Is the Nissan GT-R really a great driver's car?
On the virtual battleground of the internet, the Nissan GT-R is a frequently referenced example for physics-bending speed. For in its reputation as a destroyer of lap times, it sits as a permanently indented marker for comparison, separating what can merely be considered quick, and what is undeniably Fast with a capital F.
Despite all the computer technology that helps the GT-R achieve its speed, it has build up a reputation as the car to buy if your number 1 love in the world is driving. While it may compete in the same segment as the McLaren 540C, Audi R8 V10, and the Porsche 911 Turbo S, enthusiasts are committed in their conviction that the GT-R is a car for serious drivers. But is this viewpoint merely the result of looking at the GT-R through the enamour of a religious bias, or is it actually a reflection of what presents itself in objective reality?
This curiosity rang loudly in my ears in the days prior to driving the GT-R. While I’d experienced one before, I would on this occasion be exploring its vast spectrum of abilities on a circuit. It would prove the perfect opportunity to test the car’s limits, and to investigate it’s credentials as a driver’s car.
Before trying to discover this however, it was important to try and outline precisely what defines a driver’s car. For me, it’s always been a fairly simple matter: a driver’s car is a car that you want to drive purely for the pleasure of driving. You don’t drive it because you need to get something, or because you need to go somewhere - you drive it just for the joy it imbues in you when you’re driving it. It’s a car that connects with you so profoundly, it makes itself feel like an organic extension of your body that can reach down and stir the deepest parts of your soul. It’s a car that isn’t perfect - but enables you to use its imperfections to craft a more thrilling experience.
When you approach the GT-R, you encounter a now iconic shape - one that’s surprisingly modest when you consider the available performance. While bursting with tech-heavy Japanese influences at the front, the silhouette itself is rather restrained, not conforming to the traditional supercar aesthetic. In fact, I’ve heard people go so far as to say it resembles a saloon.
Indeed, upon climbing aboard, the driving position is more akin to what you’d find in a sporty saloon than a supercar. You sit relatively low, but by no means do you feel your nether-regions recoiling at the sound of ricochetting gravel. The seat hugs you at the sides - a feature you acutely appreciate when cornering hard. Surrounding you is a delicious set of buttons and technical information that have the same impact on a nerd as Xena the Warrior Princess. While it is a comfortable and usable cabin, everywhere your eyes look sits more evidence of the strong bent on enthusiastic driving.
Back in 2007 when the R35 GT-R first came into being, it became the first of its particular breed to forego the inclusion of a manual gearbox. A DSG, with 6 ratios rather than the now ubiquitous 7 or 8, was used to send the original 470bhp to the torque-vectoring 4WD system. The car I was driving however was a later model with 542bhp. Should you press all the correct buttons, a 0-60mph time of just 2.7 seconds is possible. Prior to the silent destroyer of Tesla’s Ludicrous mode, it was the GT-R and its signature launch control system that you had to turn to in search of viral YouTube recognition for curing your passenger’s constipation.
I knocked the transmission into drive and pulled away. The throttle pedal was scalpel sharp, with the tiniest flex of my big toe resulting in a disproportionately fierce jolt forwards. The moment I crept off the throttle, the jerk I felt upon pulling away transposed its ferocity to deceleration. This - I should emphasise - was merely the process of trying to pull away slowly, and then trying to gently come to a halt again. If you’re used to driving an average workhorse, the responses of a car of this nature will come as a deep shock.
I carefully nipped at the throttle once more, flinching out onto the pit lane. While it wasn’t possible on this particular occasion to experience the launch control, flooring it from a near standstill awaited. The end of the pit approached. I checked my driver’s side mirror to see the home straight abandoned. I then checked behind to see nothing following me out of the pits. I checked once again to see if anything was blasting up the straight, and happily saw nothing. I slowed to a crawl, and planted my foot into the carpets.
Unlike when launch control is used, accelerating hard from a slow speed requires the turbos to spool while moving. The moments between the throttle hitting the floor and the boost kicking in can be likened to the moments between pulling the pin out of a grenade and it exploding. It occurs in what would be measured as a blink; however, the anticipation of what awaits elongates the length of each tenth of a second. The turbos are small, and the inlets short. They spool in an instant, and leave turbo-lag to disappear with Lord Lucan and Shergar.
