Perhaps more than any other car in history the Nissan GT-R speaks to our tribal instincts. There are GT-R believers and GT-R haters and not much in between. I’ve always found that deeply odd. You might be a purist and object to the big Nissan’s scale and weight, you might regard four-wheel drive as the enemy and dual-clutch gearboxes as the work of the devil, but surely any car developed and built with such single-mindedness should be celebrated by enthusiasts? And there’s no question the GT-R’s unique look, feel and attitude can only enhance the performance car landscape. As you can probably tell, I’m a believer.
Even so, I’m not blind to the GT-R’s faults and in a world where we have a three-motor hybrid, 9-speed Honda NSX or a 911 Turbo S that can launch to 62mph in 2.9-seconds (not to mention something as humble as an Audi RS3 that can hit 100mph in circa 9-seconds), it’s hard not to wonder if the GT-R’s moment is gone. Somebody at Nissan clearly doesn’t think so, though. Every year more tweaks are released and the car is honed still further and the latest car is the biggest overhaul of the car since its launch back in 2008. Aerodynamics, drivetrain and suspension have all been subjected to some serious tuning and even the interior has had a substantial makeover.
Today is the UK launch of the MY2017 GT-R and although I’ve already tried it at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in the streaming rain, it’s a useful reminder of its changed character. Even better, there’s a GT-R Track Edition Engineered by NISMO – catchy name, right? Let’s just call it the Track Edition – here and I’ll get half a dozen laps or so of the fearsomely fast Thruxton circuit to see just how focused and worthwhile the upgrade is. The full-blown GT-R NISMO isn’t in attendance but at £149,995 it will account for a minuscule (perhaps invisible) proportion of sales anyway.
First it’s to the road in the new and more habitable standard car. Audi won’t lose any sleepless nights over the interior. The materials are nicer, the design is a little more refined, but it’s good rather than great. The paddles fixed to the column are gone, replaced by smaller items attached to the back of the steering wheel. I actually prefer fixed paddles but this seems a divisive issue so will please some and annoy others. You still sit high and the GT-R feels enormous. It’s off-putting at first but soon you just accept it as part of the GT-R experience. It remains a unique driving environment.
The drivetrain is transformed. Power is gently massaged to 565bhp at 6500rpm (up 20bhp) and 467lb ft (up 4lb ft), but the 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V6 responds more cleanly, has a wider spread of power and sounds more enthusiastic thanks to a new titanium exhaust system. It’s still an incremental change but it feels like it’s linked a few small steps into a significant stride. The six-speed dual-clutch box hasn’t so much stepped forward as jumped upwards and sideways at the same time. It’s so much smoother at low speeds and all the old clonks have been eradicated. The heavy industry vibe of the GT-R has been eroded. But perhaps at the expense of some of the gritty old character. The new and much lighter steering backs up the sense that polishing the details of the GT-R could detract from the intensity of the whole experience.
More refined or not, the GT-R is still pretty bloody devastating. The performance is strong and relentless, grip levels are high but the balance remains sweetly adjustable and the lightweight steering actually has plenty of feel once you’re tuned into its new ways. Although somehow there’s a slight disconnect between the more supple ride and lighter steering and the car’s tendency to still follow ruts and cambers under braking. I guess I worry that by losing the gnarly old ‘box and physical, weighty steering the GT-R feels less extreme but that the pay-off in terms of refinement still can’t match something like a 911 or R8.
On the scarily fast turns of Thruxton circuit – a new track for me and genuinely terrifying and elating in equal measure – the GT-R remains a mighty, mighty car. But of course here its weight starts to tell. Carry to much speed and you will find understeer, get on the throttle too aggressively and the transition to oversteer is quite fast and takes a bit of holding on to. It’s certainly not as nimble as a 911 Turbo on track. The brakes stand up to the abuse well, though, and even with an instructor alongside and with no knowledge of the track, it feels seriously fast around here and a massive thrill.
The Track Edition commands a chunky price premium - £12,000 here in the UK for a total of £91,995 – and features revised Bilstein Damptronic suspension, extra chassis bonding for increased rigidity, a hollow carbon fibre rear wing and lighter forged wheels. Immediately some of the GT-R grit and attitude is restored. It feels stiffer, more aggressive and so much more agile. Where in the standard car you’re patiently dealing with understeer on the track’s medium-speed corners, in the Track Edition you’re catching oversteer. It turns in so well that the car is always just on the edge of sliding at the rear, in fact. This makes for serious precision for such a big car and also a sense that you’re walking a finer line between glory and ignominy.
I love the balance being swung that way – putting the driver absolutely in charge - and the rewards are just so much more thrilling when you’re teetering on that knife edge. For me the real GT-R experience will always be uncompromising and wilfully single-minded and while I admire the decision to keep on tweaking and fettling the GT-R to perfection, I think the best way to achieve it is to ramp up the drama and excitement rather than dial-down the noise play around with the interior design. The Track Edition, thankfully, couldn’t be more authentically GT-R.
A fast lap of Thruxton in the standard MY2017 Nissan GT-R
Photography by David Shepherd