I probably don’t need to tell you by now that this is the Nissan GTR, an automotive hero in pop culture that is coveted by the Gran Turismo generation. I do however wish to comment on why I have chosen to render one of the most technologically advanced cars of our time in black and white. You see, the Ferraris in the background are bright red, and would surely steal a looker’s eye even though they are not the focus of this picture. In many ways this serves as a metaphor for what the GTR has done to the supercar realm, taking all the flash and glamour away and meeting each of its opponents in a straight fight on open ground. It forces you to ignore the history, and the flash that many supercars rely on for their appeal, in favor of pure dynamic merits alone. Around a racetrack it doesn’t matter what direction your doors open, or how many people visit your car company’s theme park in year, all that matters is your lap time, and here the GTR has shown up most of the lot of them. This car is a modern day icon, something that everyone must respect whether it is of their taste or not. I had been itching to get my hands on one since they came out, and I finally got the chance during my recent visit to Exotics Racing in Las Vegas.
The first thing you should know about the GTR is that it is purely Japanese. That is to say that nothing about the car gives any indication that it is trying to emulate a European or American sort of car. If imitation is the most sincere from of flattery, then Nissan wants nothing of it. Sure the surface the design is obviously a very modern, Japanese style, but I mean in every way. When I got in the car the first thing I noticed was that it smelled exactly like every used Infiniti G35 or Nissan Z I have ever been in (same leather and whatnot). The steering wheel also seems to feature the same hole-y, grippy material as my STi and countless other Japanese cars, and also feels similar in the way it steers. The interior design is very simple and to the point as well, with good quality but plain materials throughout the cabin. The GTR is clearly focused on one thing, performance, so if you are into fine trimmings and whatnot you should look elsewhere.
With that said, the GTR’s cabin is actually a pretty nice place to be. There is a good amount of room, and it even has a useable back seat. The front seats are snug and supportive, clearly performance minded but not hard and unpleasant like those in an Evo. For a supercar, the GTR is remarkably practical, and with its standard, front engine design there is also a very useable trunk. I would even go so far as to say that the GTR has many functional aspects of grand tourer, being comfortable and solid at speed, so for long road trips it is worth considering. Practically, this car succeeds over most offerings in its segment, although not really the focus of what the GTR is all about, it is a big plus for real world use nonetheless.
Once ready to go the instructor flipped all the switches on the center console to “Race”, meaning the assists are still on but are in their most fun setting. I click the right paddle into 1st gear and we set off. From a stop the transmission made for a jerky start, something I am used to from single clutch paddleshifts, but not dual clutches. We headed out onto the track behind a Porsche Cayenne giving a discovery lap. The first order of business was to get around the Cayenne, so I gave it the beans when I got the all clear. Thenceforth came a tsunami of torque as we shot forward with incredible acceleration; this car is fast, genuinely fast. In fact the GTR felt faster than I had thought it would, given its larger mass, definitely 500hp kind of speed. The V6 emit a fantastic noise as the revs climbed, accompanied by some hiss from the turbos. It all just felt so potent, so excessively awesome; the way a supercar should feel when opened up, only this powerband was much wider because of the turbos.
I hit 4th gear before it was time to brake, and turn into the heavily banked first corner. The GTR carries speed well, but after a few more bends I noticed that I was definitely feeling the weight of the car. The GTR is a big car, and it didn’t really seem to hide it. However, it is also an incredibly well designed big car, which allows it to keep a serious pace through corners, a pace you don’t really grasp in the moment. My driving was admittedly sloppy overall, but the car’s systems both kept me in check and kept my speed up. At one point I gave too much lock on a quick bend, and the back began to step out for an instant before the car caught itself. The instructor laughed and told me that would’ve been a spin in any other car going 105mph, a speed I couldn’t believe we were going. The GTR hides its velocity well, partly because of its size, and partly from its composure. It is nothing short of an engineering marvel in how it handles.
While it may be easy to have a fast but reckless pace in the GTR, it is an entirely different thing to drive it properly. You have to remember how big the car is, and how much weight there is up front. Going into this drive, I had been used to a Ferrari California, which has a light front end that is eager to turn in. The GTR was pretty different. It took me a while but I started to get the technique down by the end of my session, timing it so that I turned in just as I was getting off of the brake pedal and then feeding in the gas in gradually through the corner for a high exit speed. It isn’t quite “slow in, fast out” because you are still entering quite quickly, but I would say it is “ease in, then hammer down by the exit”. I found that trying to power into a corner just lead to the front tires clawing for grip as I understeered off course, with the whole car shaking violently in the process. The GTR required a good bit of finesse, and I admit to being a bit over confident going in so my lap times suffered some. Even so I found my pace in the mid 1:15s, which was still consistently faster than I managed later in the, rather difficult, Aventador. So the GTR, even in my somewhat clumsy hands, proved to be quite an effective track weapon.
