|The GT-R is an utterly unique, full-on, banzai experience|
Watching the new Nissan GT-R’s reflection rippling across the surface of yet another mirror-windowed office block, it looks a world away from the bluntly functional exterior of the old R34 Skyline. The new car’s performance should be sensational, but for the first time this is a GT-R than can be craved at a standstill as well as at full tilt.
It is brilliantly and unashamedly Japanese in its design – a German or French manufacturer just wouldn’t make a car look like this. With its bold lines and riot of creases, it fits into the Tokyo atmosphere perfectly, yet it’s also aerodynamically tidy, with a drag coefficient of Cd 0.27.
It was a big and imposing car when I saw it for the first time yesterday, sitting in a showroom, but it looks even bigger and more imposing amongst the traffic today. Hiroshi Hasegawa, the car’s designer, says he took inspiration from robots, armour and the B-2 stealth bomber. Certainly if you saw one in your rear-view mirror closing you down quickly, xenon eyes boring through you, you’d get out of its way sharpish. But we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to drive it in anger and find out how good it is at clearing a path.
It’s almost six years since the GT-R was first on the cover of evo in concept form, way back in issue 041, so it’s been a long time coming. But then Nissan set itself a challenge that was always going to take some time to realise. The 280PS (276bhp) ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the Japanese government had to be side-stepped for a start, and by some margin too. Nissan has bartered its way to 473bhp at 6400rpm by claiming that the GT-R is now much, much harder to tune thanks to clever ECU trickery. They've also ditched the ceramic turbos for faster-spinning steel items. The idea is to make Japan’s roads safer by stopping backstreet tuners creating bonkers cars like they did with the last car, where on occasions the engine was upgraded to 800bhp but the standard brakes remained.
Not that there should be as much call to tune this new GT-R. Nissan claims that it will launch from a standstill to 62mph in just 3.6sec. It’s no coincidence that Porsche claims 3.7sec for the Tiptronic S 997 Turbo (the manual Turbo is another 0.2sec slower).
Other challenges Nissan set itself included building a car capable of beating the 911 Turbo’s 7min 40sec time around the Nürburgring Nordschleife, but one in which you can hold a normal conversation at 300kph (186mph). I’ve seen the video of the GT-R being piloted to a 7min 38sec lap of the Nordschleife, yet given the all-enveloping serenity when the GT-R and I nudged into the 112mph limiter on a toll road, I can well believe that idle chit-chat is still possible at over three miles a minute.
Such targets and achievements are all very impressive, but as I stepped off the plane yesterday I was still slightly sceptical about the claim that the GT-R is a supercar. It might sound heretical, but there’s always been a part of me that has thought GT-Rs are really just slightly jumped-up Evos or Imprezas. Certainly the new GT-R has now got the wow-factor looks of a supercar. And, yes, it’s got a Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) paddle-shift just like the Bugatti Veyron. But it has just the half dozen cylinders (even if they are plasma- coated, aiding cooling, increasing power and efficiency) and the fact that it has a huge boot shoots serious holes in the supercar image, because everyone knows a supercar shouldn’t really be practical.
The counter argument from Nissan is that this is a ‘multi-performance supercar’ – one that is supercar-fast but also practical and usable in all seasons. Driving round Tokyo I’m still not sure about the supercar bit, but you could certainly use it every day. The gearbox means there’s an absence of any hefty left-leg work, making traffic jams a doddle, and if you put it into auto then fuel consumption might even be respectable because it seems to shuffle into sixth gear before you reach 30mph. However, even with the dampers set to ‘comfort’, the ride is still very firm. Less uncompromising than the R34’s was, but if Japanese is your first language then you could probably identify individual characters as you drive over manhole covers.
Still, apart from the occasional jiggle over bumps, all is calm and quiet inside the GT-R as we potter through Tokyo. The leather is beautifully fitted and stitched, and I love the silver barrel with three rocker switches for adjusting the settings of (from left to right) the transmission, the dampers and the Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC, the GT-R’s sophisticated stability control system).
The steering wheel is more multi-function than seems strictly necessary, burdened as it is with an array of stereo and cruise-control switches, but the jewel-like GT-R logo in the centre of the wheel is a very nice touch. The wheel adjusts for reach and rake and the instrument binnacle behind, with its silver-ringed dials, moves with the steering column, avoiding any awkward peering-around-the-rim scenarios.
