First Drive: 2009 Nissan GT-R

2009 Nissan GT-R – Click above for high-res image gallery

With only 20 miles separating us from North Lake Tahoe, it's obvious that I hadn't secured the hood of our Super Silver Nissan GT-R after poking and prodding inside the engine bay. The left side of the bonnet is raised about a quarter-inch and flapping slightly at speed, so we pull off into a newborn subdivision to slam it shut. I step back inside and catch a glimpse of a silver Corvette in the side view mirror. The telltale air intake on the front bumper confirms that the man behind the wheel is an aficionado; it's a C6 Z06 and there's no doubt the driver knows what the GT-R is.

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All photos © 2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

"That's the third one I've seen today," our new friend points out, "What's going on?" I explain that we're doctors of journalism heading out to Reno/Fernley Raceway to wring out the GT-R with the rest of the hacks. "That thing is so over-hyped. Let's see what it can do." With only a few seconds to calibrate my moral compass, he begins counting down. "Three, two, one, GO!" He takes off with a minimum of wheel spin and I lay into the throttle about a half second too late. The GT-R bogs slightly off the line (no time for launch control) and then rockets towards the horizon in chase.

My lame launch put us about ten feet off the Z06's bumper, and with the throttle pegged to the floor, the rear-mounted, dual-clutch gear box runs through the ratios in full automatic mode. Our necks are jolted back at each shift and we can feel our spines forming a valley in the suede-covered buckets. You know the stats; you can do the math. The Z06 is around 3,100 pounds and comes packing 505 hp. The GT-R is down 25 horsepower and is almost 700 pounds heavier. But in defiance of the laws of physics, the distance between us never changes. And it continues down our imaginary quarter-mile before we brake simultaneously and make a quick left into a row of homes to talk shop and take a few photos. "The guys on the 'Vette forum aren't going to believe this," Rich says as he snaps away on his disposable camera. "It's way faster than I would've thought."

This same scenario will be played out in a hundred different cities at a hundred different traffic lights when customers finally begin taking delivery of the 2,000 Nissan GT-Rs bound for the U.S. this summer. After years of speculation, spy shots, rumors, lies and nail-biting anticipation, the GT-R is finally here, and make no mistake, it's epic.

We started our trek outside Incline Village on the northern side of Lake Tahoe and made our way through the sparsely populated towns that dot the Nevada landscape. The mixture of minimalist urban areas, mind-numbing desert expanses and undulating roads provided us with just enough time to get acquainted with the GT-R's road-going civility and techy toys before we arrived at the track.

First impression: "This thing is chunky." You can deride the GT-R's styling if you must -- and it certainly isn't pretty -- but it's purposeful. Nissan spent two years in the wind tunnel refining the GT-R's shape to achieve a Cd of .27. Every crease, bulge and kink is there for an explicit purpose. The "aero-blades" on the fenders optimize airflow around the tires and the front fascia, vents and C-pillar work in concert with the underbody diffuser and spoiler to provide maximum down force at speed.

But the GT-R's shape proves the old adage that beauty isn't skin deep. The 3.8-liter twin-turbocharged V6 is, in Nissan's own words, a tour de force. Making 480 hp at 6,400 RPM and 430 lb.-ft. of torque between 3,200 and 5,200 RPM, the engine works double duty – pure efficiency and utter insanity. The VR38DETT is hand built by a single technician in a climate-controlled clean room after the bores are plasma-sprayed to reduce friction and increase cooling. The symmetrically independent intake and exhaust plumbing is shortened for efficiency and the dual IHI turbos are practically married to the exhaust ports on the head. And with a thermostatically controlled oil cooling system, complete with a scavenger pump maintaining oil pressure to the turbos, no amount of lateral Gs will keep the slippery stuff from getting where it needs to be. All that, and it still gets a ULEV rating.

