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Nissan has been selling a very high-performance car known as the Skyline in Japan for about 20 years and in several generations. Now in its fifth generation, in 2009 it was brought to the American market as the Nissan GT-R. It has enormous performance in all directions. Considering its capabilities, the GT-R can be thought of as a performance value.
The Nissan GT-R boasts the performance level of far more expensive cars. Its advanced, extraordinary all-wheel-drive dutifully and invisibly channels the engine's 485 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque to those tires with the most grip. This is most remarkable when enlisted using Launch Control. Its twin-clutch, sequential-shifting, six-speed manumatic transaxle is competitive with, and certainly equal to or better than, the best from Porsche, Mercedes, BMW or Ferrari.
This car is terrifically good and great fun to drive, whether just tooling around, darting through rush-hour traffic or blurring telephone poles on empty back roads.
The GT-R comes with every comfort and convenience a driver and passenger need, and most of what a driver and passenger could want. The sports car-like cabin is climate controlled. The navigation system responds to voice commands. Behind the navigation system's LCD are 11 pages of data, graphs and virtual gauges that tell the tale on more of the car's dynamics than most drivers can, or want to, be bothered knowing. All this makes the red start/stop button that takes the place of a perfectly functional key almost tolerable.
The Nissan GT-R comes in one body style, a two-door, 2+2 quasi-coupe. There's also but one powertrain offered, a twin-turbocharged, 3.8-liter V6 driving all four wheels through a six-speed, twin-clutch, sequential-shifting, automated-manual transaxle. Shifts are managed either by computer or by steering column-mounted magnesium paddle shifters.
Even though it has been on the market only a short time, for model year 2010 there are some significant enhancements. The engine's horsepower is up from 480 to 485 hp, and torque has been increased from 430 to 434 pound-feet. There is new Transmission Control Module (TCM) programming that optimizes clutch engagement, thus improving drivability and acceleration with the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) system turned on (activated). More rigid brake lines offer better durability, brake calipers carry both the Brembo and the Nissan logos. There has been suspension re-tuning, with redesigned Bilstein shock absorbers that have a new valve-body design, and revised spring and damper rates. The base GT-R model has a slighter darker high-luster smoke finish on the standard 20-inch RAYS forged aluminum wheels, and a new near-black metallic finish is standard on the Premium model. There is a new Pearl White color, and the Super Silver exterior color has been enhanced and now includes a polished front bumper. The Dunlop summer tires have a revised compound. Finally, and very important for safety, front seat-mounted airbags and roof-mounted side-curtain airbags are standard.
Aesthetically, the Nissan GT-R is neither a modernized Jaguar E-Type nor a resurrection of the earliest Z cars, way back when they wore the Datsun badge. This car has none of the natural beauty of those cars, which looked like they'd gone directly to the showroom from whimsical sketches on a dinner napkin. What it does have is a sense of polished purpose, of function dictated by the need to slip through the air with minimal disturbance blended with a form shaped to let the eye flow over its lines and curves just as easily. Sort of a svelte Bauhausian ethic.
The GT-R's grille design does multi-duty. Besides channeling air to the intercooler, radiators and climate-control system's heat exchanger coils, the design enhances front downforce. The lower grille opening houses two, jet intake-like, side-mount scoops that cool the massive vented and drilled front brake discs and their full-floating, six-piston Brembo calipers. A polished, black, understated but effective chin spoiler extends beneath the front bumper like a lower lip. High-relief, lift-countering indents wrap around the lower corners of the front fenders. Pentagonal headlight housings fill the tops of the fenders. Two functional NACA vents straddle the hood's power bulge.
The front fenders give the GT-R a broad-shouldered presence leading to a narrower, kind of pinched waist body section. Narrow extractor vents that vacuum lift-inducing airflow from under the front end fit into tall slots between the fenders' trailing edges and the side body panels. An awkward GT-R badge tries to imply motion by swooping back from the top of the vent but only serves to mar the sleek flanks. Fully recessed door handles pivot out for a finger grip when the dimpled rear portion is pressed; immediately aft of that is an angled, rectangular button that unlocks the door, provided the key fob is within range.
