First Drive: 2017 Nissan GT-R
A mildly tamer Godzilla is still Godzilla
You know the feeling of displacement you get when you revisit somewhere you once knew intimately? Everything's the same, but everything is different. Certain immovable objects poke through the mists of time, but they're half-obscured by newer, bigger things and take on a different look and feel.
I've got that uncomfortable feeling.
I'm in a GT-R.
Well, it looks like a GT-R, anyway, and there's a big GT-R badge staring back at me from the steering boss. Yep, definitely a GT-R. But the gearbox is sweetly polished, the diffs don't wind up and grind and grate at every low-speed maneuver, the steering feels light, and the ride is quieter, more compliant. I've traveled barely a quarter mile, but I know that Nissan's all-action hero is barely recognizable at low speeds. I just hope the beast is lying in wait just below the surface. A fully tamed Godzilla isn't Godzilla at all, right?
So this is the 2017 Nissan GT-R. It seems Nissan has updated this car every 10 to 15 minutes since its 2008 launch, but this is the most significant round of revisions since those first cars rolled out of the factory and changed our perception of performance cars forever. Too big a statement? Nope. The GT-R really did start a new era. However, while we've seen a whole new generation of 911 Turbo and GT3 since that landmark day, plus the new Audi R8, a whole new supercar family from McLaren, and the start of a new philosophy at Ferrari with the 488 GTB, the GT-R has only been tweaked incrementally here and there. It remains a phenomenal car, but it's definitely fallen behind the very curve it defined in the first place.
How to right that particular problem? I suspect the real answer is the next all-new GT-R. In the meantime, we have this car. As usual for a new model-year GT-R, Nissan gently massaged the power, fiddled with the suspension, and made the shell more rigid. The latter has happened so often, you wonder if the first GT-Rs were made of Jell-O. The headline figures are 565 horsepower at 6,800 rpm (up 20 hp) and 467 lb-ft of torque (up 4 lb-ft) from the 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V-6, plus a 3,933-pound curb weight and a price of $111,585 for the Premium model—an increase of $8,200.
What's more significant, though, than these formulaic tweaks is the philosophical shift to make the GT-R more "mature" and habitable. Besides the mechanical refinement offered by the revised dual-clutch gearbox, there's also a brand new interior featuring more tactile materials, a slightly more harmonious design (don't expect R8 levels of architectural beauty), a better touchscreen, and, as before, Bose noise-cancelling technology.
It still feels like a big car. You sit relatively high, and the GT-R initially seems like a suit jacket that's two sizes too big. The interior is much better, though. It's not exactly a Bentley Continental GT, but the leather is softer, the shapes and fittings feel more elegant and yet substantial, and though you can still find plenty of hard plastics it's not so obviously light-years behind the competition. I can't help thinking this stuff doesn't matter to hardcore GT-R fans and that the efforts don't propel it anywhere near the levels of a Porsche 911's sophistication, so it will struggle to convince non-believers that the GT-R is a similar proposition. But it's a decent attempt at revitalizing the interior, nonetheless.
If the interior is only a qualified success, the GT-R's refocused mechanical and chassis package seems instantly more ambitious and better executed. You'll definitely notice the quietness of the gearbox and diffs first if you've ever driven an earlier GT-R model. They really used to clonk and grind like a racer with a spool diff, but now the Nissan performs low-speed maneuvers almost effortlessly. It's not quite as seamless as a BMW M DCT 'box or Porsche's PDK, but it's close enough. For me that heavy-industry vibe was all part and parcel of the GT-R experience, but I can see why the newfound refinement could appeal on a day-to-day basis. The smoother, lighter steering is also impressive. It's still laced with real feedback but there's less intrusive "noise" streaming back at you and tugging the car into cambers. In combination with the stiffer shell and more fluid suspension setup, this helps the GT-R to feel more comfortable and relaxing.
