The Nissan GT-R has made a deep impression in Britain this year. But with so much praise to live up to, does this bargain supercar meet expectations?
By Andrew Frankel
There is huge pressure among those who earn their living as I do not only to drive every important new car, but to do so before anyone else. Clearly there is a commercial imperative – if you’ve driven something no one else has, the resulting story will always be easier to sell – but there’s also a pride factor: we want to tell and not be told what a car is like. But with some 150 new cars being launched every year, you can’t cover them all, so you try to pick those you think will be of most interest. But even then, every year one or two inevitably fall through the net. And this Nissan GT-R was one of them.
By the time I finally made its acquaintance, I felt swamped by the tidal wave of hype upon which this all-wheel drive technological powerhouse had come surfing onto these shores. Colleagues who can normally be relied upon to remain level-headed in the face of even the most excellent and exciting of cars came over as giddy as a love-struck teenager back from a first date with the girl of his dreams.
And if I dared suggest I found it a little implausible that a car weighing more than an Audi A8 could somehow be more fun to drive than an Audi R8, I’d get the same withering looks I remember receiving from my brothers when they had children and I did not, and I dared make even the smallest observation concerning them. One was even good enough to explain, “until you have one, you couldn’t possibly understand.”
Maybe so. But now I’ve driven the GT-R on road and track, in the dry and wet, and I hope that I understand it well enough. And for what it is, it is perhaps the most remarkable road car I have driven. Point to point it’s so quick I think a Ferrari 599GTB would struggle, and I mean really struggle, to keep up with it. Yet while Ferrari’s fastest retails for a cool £202,425 when fitted with a paddle-shift gearbox like that used by the Nissan, you can park a GT-R outside your house for £52,900, or little more than a quarter of the cost of the Ferrari.
Part of this speed is explained by its 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6 motor, and if the one I drove had only the 480bhp claimed for it, they were the healthiest horses I’ve come across in a very long time. Nissan says it will cannon to 62mph in 3.5sec and I don’t doubt it. That suggests a 0-60mph time in the 3.3-3.4sec region, which is just a tenth or two off a McLaren F1. Perhaps more relevantly, it’s also a full second quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera S fitted, like the GT-R, with four-wheel drive and a semi-automatic gearbox. At this level, that’s a lifetime. And while the Porsche engine is almost 100bhp shy of that in the Nissan, the 911 itself is so much lighter, its actual power to weight ratio is only slightly inferior.
Just as remarkable, given the 1740kg of bulk the GT-R must carry from place to place, is its speed through corners. The tyres on the test car were distinctly sporting in construction and compound as you’d expect, but they weren’t the cut slicks you now find on certain extreme performance machines. Yet they generate the lateral acceleration you’d expect from a lightweight, mid-engined supercar, not a lumbering coupé with an engine under its bonnet. For this thank a transaxle twin-clutch gearbox between the rear wheels (the first of its type in the world, says Nissan) helping optimise weight distribution while reducing shift times to faster than you can think.
The result: a 7min 29sec lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, to name but one more easily digestible statistic. Put into perspective, had it been entered for the last 1000km race held there in 1983 in the height of the Group C era, that lap would have qualified it 11th out of a 38-car entry. Strange to think that for £52,900 you can buy an air-conditioned road car with space for four and a big boot that will lap faster than a slick-shod, bewinged, full race Brun Motorsport BMW M1. Such is the pace of progress.
Whether such bald facts or indeed such raw performance makes the GT-R a worthy place to park such a sum is another matter altogether. Climb aboard and you’ll think you’ve stepped into the cockpit of a space shuttle. Here you’ll find out all those things you’ve been dying to discover, from your throttle opening, steering angle and brake pressure to your longitudinal and lateral acceleration and, of course, the torque split at any given time between the front and rear wheels. What amuses me about most of this information is that if you’re driving fast enough for it to have any value, the last thing you should be doing is gazing at a display screen trying to read and decipher all those dancing diodes and flickering lines. It would make an interesting insurance claim: ‘I was just checking to see if it really was pulling 1.4g lateral at the apex so wasn’t actually watching the road…’
I think it’s fair to say that the GT-R is the best car I’ve ever been disappointed by. Everything it did was as impressive as I’d been led to believe by all those who drove it before me. But sheer speed is not enough, even when it comes complete with the immaculate manners of the GT-R. I can remember slithering around a wet track in it, marvelling at the slip angles it would generate without even thinking of spinning, yet wondering why I wasn’t enjoying myself more.
The truly great performance car lets you take the lead role in the action by providing you with a complete supporting cast of talents: in the GT-R I didn’t even feel on the stage. My part was reduced to that of director – important, but always one step removed. For while I could issue ever more outrageous instructions and marvel at its ability to execute each one with dizzying degrees of deftness, there was no rapport, no chemistry between us. It was simply doing the job I asked it to, and doing it bloody well.
I wonder how I’d feel had I driven it before rather than after everyone else. In theory, the verdict should be no different; in fact you end up feeling like a jury member attending a case that has attracted considerable public interest and then being asked to ignore everything you’ve read and seen on TV. It’s just not possible.
So if I ended up disappointed with the GT-R in a way that might not have been the case a few months back, my apologies to Nissan and the extraordinary car it has created, but through no fault of its own it turns out I approached it with a level of expectation higher than it was capable of reaching.
Driving a car after everyone else has been an interesting, even salutary experience and I shall be doing everything I can in future to make sure it doesn’t happen again.