Frameless door windows and fixed rear quarter windows taper sharply toward the rear, denying much-needed headroom for entering and exiting the car. One bystander said he was reminded of the Mustang at his first sight of the side windows and top, what Nissan calls an aero blade canopy roofline. The rear quarter panel balloons outward from the narrower mid-section just enough to cover the rear tires. The barest of a concentric blister highlights the perfectly circular front and rear wheelwells. The front end's polished black lower lip picks up after the front wheelwell and runs the length of the side body panels to the rear wheelwells, with the visual effect of masking just how close the GT-R sits to the road. Balancing the view through the seven-spoke wheels of the front Brembo calipers are full-floating, four-piston rear Brembo calipers that clamp down on vented and drilled rear brake discs.
The mildly rounded but mostly vertical rear fascia holds symmetrical pairs of smaller and larger taillights and a sharply recessed license plate surround. The Nissan logo on the liftgate and a GT-R badge fit the car better than the GT-R swoop on the front quarter panel, although all four are unnecessary adornments. A slim rear wing, rounded in a droop at the ends to match the rear quarter panels' tumble, rides the trailing edge of the trunk lid. More of that polished black lower panel loops around the back end, hosting matched sets of dual exhaust tips and a fully integrated, carbon fiber rear diffuser. From this viewpoint, the one most drivers will see of the GT-R, it's difficult to believe the rear track is a mere 0.4 inches wider than the front track.
The interior of the Nissan GT-R echoes the ethic of the exterior, again nicely blending function and form. The only features for which controls seemed at first glance unintuitive were those not widely available in other cars, regardless of price or market niche.
The driver's seat feels form-fitted with its eight-way power adjustments. Bottom and side bolsters grip upper legs and torso with confidence. Thigh support is better than average. The front passenger seat has no height adjustment, as with most cars. This leaves the passenger peering out the front and side windows like some prairie dog popping its head up out of its hole in a field in Kansas. There's more than adequate room in front for people up to several inches taller than six feet.
The rear seats are another story. Usable rear-seat legroom is very minimal, even with the front seats set for a five-foot, four-inch person. The rear seats are best considered as absorbent elements in an acoustic chamber for the Premium sound system's two subwoofers. Given the paucity of rear-seat room, there's little likelihood the GT-R will be asked to provide for more than the driver and a passenger for any length of time, so the 8.8 cubic feet of trunk space should be adequate for a long weekend road trip. At the same time, it's about right for a week's worth of groceries or a couple golf bags.
Trim materials are rich without being plush or luxurious. The padded parts look hand-stitched. Front-seat bolsters are leather, insets a faux suede that's the only part that comes up a bit short on presentation. The cabin is trimmed in low-luster, finely grained plastic and satin-finished aluminum. Lower door kick panels are a low-nap fabric. Seams and trim elements fit snugly, with no misalignments or unexpected gaps.
Buttons, switches and knobs give good and consistent tactile feel. Pleasantly, control functions are all surface mounted and easy to reach, and not buried beneath some over-the-top, fancy-shmancy Super Knob perched on a center console waiting to frustrate all but the most technophile drivers. Getting comfortable with the LCD display and associated controls takes some time and effort, but they're more transparent and intuitive than they look. The stereo control head has a volume knob, a tuning knob and six buttons for station presets. Likewise with the climate control panel, which offers symmetrically placed and sized knobs and push buttons. A horizontal bar beneath the climate and stereo control panel houses levers for toggling between the three settings for suspension, shift points and the Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC). Sadly, of the two power points, the most accessible for a radar detector is tucked away in the center console back between the front seats.
The instrument cluster holds four gauges and the LED gear indicator. The tachometer occupies the center space, with the speedometer off to the left; interesting, in a tempting sort of way, is the layout of the numbers on the speedometer. They start with 0 mph at about the 4 o'clock position, 120 mph at 9 o'clock and 220 mph between 1 o'clock and 2 o'clock. The other two gauges, to the right of the tachometer with the gear indicator, show coolant temperature and fuel level. Readouts for the remaining engine-related vitals are accessible through the LCD display.
Visibility out the front and to the sides is good. Rear quarter and back window sight lines aren't so good. That rear spoiler doesn't block enough of the rear window to obscure whether that car filling the rearview mirror is a police car or just someone in a Crown Vic. And the ballooning rear fenders encourage setting the outside mirrors at wide enough angles that the ever present blind spot doesn't hide as much as usual.