The subsequent thump that comes when they begin turning air into power is especially forceful, and unlike anything you’d feel in a naturally aspirated car. In something like a Lamborghini Huracan or a Ferrari 458, full throttle acceleration can feel akin to a vigorous, warming massage. The centre of gravity feels like a soft ball being pushed into the lumbar of your back from the inside out, rolling around as you pitch the car in different directions. With the torque of a turbocharged car however, the centre of gravity feels like it’s wrapped itself around the base of your spinal cord, and is trying to yank it backwards violently. It forms a punishing sensation that is confirmed via the gymnastics your eyes have to do to keep up with it. You extend your vision across the expanse of the bonnet, and as far into the horizon as possible. Only the point that you lock onto, no matter how far away it seems, flies beneath the wheels in a blink or two. It’s truly savage!
Braking into the first corner from just over 120mph, and the immense 1.7 tonne mass of the GT-R was at the forefront of my consciousness. I progressively pushed the brakes, and slowed much faster than I’d anticipated. In the moment prior to turning in, I presumed it would be the GT-R’s steering that would consume my attention - but the eagerness in which the car hurls itself into bends is something that refuses to let itself go unnoticed. You may think that extreme cornering speeds are something to be expected with the GT-R. After all, second only to its reputation for pulverising launch control is the fame its garnered for cornering impunity. While expectation would normally be followed by disappointment, your expectations would have to be grazing the edge of fantasy to be underwhelmed by how quickly the GT-R attacks corners.
Turn in correctly and it darts to the apex with the urgency of a feline pouncing for a frightened mouse. Once you’ve aligned the front end carefully with the point you want to hit on corner exit, you find that upon transitioning to the throttle, the traction from the 4 wheel drive system is infallible. The steering is reasonably tactile, feeding you with ripples of information when you really start to push. The steering weight remains linear until it becomes heavier as it approaches the limit of grip. While you have to be going at immense speed in order to find that aforementioned limit, eventually, the laws of physics see through the computerised cloak, and the front end starts to flow wide of your line of sight through the corner.
When you’re not in pursuit of the lap times the GT-R is so famous for, you can provoke the car into some sideways entertainment. Turn the systems off, flick the GT-R into a corner with no throttle on, and the rear will slide around gladly. Apply opposite lock until it weights up accordingly, and feather the throttle to light up the rear wheels. At first, all of the car’s power will go to the back axle, enabling you to sustain the drift before the clutch engages and sends 50% of the power hurtling towards the front, pulling you out of the drift. It’s far from a natural drifter, but it is a skill that’s present within its bag of tricks.
Does it, however, possess the illusive skill that formed my enquiry in the title of this article - that of being a great driver’s car? From many perspectives, the answer looks promising. The car’s breadth of abilities leaves you reeling in a sense of wonderment, and when you first experience this, you find yourself actively seeking it again and again. On top of that, it can easily turn you into an acceleration addict, with its every other ability judged to match the force of which it can hurl itself up the road. It communicates with you most clearly through the rush of adrenalin it inspires in you. But while it has the ability to communicate, not once does it go so far as to truly connect with you.
The GT-R is a car that allows you to attack a circuit with relative ease - and that nigh-on invincibility is a testament to its greatness. But in not having any specific foibles that you can incorporate into your approach, it doesn’t ensnare the same sense of heart-thumping pleasure and excitement as cars that, quite frankly, aren’t as good. Rather than entering a rhythmic mechanical dance with the GT-R, driving it quickly becomes a rather generic box-ticking process, and it’s this that allows the initial sense of wonderment to diminish. Yes, you can provoke it into brief moments of oversteer - but oversteer itself doesn’t define absolute fun; rather the manner in which it’s accomplished. Subsequently, when you’re going sideways in a GT-R, you get the overriding impression that the car’s frowning at you, as what you’re doing is jeopardising the main mission of ultimate speed.
Yes, the impeccability of its speed leaves you aghast, and it is most definitely enjoyable. But through every message it sends to you, you sense it mumbles a sly insult afterwards just to let you know that you are the weakest link in its world of computer calculated perfection.
To me then, while it is without doubt a great car, it is by no means the great driver’s car that has, in some part at least, formed the basis of its legend. But what do you guys think? Have you driven a GT-R, and did you find it met your personal definition for a driver’s car? Let me know in the comments.