On track or road, GT-R is greater

The Nissan GT-R is the PlayStation dream ride come to life, finally in the hands of the US market. Its multifunction LCD display was fittingly designed by the makers of the video game Gran Turismo. The Nissan GT-R is the PlayStation dream ride come to life, finally in the hands of the US market. Its multifunction LCD display was fittingly designed by the makers of the video game Gran Turismo. (Nissan)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ezra Dyer
New York Times News Service / August 3, 2008

The production version of the Nissan GT-R made its debut last year at the Tokyo Motor Show. It was there that I picked up a brochure with this helpful explanation: "We have ensured the basic performance such as drivability and silence, despite of it being the world top super sports car."

Fractured translation or not, I got the gist: The GT-R was designed to be a usable supercar. I was more perplexed, however, by a line that read, "We would like to treasure those essential sense of waku waku the car offers."

The sense of waku waku was to remain a mystery until months later, when I finally got behind the wheel. Now I understand. Let me tell you, this thing is completely waku waku.

Nissan gave the GT-R a clearly defined mission: annihilate nearly every other car on the market around a racetrack while providing seating for four, room for two sets of golf clubs, and year-round livability, all for the price of a well-optioned Porsche Cayman S. Amazingly, it hits each of those targets, so long as the passengers are all Seacrest-scale and possessed of an uncommon spirit of cooperation.

The 2009 GT-R is heir to Nissan's legendary Skyline GT-R, a hopped-up salaryman's car that started out as an Asian version of the original Pontiac GTO and grew into a cult icon as a video game superhero. Even so, Nissan dropped the Skyline name from the GT-R, it says, because the new model is built on its own platform. That's true, but I also suspect that the generic name is a marketing move designed to make people say Nissan with GT-R so that listeners will know just which car is being talked about.

Much has been written about the GT-R's outlandish performance, especially at the track. What I wondered before driving it was whether the tactility, the pure fun of driving, got ironed straight out in the pursuit of low lap times.

For instance, Nissan claims that in turning laps at the Nuerburgring course, where it did suspension tuning, onboard instrumentation showed that a GT-R driver made fewer steering corrections than the driver of a Porsche 911 Turbo did, and the GT-R was faster to boot. Fine, but to what end? Aren't precise steering adjustments part of the fun? If I want thrills without involvement, I can ride the Superman roller coaster at Six Flags.

Fears that the GT-R might be the second coming of the Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 - a '90s-era twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive dreadnought that died as bloated as Elvis - should be put to rest. Yes, the GT-R is a four-seat coupe with a twin-turbo V-6 and all-wheel drive. And it is loaded with treats like a paddle-shifted automated manual gearbox; an electronically adjustable suspension; and a choice among three levels of intervention by the electronic stability control.

On a screen above the console, it will plot acceleration graphs, display your fuel flow, and possibly Twitter your friends to share your rear-differential temperature. (Just kidding. If you really care about your fuel flow and rear differential temperature, you probably don't have friends.)

Despite all this tech, all the incredible capability, you get the impression that the people who engineered this car never dropped their focus on the driving experience. The GT-R simply feels good, literally in subtle details like the strips of leather covering the touch-points of the paddle-shift levers, and in the overwhelming sense of solidity built into the new platform.

The GT-R's hand-assembled 3.8-liter engine is based on a Japanese racing V-8, not on the V-6 used across the Nissan line in the United States. Its twin turbochargers are limited to delivering only about 10 pounds of boost pressure, making its rating of 480 horsepower seem reasonable - until you read the track performance figures, which make it seem laughably underrated. The engine's cylinder walls are treated to a plasma-coating process that cuts friction and lets the engine survive the high temperatures incurred in making all that power.

This motor sounds unlike any V-6 I've heard, with a keening exotic wail that combines a bass exhaust thrum with a high-pitched induction scream. Have you ever heard a badly wired car stereo that picks up static from the ignition? Well, the GT-R sounds like The Who's concert amplifiers broadcasting interference from a Rolls-Royce turbine.

The V-6's tsunami of power - zero-to-60 is dispatched in less than four seconds - is funneled into a rear-mounted six-speed transmission connected to an all-wheel-drive system that can balance power 50-50 front-to-rear or send up to 100 percent of the thrust to the rear wheels.

Because there is no third pedal to the left of the brake and gas, the computer controlling the dual-clutch arrangement that links the engine to the driveline has to guess your intentions. Your right foot conveys that information - suggesting that you are parallel parking and thus in need of delicate clutch engagement, or that you are trying to pull smartly away from a stoplight - so care must be taken not to send mixed signals.

In traffic, I got used to feathering the gas pedal just enough to feel the clutch engage, then giving it a solid stab to keep it engaged; an indecisive foot results in a herky-jerky motion that makes you look as if it's your first day on a learner's permit. In full automatic mode, I once caught the GT-R shifting into sixth gear at 31 miles an hour. Whatever it takes to avoid the gas-guzzler tax, I guess, and it works - the EPA rates the car at 16 miles a gallon in town and 21 on the highway.

More entertaining is the R mode, in which the transmission shifts as fast and as brutally as it can. If you really have an appetite for mechanical mayhem, set the transmission to R mode, the suspension to R mode, and turn off the stability control. Next, press the brake pedal and floor the gas; when you pop your foot off the brake, the GT-R will drop the clutch at 4,500 rpm. This is the so-called launch control start, and I haven't felt so bad for a piece of machinery since the final scene of "Terminator 2."

Peter Bedrosian, senior manager for product planning at Nissan, assured me that the car is built to take the abuse; Nissan takes the long view that when GT-Rs come on the used-car market in a few years, everyone will be happier if the transmission cases are not full of scrap metal.

This brings me to the one specification that the GT-R doesn't brag about: All this overbuilt, track-duty gear adds weight, bringing the total to 3,836 pounds. In the sports car world, that's definitely what you'd call big-boned. That's the price you pay for stout construction, a usable trunk, and interior amenities like an optional dual-subwoofer Bose stereo.

The biggest current downside of the GT-R is that dealers are, to put it mildly, taking advantage of pent-up demand. The base price is $70,850, but don't count on paying that unless you're married to a Nissan dealer.

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