The engine is fitter than ever. Throttle response is sharp and clean, and the car's small hike in torque feels bigger because it's spread across a very wide band. Basically any time you get on the throttle the car responds with greater enthusiasm. It even sounds happier. A new titanium exhaust system has at least two benefits: First, it allows you to say, "I have a titanium exhaust." Which is cool. Second, it makes the bruising V-6 howl a more musical song that really does ramp up the sense of occasion. Rather worryingly, however, is the fact the melody is assisted by "Active Sound Enhancement." This system, like others, uses the speakers to augment the naturally occurring noises. It sounds horribly contrived, but in practice you don't notice it too much.
The GT-R still feels heroically fast, of course. The launch-event venue weaves from Düsseldorf, Germany, to a place called Spa in Belgium, and on the short stretches of unrestricted autobahn it punches hard and then pins you against the ropes, speed building with a frightening relentlessness. A Corvette Z06 or 911 Turbo S might outperform the GT-R these days, but when you experience it hurtling from 80 to 160 mph in one crashing wave of acceleration, it's hard not to believe that this is very definitely Fast Enough.
Ah yes, Spa. Home of a little racetrack called Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. You may have heard of it. Nissan has kindly provided us with a couple of hours here to test the GT-R to its limits, to see if the new shape's aerodynamic benefits are really detectable to mere mortals, and to have a lot of fun. Sadly, it's raining the way it only can at Spa. When we arrive, the thick Ardennes forest is shrouded in foreboding mist and fog. It's also almost dark. If this was any other car launch the track session would be canceled, but the Japanese engineering team seems happy. "This is perfect weather to demonstrate the GT-R," they beam. Sure enough the track opens a few minutes later.
Rather unbelievably, they're absolutely right. The GT-R cuts through the water and mist and simply flies up the iconic Eau Rouge corner and later down through the long, fast left, named Pouhon, which feels like walking a tightrope. This whole place echoes with its racing history, from Formula 1 to the most devastating of sports cars, and is enthralling just to experience. But rather than wonder at Spa's majesty, I find myself agog at the GT-R's pace, grip, and balance in these most treacherous conditions. It feels more neutral than previous GT-Rs, resisting understeer well and then transitioning into oversteer with an easy grace. The brakes are fabulously powerful and show no sign of fade. The new car confounds my nagging doubt that Nissan might have dumbed down the GT-R to make it more relaxing in everyday driving. Nope. It's still a really hardcore driver's car.
Now, these are indeed very much GT-R-flattering conditions. In the dry I'm sure the GT-R's weight would be more of a handicap, and I suspect the supple setup could result in more pronounced understeer. But right here and now the GT-R feels superbly sure-footed but also adjustable and playful. It's also much more confidence-inspiring through standing water than before, something I'd noticed on the wetter sections of autobahn, too. For any track-day fans thinking of visiting Spa in rain and fog and with nightfall just starting to nibble at the red and white curb stones, the 2017 GT-R is the tool for the job.
What about back in the real world? Well, the much more polished low-speed manners will please many, and the quieter, more refined ride quality also holds real appeal. The GT-R's talents have been stretched just a little wider, and I can imagine driving one every day with all the comfort and convenience of something like a 911. That certainly wasn't the case previously.
More heartening for me and, I'm sure, other people who buy into the whole GT-R cult is that the uncompromising, exciting, madly fast, and outrageously capable supercar still lurks just below the surface. You want the full-on, hair-on-fire GT-R experience? Just ask and it shall be delivered. Godzilla has been tamed just enough. Poke it with a stick, though, and its teeth are even sharper. By the end of my time with the new GT-R, that sense of being displaced was long gone. It's still not perfect, it's still not for everyone, but it remains the real deal.
2017 Nissan GT-R Specifications
|Engine:||3.8L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/565 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 467 lb-ft @ 3,300-5,800 rpm|
|Transmission:||6-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||16/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||185.4 x 74.6 x 53.9 in|
|0-60 MPH:||2.8 sec (est)|
|Top Speed:||196 mph|