Rumble Seat: 2009 Nissan GT-R
A marvel of power and speed, the all-wheel-drive GT-R coupe is so safe and serene that it's curiously lacking in thrills.
Nissan GT-R (Nissan USA)
But I'm not going to do that, see? I'm not going to say that Nissan's appallingly fast, superbly balanced GT-R sports car is a Ferrari killer, though it easily manhandles Maranello's F430 in 0-60 mph performance, quarter-mile time and lateral grip, and for a fraction of the price (an MSRP of around $70,000, though dealers can charge what they want, and will). I refuse to be drawn into comparisons between the Porsche GT2 -- a $200,000 street racer with suspension settings by Torquemada -- and this serene, effortlessly livable, all-weather coupe that, inconveniently for the top-line Porsche, matches it step for step. It matters a little, but not a lot, that the GT-R is within a second or two (7.38 seconds) of the production-car lap record at Germany's fabled Nürburgring. After all, most Americans think the Nürburgring is a lobster dish.
FOR THE RECORD:
Car review: A story on the Nissan GT-R in the April 16 edition of Highway 1incorrectly stated the vehicle's lap time at Germany's Nürburgring track as 7.38 seconds. The correct time is 7 minutes, 38 seconds. The review also referred to Yamamoto, a Japanese battleship. The correct spelling is Yamato. Some editions incorrectly referred to Reys Enginnering. The company's name is Rays Engineering.
Why? Because, for all its pants-ripping performance, the GT-R is surprisingly -- amazingly -- not all that exciting to drive. Oh yeah, there's epic velocity here, and yet, because there is so much assurance, so many layers of electronic self-preservation, there isn't much frisson or fear. Without fear, there is no fun, which anyone who's had sex in a public place can tell you.
Nissan doesn't even blush. Here's a direct quote from the product briefing: "GT-R offers supercar performance to a broad range of customers for the first time without intimidation."
Despite the GT-R's official nickname, "Godzilla," it's more like 2 tons of fluffy kitten.
Right about now legions of fanboys are throwing down their Sony PlayStation controllers to fire off strongly worded, if badly spelled, e-mails of outrage and dissent. The GT-R's cult status comes courtesy of the video game Gran Turismo, which introduced American audiences to Japan's only true super car. (Previously known as the Skyline GT-R, several generations of the car have appeared over the past 20 years.) In that it started life as an ordinary coupe and was then invested with such insane amounts of raciness (some Skylines had as much as 600 factory horsepower under the hood), the Skyline GT-R had that certain something, that deep perversion of purpose, that Asian import tuners dearly love. It was so wrong it was right.
The new model -- which in the past few years has been repeatedly sighted in prototype testing around the Nürburgring like some 193-mph Brigadoon -- now has its own distinct sheet metal, so the Skyline part of the name has been dropped. It is the first GT-R model to come to the United States. What's fascinating about the GT-R project is just how much Japanese national pride it has come to represent. Nissan's chief creative officer and GT-R guru Shiro Nakamura insisted that the design reflect Japanese culture and avoid aping the razor-cut European exoticism of Ferrari and Lamborghini. And so the GT-R's bluff, blocky masses and angular lines, inspired by the robots -- oh, excuse me -- mecha mobile suits in the "Gundam" anime series. Words cannot describe how awesome this is, if you are 11.
About as pretty as a meat mallet, the GT-R sure does look menacing in person. Its most distinctive features are the dramatic "aero-blade" air extractors aft of the front wheel wells and the fierce glowering headlamps drawn back in a scowl like a Kabuki mask (or Cindy McCain). The underbody is fared in to reduce lift -- the car has significant aero downforce at speed. And coefficient of drag is only .27.
Another surprise: This is a big car, 183.3 inches long (almost 10 inches longer than a Corvette). And it's heavy: 3,836 pounds.
And why not? This is a lot of automobile. Beginning with the engine: a hand-built and blueprinted 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 putting out 480 hp at 6,400 rpm and 430 pound-feet of torque between 3,200 and 5,200 rpm. At a minimum. Motor Trend's resident skeptic Frank Markus, puzzled that the GT-R was outperforming lighter and more powerful cars like the Porsche 911 Turbo, recently put a GT-R on a borrowed dynamometer. He concluded the engine is producing at least 507 hp and likely a lot more. I don't have access to a dyno, but given the gear ratios and quarter-mile trap speed (the poor man's dyno) of 120.0 mph, I estimate the engine is putting out more like 530 hp.
The big crank is connected to a six-speed, dual-clutch gearbox in a rear transaxle/all-wheel-drive transfer case. Typically, 100% of engine torque is directed at the rear wheels. If the AWD system's cybernetics detect wheel slip, big yaw moments or other kinds of slipping and sliding, it will step in, rerouting up to 50% of engine torque to the front wheels while coordinating with the angels of the stability control system. You can turn off stability control, but it's plain the car's dynamics have been developed with the system ciphering away in the background. Which is to say, the car's faster around a racetrack with stability control on.
The powertrain ends with four gorgeous 20-inch Rays Engineering wheels, with bead knurling on the wheel lip (to prevent the tires from twisting on the rim), wrapped in spec-built, nitrogen-filled Bridgestones.
It all gets pretty nerdy from here, so let me button it up a bit. Computer-controlled adaptive suspension. Race-threshold settings for transmission, traction and stability control. And a launch-control system that allows the mother of all torque-brake takeoffs: There's a brief moan as the highly excited gear packs sluice torque fore and aft, but there's no drama, no wheel spin, no choking incense of clutch. The GT-R simply begins moving like some pneumatically powered experiment in a physics lab. Your guts and wits catch up a beat or two later. On the day I drove the car at Fernley Raceway, near Reno, testers were getting 0-60 mph launches in the 3.1-second range. That's as quick as any car I've ever driven.
By the way, the car is built like the freakin' Yamamoto. I mean, it's solid.
So, what's the problem? It's not really a problem, just a matter of character. This car has been engineered to produce astonishing performance numbers, specifically around the Nürburgring, when driven by the finest drivers in the world. Driven by something less than the finest drivers in the world -- and that would include me -- the margins of safety and control are so broad that it actually makes the car uninvolving. Say what you want about the Porsche GT2: when you drive that car hard, you're in the fight for your existential soul. You are hanging on for a life made ever more dear by the peril.
Around the track in the GT-R, at first I thought, "Oh, wow, I'm driving my butt off. I'm a genius behind the wheel." Soon, though, I realized the car was doing most of the work, saving me from mistakes. The GT-R is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism. No matter how wrong you get your line or how bad you fumble your braking, simply turn the wheel where you want to go and mat the throttle. In an instant, the computers and AWD riddle out a solution and off you go. That doesn't happen in a Ferrari.
And so, the paradox of the Japanese super car that does everything better but is still somehow less fun. As for the engineering, you cannot question that some of the smartest car guys in the world nailed the GT-R together. But when it comes to the thrill of driving, they still have something to learn.