Virginia City is a one-time mining town that grew rich on the Nevada gold rush of the mid-19th century. Today, as the largest federally designated National Historic Landmark District in the United States, the rush comes from tourists, out-of-towners strolling along its carefully preserved Wild West main street, dropping into the The Way It Was museum (strapline: ‘Of great interest to children and adults’) or browsing in a shop called Danielle’s Mix, where, according to the sign, ‘you can find a l’il bit of everything’. But today the main attraction in the town isn’t any of these self-consciously quaint dollar-traps. It’s the resolutely modern Nissan GT-R.
evo has already driven the 21st century Godzilla in Japan and the UK, and in both locations found it to be terrific. Now we’re piggybacking on the US GT-R launch, but it’s not just a tissue-thin excuse to have another razz around in the car that makes the 911 Turbo feel a bit old hat. Oh all right, there’s a bit of that, but the real reason is to find out how Americans will take to what you might generously call Japan’s only current supercar (at least until Lexus gets its finger out of its delicately shutlined arse and commits to the LF-A).
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Remember, the GT-R has no history here. Previous Skyline-based generations of this car weren’t sold in the US – they weren’t even made in left-hand drive – and the new one seems doubly hamstrung because, following a godlike decree from corporate overlord Carlos Ghosn that this must be a ‘global product’, it arrives in the States wearing the same Nissan badge it gets in the rest of the world rather than the well established, Lexus-baiting Infiniti tag that marks the company’s posho stuff in North America.
This might explain why Nissan expects to sell a mere 1500 GT-Rs a year in the US. To put that in perspective, it can shift that many units of its American best-seller, the Altima, in just two days. Yet during the GT‑R’s lengthy and phenomenally complicated development programme, America was a clear priority. Whilst all the spy-shot headlines focused on the prototypes engaged in second-shaving missions around the Nürburgring, another batch of test hacks were quietly getting on with other detail work across the Atlantic. How would the car cope with a heavy snow? An intense winter in Michigan answered that one. How would it deal with irritating everyday stuff like the sharp expansion joints on American freeways? Nissan dispatched a prototype GT-R to a specially selected, and especially awful, multi-laner in Long Beach, California, and drove it endlessly up and down the same stretch whilst a chasing camera car filmed its behaviour so that the engineers could analyse what they call ‘freeway hop’. Then they tuned the comfort mode on the adjustable suspension to minimise the problem and sooth tortured SoCal bottoms.
Yet the GT-R doesn’t feel overtly Americanised, because though the US was an important consideration, it still had to politely bow to the overall – and quite obsessive – vision of the car’s creator, Kazutoshi Mizuno. This is the bloke who tore up Nissan’s standard management structure for a new car project, assuming all three of the normal senior roles himself and assembling around him a small but dedicated team answering only to Mr Ghosn himself, like some sort of Japanese version of The Blues Brothers. We’re forming a band and only God can judge us. This is also the bloke who dealt with a Nissan director’s concerns over run-flat tyres by shoving the mithering suit into the passenger seat of a GT-R prototype, deflating one of its Bridgestones and then sending it out for a hot lap driven by a dab-hand test driver. The car came back in one piece and the man from management had learned a valuable lesson about ‘the Mizuno way’.
That same singular, autocratic vision insisted that a GT-R owner must get pleasure from his car’s appearance many years down the line, which is why this car comes with unique ‘cushion coat’ paint on its nose, a finish designed to absorb the impact of a flying stone before it can chip the surface. And Mizuno knows it works because some of his team spent their time testing it using a room full of prototype bonnets, an air rifle and a very big bag of peanuts.
It’s reassuring to know that an elephant starved just so your GT‑R can stay shiny, and especially comforting for any customer who forks out the hefty extra – $3000 in the US, UK price TBC – to have their car in silver. That might sound like a lot, but GT-Rs in this shade feature extra-fine metallic flakes in the paintwork, an additional spray of clearcoat beneath the final colour and – here comes the really expensive bit – an entire bodyshell that is hand polished not once, but after every single layer of paint and lacquer is applied. In the bright Nevada sunshine it looks… well, it looks silver. But a really nice silver.
Not that you can see much of it from the driver’s seat. But if you’re sitting there, you’ve got plenty of other things to think about, because all the recent eulogies about this car really are absolutely and wonderfully true.
The thick-wristed punch of the twin-turbo V6, the vacuum-tight grip of the chassis, the quickness of the steering, these are all remarkable. But what really impresses is the way this thing feels as a whole. It’s a digitally controlled car yet at the same time it has a sense of real, hefty analogue engineering to it too. There’s an incredible tautness, a sort of dense feeling of muscle and potency to the GT-R that it’s impossible not to get hooked on. Yet although it often seems to be straining at the leash, if you flick the Nissan’s dampers into comfort and set the double-clutch transmission to automatic, it’s strangely good at pottering in traffic.
This much we learn as we roll into Virginia City and start padding slowly up and down the main drag looking for somewhere to take pictures. But it’s only when we finally manage to park up outside a building lifted straight from a John Ford movie that we get the first sense of what America thinks of the GT-R.
‘This the new Nissan?’ says a tubby guy in mildly alarming shorts. ‘Wow.’ I tell him I didn’t expect anyone to know what it was. ‘Well, it’s got a Nissan badge on it,’ he replies, helpfully, ‘but I’ve seen this in magazines. Cool car.’
While we talk, more people buzz past, heads swivelling, even some cameras being pulled from fanny packs. Crouching down to get a fresh angle, photographer Matt Vosper hears an elderly couple arguing. ‘It’s some sorta modified Zee car,’ says the old man. ‘But Walt, it says “R” on it,’ replies the lady. ‘Noooo,’ he insists slowly. ‘It’s. Some. Kinda. Zee. Car.’ Close. It’s a Nissan at least.
