They called it “Godzilla” — and with good reason. When the original turbocharged Nissan Skyline GT-R emerged in 1989, it was hailed as the greatest ever Japanese sports car, a coupe to challenge Europe’s top speedsters such as the Porsche 911 and Ferrari Testarossa. It was never officially exported to Europe or the United States, yet that’s where the car’s mystique and legend began; fans outside of Japan heard about Godzilla, but couldn’t have one.
That was because, unlike any domestic car before it, the GT-R was built for one reason: to win in Japan’s Group A racing series, which it did repeatedly. It was basically a street-legal race car. The 280-hp, twin-turbocharged 2.6-liter engine was impressive, but the chassis made it extraordinary. Its racing construction meant the engine could be tweaked to as much as 700 hp, and the chassis would just think it was another day at the office. Successive versions in 1995 and 1999 only further enhanced this Skyline’s strong fan base.
Now meet the all-new Nissan GT-R, the most anticipated Japanese car of the new century. It’s also had the longest unveiling of any coupe in living memory. Even when Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn showed the first design concept of the next-generation GT-R, minus the Skyline prefix (because the new car is not based on a Skyline) at Tokyo Motor Show in 2001, few could have imagined what Nissan had planned for the icon. Revised designs appeared at successive motor shows until the final version turned up in 2005 at Germany’s famed Nurburgring racetrack wearing a black bra-like mask to camouflage the front and rear ends. The covers, and the bra, finally came off the automotive world’s most high-profile striptease act on Oct. 24 this year in Tokyo — and we all got to see the reborn Godzilla in the raw for the first time.
Comments at the packed news conference ranged from “mean and aggressive” to “a little light in visual drama.” The edgy exterior certainly looks aggressive, but Nissan could have injected more emotion into the headlight design. But what really matters are the car’s on-road footwork and performance. After driving the latest GT-R at Sendai’s Highland Circuit and on public roads last week, I can say that it is phenomenal. It has graduated from iconic sports car to Japan’s first real supercar. It’s Jean-Claude Van Damme meets Gran Turismo, and it sure packs a punch.
Powered by a fire-breathing, twin- turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 engine generating 473 hp/6,400 rpm and 587 newtonmeters of torque from 3,200 to 5,200 rpm (this specially developed engine is Japan’s most powerful yet), it rockets from rest to 100 kph in 3.6 seconds — equaling the Porsche 911 Turbo, the car on which it was benchmarked. The GT-R also has a proven top speed of 310 kph, which will excite German autobahn drivers.
Though packed with state-of-the-art technology, it’s the six-speed automated manual transmission that gives the car its character. With each flick of the steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters — nifty switches that control the transmission — the rear-mounted, dual-clutch transaxle changes gears seamlessly with astonishing speed and even blips on the downshifts. Gear changes take just 0.2 second. Floor your right boot at any speed and the car unleashes a tsunami of thrust. Turbo lag is essentially nonexistent; the immense torque instantly buries your back into the leather seats.
“Its gear shifts are quicker than those in my game!” says Kazunori Yamauchi, president of Polyphony Digital, maker of the Gran Turismo racing video game. That’s a compliment and a half, coming from the man who also happens to be behind the design of the GT-R’s multifunctional dash display.
Oh, and let’s not forget that this GT-R also sits on a unique racing platform. That’s no coincidence, since the car’s chief engineer is Nissan’s most celebrated racing engineer, Kazutoshi Mizuno. “One of our main concerns was weight,” Mizuno said at the track.
The big car tips the scales at a hefty 1,740 kg — 120 kg heavier than the 473-hp 911 Turbo and 300 kg more than the 504-hp Corvette Z06. But Mizuno’s team developed a layout that effectively counteracts the extra weight. With the engine up front and the gearbox between the rear wheels, Mizuno has achieved a near-perfect front-rear weight balance. That, combined with the masterful 4WD system, helps the GT-R to corner faster than any rival today.
That’s why Nissan eclipsed the 911 Turbo’s time around the 20-km Nurburgring. Employing specially built six-piston Brembo brakes, which resist fade more than any previous Japanese braking setup, racing driver and Nissan test pilot Toshio Suzuki was able to attack and exit corners faster than in a 911 Turbo, posting a lap time of 7 min. 38.5 sec in imperfect conditions. Nissan is now aggressively chasing the Porsche Carrera GT’s 7 min. 28 sec. record.
Inside, the GT-R almost feels like an airplane cockpit. The driver is surrounded by an array of switches and dials that require intensive study. Facing a 340-kph speedometer and a multifunctional display monitor, this car would thrill the most jaded tech geek. Apart from functions that allow drivers to easily measure G-forces from acceleration, cornering and braking to turbo-boost pressure and even lap times, the display monitor also allows the 180-kph speed limiter to be shut off by merely selecting “circuit” mode.
But not many owners are likely to buy a GT-R and park it at a circuit garage, saving it just for track days. Why? Versatility. One minute, the GT-R could be pottering around town as a shopping trolley, then the next minute, it turns into a Nurburgring lap-time smashing supercar. It’s blisteringly fast, packs prodigious braking and cornering and is far easier to drive than a 911 at the limit. And that means less driver fatigue.
Hang on, all that for ¥7.77 million? That’s about half the price of a 911 Turbo. Nissan, listen up. Your new Godzilla isn’t worth that. It’s worth well over ¥10 million. Ghosn knows it but wants the car to go global. In his own words, “The GT-R cannot fail.” Mr. Ghosn, there’s no chance of that.
Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motor journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.