2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge
Manufacturer’s web site
Nissan Canada

Preview and photos by Laurance Yap

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2009 Nissan GT-R

Toronto, Ontario – Hide your children and lock the doors: Godzilla’s loose on the streets of Toronto.

It’s big; it’s angry; it may even occasionally spit a bit of flame out of its four huge exhaust pipes. The Nissan GT-R – “Godzilla” to many of its fans – goes on sale in Canada this summer, and I was lucky enough to be one of the first to get behind its chunky three-spoke wheel and head out onto Canadian roads. With 480 horses and a bassy exhaust note to go with them, the twin-turbo, four-wheel-drive monster may just be the meanest machine Japan has ever unleashed on our shores. It looks the part, too: all piercing xenon lights and angular spoilers and huge air intakes – made to masticate curves and straightaways alike.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

What’s the big deal with the GT-R? It’s a racing legend in Japan, where successive generations of hopped-up Skylines have been giant-killers on the track. It’s a legend, too, amongst video-game enthusiasts who have been driving and souping up GT-Rs in games like Gran Turismo for years. The GT-R’s tough six-cylinder engine has been a favourite of real and virtual tuners alike; it’s not uncommon to read about Skylines pushing out well over 700 horsepower with not that much modification.

Someone over at Nissan Canada must have been reading my incessant pleas for a chance to drive this car. And so it transpired that I drove the silver GT-R right off the display at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and out into the Toronto night. Thankfully, the weather co-operated: it was a couple of degrees above freezing and snow wasn’t forecast for another couple of days. Good thing, because Godzilla was rolling on 20-inch summer performance tires.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

First impressions on the drive through city streets are of a surprising sense of civility. At low speeds, the steering is light and easy, the engine is quiet and docile and the ride is pretty comfortable for a car of its credentials. Godzilla smothers bumps that a Porsche 911 would crash over; its Bose stereo setup is also the better of the Harman/Kardon systems in the Mercedes SL55 and BMW M6. While there’s no faulting the impressive quality of materials and construction, the cabin doesn’t feel hugely special. The dashboard is a leather-covered wall of black; the console is high and featureless. It all works just fine, though: the driving position is spot-on and the seat itself is terrific. The overall feel is reassuringly tough – perfect, given this car’s history.

A stop for gas gives us a chance to check out some of the more interesting design details, both inside and out. The GT-R’s angular shape, derived from a concept car first shown over six years ago, cloaks a surprisingly large body, with a pair of small rear seats for occasional passengers. The circular rear lamps, quad exhausts, huge gunmetal alloys, side air vents and helmet visor-shaped glass area give it the feel of a high-tech robot, like something out of a Japanese comic book. All the scoops and vents and wings are aerodynamically functional; even the crease on the side of the rear pillar.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

Inside, you notice the thick stitching on all of the primary driving interfaces, some beautifully-made aluminum accents and the central display’s touch screen interface – designed by the same people behind the Gran Turismo game franchise. It’s intuitive to use, with plenty of useful functions and clear readouts for things like boost pressure, 0-100 km/h time, lateral Gs, and lap time.

Time to stretch its legs a bit. Like many modern supercars, Godzilla has multiple personalities, controlled by three rocker switches on the console. For aggressive driving, dial up “R” on them all, giving the stiffest suspension setup, the most lenient stability-control setup and the quickest shifting from the six-speed dual-clutch sequential transmission. For long-distance touring, choose comfort. The in-between sport setting is just right. Despite the lack of traction in the cold weather, the GT-R is remarkably easy to drive. What impresses most is the seamlessness of the whole experience. The steering directs the front wheels with zen-like accuracy and just-right weighting. The 15-inch Brembo monoblock brakes haul the car down from speed with immense power but no drama.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps most importantly, the gearbox swaps cogs so quickly and smoothly that there’s absolutely no interruption of the power flow. Under acceleration, the second clutch already has the next gear preselected, so that when you pull on the right-hand paddle for an upshift, the change is instant and perfectly smooth. Under braking, the second clutch selects a lower gear and the engine computer blips the throttle when you downshift. This is the first time any mainstream manufacturer has fitted a dual-clutch gearbox to an ultra-high-performance car and it’s simply incredible; whether you’re going up or down the gears, the gearbox’s perfectly smooth shifts mean you never have to worry about the car’s balance being upset by a botched or less-than-perfect change.

Online car-forum participants have asked how the GT-R could have posted an impressive 7:38 lap time at the Nurburgring in Germany; I think the rear-mounted transaxle may have a lot to do with it. The ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system, which is biased towards rear-drive in most conditions but can transfer up to 50% of the power to the front wheels, plays an important role as well; you don’t feel it working so much as you notice how you just never have to worry about traction.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

Needless to say, this is an immensely fast car. After the briefest of breaths for boost to build, the twin turbochargers and the big-displacement (3.8-litre) V6 hurl the GT-R forward as if it’s being shot from a giant slingshot. The speedometer, which reads to 340 km/h, has a needle that spins remarkably quickly under full throttle. Low temperatures and summer rubber preclude any real evaluation of the car’s handling characteristics, but even being driven gently, you can tell Godzilla is immediately responsive, but also very friendly. There’s no kickback from the steering, the car doesn’t follow ruts and the rear end stays firmly planted. On the same roads in the same conditions, a Porsche 911 would be moving around a lot more and you’d have to be working harder. Hardcore enthusiasts might want the extra bit of excitement, but if outright speed is what you’re after, the Nissan’s calmer front-midship architecture and obsessively-honed aerodynamics inspire great confidence. This, despite the GT-R being a large and relatively heavy car. It weighs over 1,700 kg and dwarfs the 350Z.

It also dwarfs older GT-Rs, as we discover at a coffee shop where a number of enthusiasts have gathered. What do you get for that extra weight and size? A trunk that can comfortably swallow two golf bags, rear seats that are much roomier than a 911’s (if still just for emergency use) and a full load of comfort and convenience features. You get navigation with real-time traffic, 11 speakers and a 20-gig hard drive for the stereo, power and heat for the seats, bluetooth for your cell phone and a compact flash card slot that lets you play music or download telemetry data for analysis on your PC. Indeed, the only option in Canada will be the signature Super Silver paint colour, which is hand-sanded between coats.

2009 Nissan GTR
2009 Nissan GTR. Click image to enlarge

Now we come to what is potentially the best part of the whole package. All of this performance and technology comes at a surprisingly reasonable price. While it’s hard to call an $81,900 car a bargain, you’ll pay at least double for a similarly-capable Porsche Turbo or over $50,000 more for an Audi R8. Even the current bang-for-buck champion, the Corvette Z06, is priced $10,000 more – and doesn’t have the security of the GT-R’s all-wheel-drive, its back seats or its level of gadgetry. At this price, Nissan will have no trouble selling the 120 or 130 cars it will bring in every year; indeed, their sales will be limited more by the capacity of the factory to hand-build engines and assemble cars than by any market forces in Canada.

The GT-R may have had the most protracted roll-out in my automotive career. A concept car was shown more than six years ago at the Tokyo Motor Show, with further evolutions in 2003 and 2005 before the final production car was unveiled last October; it’s even shown up in video games in virtual form as even more of a tease.

After all that, I can, finally, breathe a sigh of relief. Not just because I’ve finally driven it, but because it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be. Not only is it an everyday supercar, but it’s one with a distinctly Japanese flavour. Its technology, its performance and its pricing make it one of the most exciting cars you’ll be able to buy in 2008.

Manufacturer’s web site
Nissan Canada

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