Even the people who can’t ID it still seem interested. Granted, a GT-R in a one-time one-horse town does resemble a spaceship come to earth. Drive five miles into the countryside from here and it’d be all the excuse cousin Billy would need to claim the little green men had probed him again. Nonetheless, in this tiny tourist trap, of all places, the GT-R is on the verge of getting mobbed. The proprietor of a store called Forever Christmas comes across the street. ‘I’ve got to ask,’ she says. ‘What kind of car is that? It’s been getting a lot of attention.’ We tell her it’s a Nissan, expecting a sudden drop-off in her bright-eyed enthusiasm. An Infiniti it ain’t. ‘Gosh!’ she gasps, like a winsome heroine that woos John Wayne. ‘It doesn’t look like a Nissan. I like it. It’s cute!’
A mid-30s couple standing just up the street are more savvy, having just bought a Murano. ‘Great car,’ he says. ‘It’s really cool,’ she adds. ‘You know what?’ he continues. ‘I read stuff about this an’ I can’t believe it beats the Z06.’ Gnnngg! Don’t mention the sports-car war…
This is the other problem I thought the GT-R might face in America. The Germans can take an assault on the 911 Turbo. They’ll just go back to Stuttgart and damn well stay up all night on their engineering homework until their complicated analysis computers show that they’ve caught up again. But the poor old Corvette, loveable but relatively low-tech thing that it is, won’t take so well to a battering from this insanely complicated adversary, especially not when it can be pasted in drag races and lateral g tests and all those other things American testers are weirdly obsessed with. And all for less money too. The GT-R is here to pick a fight with a national treasure. I thought driving one through Corvette country might feel wrong, like sneaking up on Buzz Aldrin and kicking him in the back, but the friendly people of Virginia City don’t seem to care. They just think the GT-R is cool.
On the way out of town, however, we pull over on an empty stretch of road for another photo op. And as I sit there, a current-shape Corvette appears from a side turning and cruises slowly past. For a second I think about flicking him the Vs, then I decide it would be better to shout, ‘Oi! Wanna drag race, you LOSER?!’ In the end I do neither of these things. The bloke behind the wheel looks pretty massive and he may well have a gun. As he drives by I’m pretty sure that from behind his sinister wrap-around shades he’s giving me evils. Shortly afterwards a cop turns up and, since I’m parked pretty much in the middle of the road and Matt is about 40 yards back sizing up a low-angle shot by lying almost face-down on the centre line, we’re told to move along now please. It’s a good job too. I reckon that ’Vette Man could be rounding-up some of his small-block buddies to have us run across the county line. Or something.
Actually, maybe he isn’t. I expected America’s attitude towards the GT-R to be indifferent at best, but in fact everyone who doesn’t know what it is loves it, and they continue to love it even when they find out it’s a Nissan. We’d forgotten that this is a nation that clutched the Z-car to its bosom, and that has to count for something when it comes to sporting heritage.
The bigger surprise is that more people than not already know what the GT-R is, and they love it too. None more so than a young kid in an Evo-look Mitsubishi Lancer who follows us into a petrol station, not because he needs gas or gum or cigarettes but because he simply wants a closer look at the latest version of a car he knows all about from playing Gran Turismo on his PlayStation.
Making a Nissan GT-R
Most modern cars might spend a few weeks in a physical wind tunnel for aero fine tuning. The GT-R was in there for two years, much of it at Lotus in Norfolk, because it has one of the few facilities with a high-speed rolling road in the floor. Compare the original GT-R concept to the finished car and you can see how aero demands battered the original smooth form into something more functional.
A madly pan-global test programme can’t have come cheap either. Nor can the remarkably lavish way in which this car is built. Each bodyshell is welded together under tension on a rig that ensures absolute precision, then is clamped to a four-post shaker that tests its weld integrity and ultimate stiffness. If it’s not up to micron-precise spec, it gets rejected.
Meanwhile, the axle assemblies are put together on hydraulic jigs that replicate the weight of the finished car so that the basic geometry is bang on. And even this seems sloppy in comparison to the engine line, where pistons are fed into their plasma-lined cylinders with a gnat’s pube’s clearance under strictly centigrade-controlled conditions to avoid variance caused by the metals expanding or contracting with minute differences in temperature.
When the whole lot is brought together, the twin-turbo V6 is canted slightly forwards in the car, because only when it tips back on its mounts under hard acceleration does it form a perfect line from output to transaxle, minimising frictional loses when you least want them.
After final assembly, every single GT-R gets a 17-mile shakedown around a track that features sections designed to replicate different road surfaces around the world. Where each car is heading dictates which bits of replica road it’s driven on, and if the car feels out of sorts, the suspension is adjusted to suit.
|Bore x stroke||95.5 x 88.4mm|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cylinder, variable valve timing|
|Fuel and ignition||Electronic engine management multipoint fuel injection|
|Max power||473bhp @ 6400rpm|
|Max torque||434lb ft @ 3200-5200rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed dual-clutch transmission, ATTESA ET-S four-wheel drive, rear limited-slip differential, VDC-R|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, DampTronic dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Multi-link, coil springs, DampTronic dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Cross-drilled and vented discs, 380mm front and rear, ABS, BA, EBD, Preview Braking|
|Wheels||9.5 x 20in front, 10.5 x 20in rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||255/40 ZR20 front, 285/35 ZR20 rear, Bridgestone RE070R RFT|
|Top speed||193mph (claimed)|
|On sale||Now in the US, 2009 in the UK|