As impressive as the engine is, the transmission, chassis and all-wheel-drive system left us in awe. As you're already aware, Nissan developed its first dual-clutch gearbox for use in the GT-R, with six speeds available through either the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters or automatically controlled by the computer (shifts take place in .2-seconds when in "R" mode). The engine sends power to a carbon fiber driveshaft and on to the rear-mounted gearbox, while another steel driveshaft is mounted to the right (underneath the passenger side) and can send up to 50-percent of the torque to the front wheels when the ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive computer senses a loss of grip. The system has more sensors than the FCC, with one keeping track of steering angle, another monitoring lateral and transverse acceleration, plus systems that keep tabs on speed, tire slip, road surface and yaw rate, and then dolling out power as it sees fit. Otherwise, 100-percent of the power is delivered to the rear – exactly as God intended.

We were surprised that Nissan didn't employ a traditional torque tube to house the main drive shaft and mate the engine to the transmission. According to the Nissan crew, the motor and tranny mounts, along with the cross members, are so stiff that utilizing a torque tube would have upset the balance of the vehicle when powering out of corners.

Once Hal deems a wheel, or wheels, worthy of motivation, power is sent to 20-inch rollers, sized 9.5-inches wide up front and 10.5-inches in the rear. Nissan tapped its long-time partner, Rays Engineering, to supply the hoops, and made it a point to include bead knurling on the inside of the wheels to prevent the tires from shifting under high cornering loads – something that was apparently a problem while testing at the Nurburgring. The nitrogen-filled, Bridgestone run-flats we used on our drive are the same tires found on the Premium model, but Dunlops are standard and Nissan will be offering Blizzaks if you decide to test out the Snow setting on the ATTESA system.

As with the engine and transmission, the suspension is another masterpiece of modern automotive engineering. The GT-R is suspended by independent double-wishbones in the front and a multi-link rear setup, and uses a model-specific version of Bilstein's DampTronic system (similar to that used on Porsches) that provides even more information for the computer to sort out when pushing the GT-R to the limits.

The interior, like the exterior, is form following function. The thrones are incredibly comfortable and provide some serious bolstering, although we noticed that the driver seat might be a bit wider than the passenger seat. The rear seats certainly looked nice, but the absolutely laughable rear legroom prevented us from even considering spending time out back.

With our right foot on the brake, we pressed the red start/stop button mounted on the center console, heard a barely audible whine under the unenthusiastic hum of the V6 and then slotted the gear selector into drive. All the controls -- the paddle shifters, steering wheel-mounted switches, climate dials and in-car computer buttons -- are clearly marked and easy to read. Overall, the switchgear has a crisp feel, but you never forget that you're still in a Nissan. Some of the plastics aren't top-shelf, and the HVAC knobs lack any kind of tactility, but most of the materials were better than expected and the leather inserts on the dash, doors and center console did their best to elevate the rest of the interior. But honestly, we just don't care. Bigger things are on the horizon and we're still an hour away from the track.

Our first sampling of the GT-R's prodigious thrust came a few minutes before our showdown with the Z06. A line of cars strung along by an octogenarian in a PT Cruiser going 15 mph under the speed limit threatened to separate us from the rest of the GT-R parade. We grabbed the paddle shifter once, twice and then a third time, confirmed the number "3" on the dash-mounted gear display and then squeezed the throttle. The revs were already on boil by the time we blew past the first car in the convoy; then the second, the third, the fourth, gear change, the sixth and then grandpa was a speck in our rear-view mirror. The whole maneuver lasted all of seven seconds, and at no point did we feel like the GT-R was breaking a sweat. On the other hand, we temporarily lost the will to breathe. It was the kind of visceral immediacy we've only experienced in a handful of vehicles that cost twice as much and come equipped with far more drama.