Then there’s the big screen. It has more telemetry available on it than Ross Brawn would know what to do with. Live graphs, g-meters, pressure gauges and lap timers all jostle for position. The dot tracing your longitudinal acceleration across the screen is particularly fun, but as the only time you’ll have a chance to look at it is when you’re in traffic, you’ll only see a series of little hillocks instead of the alpine peaks you know the car is capable of. Best to just ignore it and download everything to a laptop later so that you can spend hours analysing your performance on your back-road route to work at your leisure.
IT'S MINUS THREE degrees C when we arrive at the Sendai Hi-Land Raceway early next morning, but the scenery alone is enough to take your breath away. Perched high up amongst a perfect autumnal patchwork of hills with a backdrop of majestically menacing snow-capped mountains, this has to be the most stunning circuit I have ever been to. It’s charmingly run-down too, with kerbs obviously unpainted for some time and a surface that is far from pristinely smooth. There are elevations galore and corners that would take you months to learn properly, all helping earn Sendai Hi-Land a reputation as the harshest track for tyre and transmission wear in Japan. Perfect, then, for preparing the GT-R for the rigours of the Nürburgring…
I’m in the first group due out on track this morning, but before we can get in the cars and drive we have to suit up. I’m not complaining, because it puts another layer between me and the biting cold, and the Nomex romper suits are all genuine Nismo race overalls too, which is quite, er, cool. In the pit lane, engines are idling, and inside each car the trio of switches for dampers, gearbox and VDC all have red Rs illuminated, indicating that each is set to race mode. Trickling to the end of the pit lane I get a green light from the marshal, so I simply pin the throttle wide open in second gear. At which point I am in no doubt that the GT-R has supercar pace. The last time I was this wide-eyed with shock was two days earlier when I sat on a Japanese lavatory for the first time and it squirted a startlingly high-pressure jet of water at me. Almost instantly we’re into the first descending right/left sequence, before demolishing a brief straight and then dropping back to second gear for an almost hairpin left back uphill.
The engine might be warm, but the Bridgestone RE070R rubber is, of course, stone cold at this point. As, clearly, is my Muppet brain, because I very, very nearly spin the GT-R on this, the third corner of my first lap. Some frantic twirling of the perfectly sized steering wheel, a moment looking out of the side window, and stability is restored, but it was close to being the sort of story that you don’t live down for the next 25 years. But at least it determines a couple things: the VDC is plenty loose enough in race mode, and the ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive gives power first and foremost to the rear wheels.
The circuit never seems to go straight for more than a second or two at a time, and it deceives me lap after lap, but gradually the pace increases. As the tyres warm, so grip increases as well – to phenomenal levels. Strangely enough, it’s now the front that runs out of grip first and has to be reined-in as 250kg of V6 tries to lead the nose wide of the clipping points.
A shift time of 0.2sec might sound slow compared with a Scuderia’s 0.06sec, but it honestly doesn’t feel like it needs to be any faster. Even if you have to flick a paddle late on the way into a corner because it’s a tightening downhiller not the opening sweeper you were anticipating, you don’t think twice. Changes are seamless to the point where you simply don’t give them a second thought, yet there’s also just enough whiff of mechanical meshings to make it less anodyne than Volkswagen’s DSG.
By the end of my seventh and final lap I’m beginning to string some half-decent sequences together and it’s clear that the GT-R really wants to be driven just on the edge of adhesion but not much over it. You need to build the power quite progressively through a corner so that the front stays hooked up, then, as soon as you start unwinding the lock, you can open everything up. At this point the rear will dart fractionally out of line before the second carbon propshaft feeds power from the rear transaxle back to the front wheels and you catapult out of the corner with the car feeling as if it is merely skimming the surface of the tarmac.
LUNCH. RAW FISH. Hmm. And so to the road route. There are two grey GT-Rs, a red one and a white one, and they all look good. The door handle is a close relative of Aston’s system, the lever flush with the door-skin until you push one end. Settle into the quite generous, comfy bucket seat, put your right foot on the brake, press the small but fizzingly bright red starter button on the transmission tunnel and the V6 clears its throat with a dry rasp that, bizarrely, sounds very like that of a 911 flat-six.