Atypical is the word I would use to describe the GTR against other supercars. It is an engaging, and lively driving experience, certainly with the pace of a supercar, but it is very different in its approach. The GTR’s design is not inherently fast, being large and heavy, so it relies on top-notch engineering to make it what it is. Nissan Skyline GTRs have followed the same approach over the years with similar success, meaning the GTR’s pedigree goes back further than many modern exotics. I would say that it feels synthetically fast; as opposed to organically fast, which is the traditional lightweight, big power approach. The GTR’s computers do unbelievable things for its dynamics, and I know that many true purists will not take kindly to this no matter what. Personally, I see it as a different but equal way to build a fast car in the modern era. Weight is being added to many cars these days, so it will have to be such technology that keeps our need for speed alive and fed. In many ways I feel like the GTR, and its Skyline lineage, helped to found this approach that is now used by the Bugatti Veyron and other cars that seem to defy the laws of physics with their speed, despite their weight.
I made it a point to drive a Porsche 997 Turbo back to back with this GTR, so I could compare how they drove. To be fair the Porsche was a Turbo S and this GTR was a first-gen R35, so the playing field wasn’t exactly level in the power department. However, it was not brute speed that distinguished each car for me, it was the way they felt. Comparing the two, without concern for price, I found that I preferred the Porsche because it was lighter, a little sharper, and a little more sensational. I may be a little biased though, because I have had practice with rear engine handling dynamics on my dad’s 996 Carrera; to a new-comer the GTR would be far more conventional. However, if we bring money into the mix, the Porsche is nearly double the price of the GTR, and it certainly isn’t double the car. My advice to people shopping is this: if you easily have the money for the Porsche, then get the Porsche. But if you would have to stretch yourself at all financially, then save your money and get the Nissan because the Porsche is not worth going into debt for. They are both fantastic cars with serious speed, but also a good amount of real world usability that most supercars lack; speed bumps shouldn’t be a problem for either.
If I had to compare the Nissan GTR to something more everyday it would be the Mistubishi Lancer Evo X. Both cars are heavy but with a great chassis, and use fancy technology to make them unbelievably rapid through corners. The steering is similar too, sharp with good feel, but not as smooth as most European cars. The GTR is far more comfortable than the unashamedly racy Evo though, offering enough refinement to justify its $90k price tag. The Nissan is obviously quite a bit faster than the Mitsu, but it is remarkable how many similarities they share.
This was a big drive for me, given the GTR’s popularity. It is always interesting to experience something hands on that has been built up to such a high degree by society. For number obsessed forum dwellers, yes, the GTR is God’s gift to you because it can set all sorts of lap times and put down huge power numbers when modified. For those of us who judge cars based on dynamic sensation, and how a car makes us feel while driving it, the GTR is not as perfect. It is a huge amount of fun, and its pace around a track is both rapid and amazingly accessible, but the technology is really at the forefront of the car’s experience. I still came away from it with a big grin on my face, but it was a different kind of fun than I get from my Miata, where I have to do all of the driving myself. Speed is fun regardless of how you find it, and the GTR offers a huge dose of it for the money you spend. I cannot really fault the GTR for being so tech-y, because it allows it to deliver world-beating performance. This is more a question of taste, do you want to brag about your car’s incredible but electronically achieved, numbers, or do you want the satisfaction of knowing that your skill alone makes your car what it is on the track? I myself am in the middle somewhere because I would like to own a GTR and drive it a lot, but if it were going to be a car for special occasions, then I would want something where I was a little more necessary as a driver. It is a lot like having a dog, you want the dog to need you, not go off and be self sufficient like cats often do. Sticking with the metaphor, the GTR is very cat-like as a car.
WoM Score: Nissan GTR
Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: Luxury(1), Practicality(2), MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2
Final Score: 10/10
PS: You can experience the GTR for yourself at Exotics Racing in Las Vegas, NV. This car has since been sold, but they have replaced it with a shiny new 2012 model. It is a good car to learn track technique on for more novice drivers because it’s systems will help you out a lot. Check it out.