Drivers can tailor the multi-layered information center to provide display data on the LCD on front/rear torque distribution; lateral, longitudinal and total overall G-forces; inputs from accelerator, brake pedal and steering wheel; lap times; engine coolant temperature, oil pressure, turbo boost, and fuel economy. The driver can record this data; for example, to gather data during a track session.
The Nissan GT-R is meant to be enjoyed from inside, behind the wheel, not by scanning a specification sheet or gazing longingly at it in a parking lot. And from the driver's seat, it's better by quantum leaps than all these impressive data and great styling treatments promise.
The power curve is so nearly linear it's hard to believe the engine is turbocharged. Somewhere around 3500 rpm, there's the slightest bump in the power delivery, but it feels more like an engine coming on cam than two afterburner boosters stepping in. Shifts are quick and smooth, whether left to the transaxle's digital brain or managed by the driver's fingertips. Even with the transaxle in the R setting, which both sharpens the shifts and spreads them to higher performance points on the engine's power curve, gear changes are as certain as and less neck-snapping than those in the Ferrari F430 of a couple years ago, and with which the GT-R compares most favorably in every visceral and statistical measure, not least being price.
Drivers get to choose between three settings: Normal, Comfort, or R (for Race) for the suspension, transmission shift points, and the Vehicle Dynamic Control system's various algorithms, all of which work together in an attempt to keep the car within the confines of the inviolate laws of physics, notwithstanding the self-perceived prowess of the driver.
Launch Control is a particularly enticing feature for drivers insisting on enjoying the GT-R to its absolute max. To engage Launch Control: Toggle up and hold the R levers for the transaxle and for the suspension until the little lights come on, and toggle down and hold the R lever for the VDC until that light comes on; the first two engage the R settings, the last turns off the VDC. Next, nudge the shift lever to the right, into the M mode. With the left foot on the brake pedal and the fingers of the right hand on the shift paddle, mash the throttle. The engine will spin up to and hold at 4500 rpm. Slip the left foot off the brake pedal and be ready to tug that shift paddle, as the engine will hit the rev limiter in first gear almost instantaneously. The rear tires will leave 10 or 12 feet of black dash marks while the traction control fights to hook them up, and then it's nothing but supremely balanced distribution of power to the tires with the best grip. It's useful for drag racing or F1-style standing starts.
The GT-R is as equally competent driving quickly down twisting two-lane roads as it is a pleasure chugging along in the daily commute. Its wide track (distance between the centerlines of the tires side-to-side), large tire contact patches and 53/47 front/rear weight distribution deliver almost perfect response to steering inputs, with no hint of oversteer (where the rear of the car slides out) or understeer (where the car doesn't want to turn). It tracks confidently through corners, making slight adjustments to the line in response to changing pressure on the gas pedal. It straightens esses with ease, giving the driver clear indicators when transit speeds approach inadvisable levels.
The massive brakes never showed a hint of fade after miles of hard running, hauling the GT-R down time and again from high speeds to tight, first gear corners.
Obviously, those lesser-populated two-lanes are the GT R's preferred habitat, but it doesn't complain about sharing a crowded urban freeway or schlepping around town on weekend errands. The all-wheel-drive does, however, scrub the front tires on slow, tight turns, which is particularly noticeable in parking lots.
A cautionary note about ride quality: Toggle down the R lever for the suspension to get the Comfort setting. It's not that the Normal setting will have freeway expansion joints or railroad grade crossings sending drivers to the dentist to have their fillings re-glued, but the difference is substantial, and appreciated. In this measure, as well as in most others, from interior comfort to overall performance, the GT-R is on par with the best of what might be considered the competition, including the top Corvettes and Porsches and the BMW M6.
This is a hot rod, however. There are noticeable mechanical sounds from the clutches in the transaxle. First thought is that something back there needs some tightening. But, after a while, when the link between the clicks and the gear changes becomes obvious, that initial worry fades. Those are the sounds of a high-performance mechanical beast. Road noise and wind noise are about what we expect in a modern supercar: The sounds are noticeable, but not intrusive, and the stereo can mask the most audible.
The GT-R is not the most fuel-efficient car on the road, which is not surprising. EPA estimates are 16/21 mpg City/Highway.
The GT-R's long awaited arrival stateside has stoked a lot of anticipatory fires. Thankfully, for Nissan, the car lives up to the build up. From performance, both on the spec sheet and on the road, to styling and design, both inside and out, it's everything that was expected and more.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, in California's northern Central Valley.
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