutal, its steering uninvolved, and its engine doesn't make the great noises one associates with supercars. Its dual clutch transaxle, although improved from the original version, still clunks and bangs and works best only at full throttle. (Thankfully, new programming keeps the center clutch open during very low-speed maneuvering, avoiding the driveline binding that made previous GT-Rs difficult to park smoothly.)
Perfect or not, the GT-R's performance has gotten even better—likely as a direct result of Nissan spending so much time on German highways and the Nordschleife. Now Nissan only needs to move its team to Italy to concentrate on injecting a little charm into the car.