The road from the circuit is not in the best of health, much of it scarred by lumpy repairs and broken sections, and the GTR is distinctly firm over this section. The briefest burst of acceleration, however, confirms that while it felt mighty quick on the track, it feels even faster with trees, signs and drops close at hand.
These Japanese back-roads are tight and the straights are short, but apart from being a little wide the Nissan stomps past slower traffic blissfully easily. The gearbox heightens the sensation of speed because every full-throttle burst is just one long, unbroken, unrelenting stream of power. Thankfully, given that there’s 1740kg to arrest, the six-pot Brembo callipers bite the steel discs hard and offer a good depth of feel too.
There is, however, a disconcerting amount of tramlining under braking as the monster run-flat 255/40 ZR20 Bridgestones fight to follow imperfections and cambers. Mid-corner bumps can also be slightly unsettling as the GT-R’s hugely grippy chassis is momentarily unseated from the road and, for a fraction of a second, the car feels its weight before regaining its tenacious grip. It’s unnerving the first time it happens – and it will be interesting to see how the GT-R copes with the bumps and compressions of Wales or Yorkshire – but you soon learn not to worry and just let the car deal with it.
Understeer only appears right at the limit on the road, and even when it does it’s just reassuring. You can still feel the front fighting hard and never relinquishing grip entirely. Oddly, the tail seems more mobile than it was on the circuit, which is fun. Combined with the accurate and communicative steering, this agility helps to make the car feel lighter and smaller than you know it is.
There’s a lightness to the way the V6 revs too. It wants to be kept above 3000rpm, where both IHI turbos spool up with minimal lag, but be warned: on a swift run the fuel needle will drop almost as fast as the needle on the boost gauge rises…
Perhaps the least exciting thing about the GT-R is its soundtrack. With a bit of a whine underscored by a deep grrrrr as revs increase, it sounds more efficient than characterful. To be honest, though, once the turbos are up and spinning, you’re kept so busy by the pace at which the view through the screen is changing that you seem to switch off peripheral sensations that aren’t absolutely essential to braking, turning and accelerating successfully anyway.
THE ROAD ROUTE SEEMS to develop an incurable 40kph speed limit during its later stages, but as there’s plenty of time left I decide to retrace my steps and repeat a rather good section near the start. What I don’t realise is that the Japanese don’t seem to cope very well with changes of plan. Within a couple of miles of being a rebel I’m spotted going ‘the wrong way’ by the crew of a Nissan Microbus. I notice the look of panic from its occupants, but seconds later I’m out of the village and heading monumentally quickly up a fantastically tortuous hill route.
By now I’m utterly keyed in to the GT-R way of doing things. Brake late, brake deep, flick the left-hand paddle, turn in hard, spot the exit, back on the power, catch the back end with a quarter turn but keep the throttle pinned and let the car magically straighten itself out before you hit 7000rpm and flick the right-hand paddle. Yes, there’s a hint of the computer game about it and it does start to feel quite easy after a while, but it always remains so involving and dependent on your inputs that it’s never one-dimensional. The speed it all happens at is quite enough to make sure it never requires anything less than fully focused concentration too. Fortunately free-flowing adrenalin seems to come with the territory and does quite a good job of sharpening the mind.
At the top of the hill I swing round and head back down. Left, right, long straight… what’s this? Surely not? It’s the Microbus, pelting up the hill after a car they must know they can’t possibly catch and which could have gone anywhere. I’d love to know how fast and how far they would have chased me, but as it is, they swing round in a lay-by and, whilst I’m being held up by a lorry, they tuck in behind and shepherd their wandering GT-R back towards the safe waters of ‘the scheduled route’.
By the time I get back to the beautiful Sendai Hi-Land Raceway I’m smitten with the GT-R. It is an utterly unique, full-on, banzai experience. And, yes, it does deserve to be called a supercar.
A GT-R will cost less than £35,000 in Japan, which is so unbelievable it makes you slightly sick, while the current thinking is that it will still cost as little as £55,000 when it comes to the UK in March 2009. Which at least gives us at evo plenty of time to scratch our heads over a potential group test, because at the moment I can’t think of any direct rivals.