Saturday, November 03, 2007

2009 Nissan GT-R Review

Three diagonal gray stripes in a circle granted me permission to click the 2009 Nissan GT-R's left paddle shifter twice in rapid succession and floor the throttle. No, it's not some kind of hallucination. This symbol, when posted on the shoulder of Germany's autobahn, represents the unrestricted portion where all speed limits are removed.

The speed starts piling on like a roller coaster that's been pointed down Niagara Falls. As the tach needle nearly impales itself on a big 7, I give the right paddle a flick and keep the throttle buried. The engine note is barely interrupted and the falling sensation begins anew, at a rate that seems impossible at velocities this high.

I'm driving a "PT2" iteration of the 2009 Nissan GT-R, a right-hand-drive preproduction car with black diapers masking the styling of the nose and tail. There's black tape covering the door handles, the headlights, even the GT-R badge on the steering wheel. No one in the world has driven a final production version, because at this point the final production version doesn't exist.
Despite the risk associated with letting such a rare breed run free, Nissan handed the GT-R's keys over to us with barely a shred of paperwork. The 'Ring was temporarily off-limits, so we did what you would do. We headed to the autobahn and then plied the web of sparsely traveled two-lane country roads in Nurburg's surrounding locale.

Few, Fast and Fuss-Free

There are just three PT2 GT-Rs in Nissan's stable, and all three cars are currently stationed in Nurburg, Germany, home of the famed Nürburgring racetrack. Two of the cars are devoted to track duty and the remaining one is used by the company for development on Germany's public roads, including the autobahn.

In the automotive equivalent of a peep show, a vinyl sheet with a little window for each switch and button has been fitted over the GT-R's entire dashboard and center console. I search for the red engine start button on the console and give it a poke. The VR38 engine starts with a muted, bassy thrum that sounds more special and guttural than Nissan's series-production VQ engine.
Maybe it's the divided intake that splits the flow paths for each cylinder bank, or the turbos that act as muffling devices, but I swear the GT-R speaks in a more cultured tongue than the last Infiniti G37 we tested. The GT-R sounds unstrained, as if it's never working hard.

Once underway, it is immediately apparent that no concessions to drivability have been made on the altar of high performance. Tilt the steering wheel to gain an unobstructed view of the center-mounted rev counter and the entire instrument cluster pivots with it. Visibility through the upright windshield is expansive despite a fairly tall cowl, and the GT-R's seats have more adjustment options than a Mr. Potato Head. From the steering to the brake pedal, all of the control efforts carry precision and appropriate heft over a vast range of speeds.

Twin-Turbo V6

Roll into the throttle at nearly any engine speed and the GT-R drenches you in thrust. Turbo lag from the VR38 3.8-liter V6 is essentially nonexistent, so the immense torque arrives immediately. Indeed, the engine's punch is strongest in the midrange, where the GT-R delivers 434 pound-feet of torque from 3,200 to 5,200 rpm.

Being turbocharged, the VR38 doesn't have to rely on insanely high revs to generate its goods. That's what boost is for, and the GT-R's twin IHI turbos generate between 10.1 and 11.6 psi (depending on ambient conditions) to deliver peak power of 473 horsepower at 6,400 rpm.
Yet this mill remains perfectly mannered whether it's being thrashed mercilessly or just lugged around town. If you left the transmission in automatic mode and only used one-quarter throttle, you'd never guess that this car could suck the doors off nearly anything on the road.
Holding a conversation with the Nissan engineer riding shotgun even during a 250-kph (155 mph) cruise barely requires raised voices, and the locked-down high-speed stability inspires me to pick up the pace. Alas, there are too many other cars on the autobahn to push much beyond this speed.

More Than Just an EngineAs heroic as the engine is, the six-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox is a key contributor to the GT-R's personality. The paddle-shifted gearbox, mounted between the rear wheels, changes gears seamlessly with astonishing speed. Shifts are claimed to take just 0.2 second from the time the lever is pulled until the clutch is fully engaged.
In full automatic mode, the transmission calls up 6th gear even at low speeds in order to maximize fuel economy, but will downshift without delay when the throttle's dipped.
The GT-R's stability and unrelenting acceleration even from autobahn velocities owe much to the car's aerodynamics. A slippery 0.27 drag coefficient allows the GT-R to use its engine's power to accelerate the car rather than just overcome speed-sucking drag. The GT-R's body develops significant downforce on both axles at speed.

Exiting an uphill right-hander in 3rd gear, the 1.5-way limited-slip differential (which locks aggressively on acceleration but less so on lift-throttle) is briefly overwhelmed by my heavy right foot. The momentary wheelspin can be felt in the steering wheel, yet the traction available in the all-wheel-drive GT-R is prodigious. It's easy to drive the GT-R fast. Dangerously easy, if you value maintaining a valid driver license.

Suspension damping can be adjusted among three positions by a rocker switch on the center console — Comfort, Sport (the default position) and R ("Race") modes. The difference between Comfort and Sport is subtle, though neither one could be considered plush.
There's nothing subtle at all about R mode, the damper setting that's best for balls-out driving on roads free of blemishes. During aggressive driving on smooth tarmac, R mode's body roll control rules with an iron fist.

High Density

We slow to a crawl as we enter a small hamlet. The GT-R feels at once substantial and confident, just as the jagged styling suggests. Its 3,836-pound curb weight is borderline obese for a performance car, though it carries its weight well, since most of the heavy bits like the engine don't hang near the extreme ends of the car.

Many weight-saving measures were taken. Aluminum was used in the doors, fenders, deck lid, suspension, front shock towers and front subframe, and carbon fiber is found in all six driveshafts and the bolt-on front crash structure.

Still, it's fundamentally a big, steel-chassis car packed with a lot of equipment including enormous 20-inch wheels, 255/40 front and 285/35 rear run-flat tires and the largest brakes this side of a Peterbilt. All that stuff adds up.

The first GT-R is a starting point. Even at this early point, future iterations promise further weight reduction and more power. Nissan is mum on the particulars but insiders have confirmed the existence of an even hotter GT-R, and it isn't far away.

Bright FutureEven in this preproduction state and among the nonstop hype, it's hard not to be impressed by the Nissan GT-R. The car's performance envelope is as broad as Texas, and it is as perfectly content creeping along in rain-drizzled traffic as it is smashing the Nürburgring lap times of some of the world's fastest sports cars. It demands little sacrifice from its owner, offering all-weather capability in a truly practical package.

And it's devastatingly fast.

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