The weighting of the steering wheel was one of the first things that struck us. It's heavy, but not daunting, and it matches the bulky feeling the GT-R conveys through the seat. It feels planted and composed on the road -- more grand-tourer than apex assassin. And then we hit the first set of curves and our preconceptions vanished. The GT-R still felt heavy, but hardly ponderous. The steering was precise and immediate, and it was obvious that there was plenty of power in reserve as we climbed through the hills. Our pace quickened, our confidence grew and then as quickly as that superb bit of tarmac began, it ended and we were back on the highway enjoying a suspension on the firm side of bearable.

When we finally arrived at Reno/Fernley, about 20 minutes late after our aforementioned indiscretion, the track reps were already giving their presentation. After making sure we understood the layout and wouldn't test the limits of their liability insurance, we were out on the track getting the lay of the land.

The course was technical, with a couple of chicanes, a few low-speed turns, off-camber corners and several high-speed sweepers that would cause any car to lose its composure unless driver inputs were smooth and consistent.

During our first three-lap stint, we took it relatively easy, braking early, accelerating smoothly and generally taking our time as we tried to find the line. By the second go-'round, our pace had increased, our confidence had grown and it was obvious that we were about to screw the proverbial pooch. And we did. With the Race mode engaged on the dampers and transmission, we barreled down the back straight, eventually hitting fourth gear and braking woefully late for a quick left and right. The GT-R scrubbed off as much speed as it could with two wheels barely contacting the tarmac and then we laid into the throttle, hoping to power out of the bend. Understeer. Loads of it. With the wheel almost locked to the right, we slid 15 feet towards the curbing on our left. A quick lift off the throttle, a correction on the wheel and we were back on line heading into the steep banking of turn seven. We pulled off into the pits to reassess everything we held dear about the advanced electronics and their role with our ham fists at the wheel. We had to learn from the best, so we walked over to the only red GT-R in attendance, sat down in the passenger's seat and introduced ourselves to Steve Millen.

If you don't know Steve Millen, look it up. In short, the man's a racing and tuning legend and knows as much about Nissan as Mr. K himself. "You ready?" Millen asks as I double-check the strap on my helmet. "Definitely," I reply, as the corner worker gives us a wave onto the track.

Millen lays into the long pedal and sets up for the first slight right. He almost clips the apex cone and then heads up the hill into turn two with the right tires inches away from the desert sands that surround the track. He lifts, down shifts and chucks the wheel to the left, countersteering slightly while applying judicious amounts of throttle. We rocket out of the corner and up into the chicane at the top of the hill. A quick yank to the left, then the right and he's back on the power grabbing one gear after another as we eat up the back straight and head into the bends that eluded me minutes earlier. The massive Brembos are applied within an inch of their life and the only thing stopping my heart from landing on the dashboard is the seat belt across my chest. He flicks the wheel left, gives it a touch of gas, and then yanks the wheel right and powers out, tracking smoothly to the curbing. It's obvious now. The GT-R must be manhandled. After two more laps with Mr. M, I get back behind the wheel with my newfound knowledge and give it another go.

This time, it all clicks. My lines are cleaner, my brake points are well defined and my steering inputs are much sharper, but hardly as smooth. For a vehicle on the high side of two tons, the GT-R is eminently chuckable. Come into a corner, brake late, yank the wheel in the desired direction, start feeding in the throttle and then boot it – let the electronics sort out the rest. It's a revelatory machine and there's nothing on the road that can even come close for the money.

And that may have been the biggest revelation. The Nissan GT-R maxes out the bang-for-the-buck quotient like no other vehicle, but does so in a way that will only appeal to a select group of drivers. Whereas the similarly priced Z06 is the culmination of decades of refining the traditional FR arrangement, the GT-R takes everything Nissan knows about physics and speed and condenses it into a cohesive package that changes your very perception about what's possible behind the wheel. It won't bend the space-time continuum, but it comes closer than anything before it. And like the Skyline GT-Rs of yore, it has the potential to revolutionize everything we as drivers hold dear.

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All photos © 2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.

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