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BMW M760Li
March 5, 2016
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2016 Toyota Fortuner
March 7, 2016
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A 545-horsepower monster in sheep’s clothing

First-timers driving a $100,000 Nissan GT-R will want to go in search of a wide, open space — some sort of long, flat stretch of asphalt. An empty, abandoned parking lot will work. A drag strip is ideal. A disused B-52 base wouldn’t be bad, either. You’ll need a bit of room before you start the checklist to unleash the brutal side of this car.

Once there, come to a complete stop, then look down to the center console. First, find the transmission control switch (it’s on the left) and hold it up until a red light comes on. This makes the shifting more aggressive, and you’re going to want that. Next is the suspension switch, to the right. Holding that up rewards you with another red light, firming up the adjustable dampers at all four corners. Then the traction control switch on the far side. Again, hold it up until a third and final red light appears.

Now, left foot firmly on the brake, right foot hard on the gas. Watch the revs rise before completing the most important step: place your head back against the headrest. Then, take a deep breath and ponder the beauty of human existence before slipping your left foot off the brake pedal and enjoying the sensation of your internal organs rearranging as the world around you blurs.

Take a deep breath and ponder the beauty of human existence before slipping your left foot off the brake pedal.

When prepped like this and fired from its launch control, the Nissan GT-R will sprint to 60 mph from a full stop in under three seconds. That’s a stat few machines on the road can hope to match, an experience few drivers will ever be lucky enough to have. Maybe that’s for the best, as such a ride irrevocably corrupts your expectations for vehicular performance.

That this car happens to be a remarkably civilized machine otherwise is really quite an engineering feat, and it starts with a somewhat bland appearance. Though the exterior profile of the GT-R is enough to make a gearhead swoon, to the uninitiated it looks unassuming. I asked the opinions of many people and few had any idea of the monstrous performance lurking beneath this thing’s skin. The styling here is aggressive in a typical Nissan way, but not overwhelmingly so.

All the visual performance cues are there, though none scream for your attention. Wheels are large, as are the brakes within, but the gold-painted calipers are far more subtle than the red and gold you’ll find on many other cars at this level. Yes, there’s a small wing on the trunk, but it wouldn’t look out of place on a family sedan. Even the dual NACA ducts on the hood barely draw the eye. The Nissan GT-R is no sleeper, but neither is it pretentious.

That said, it also isn’t an attractive car according to most of those people I spoke with. It is certainly imposing, an impressive visual testament to modern automotive technology, but beautiful it is not. Thankfully, its performance more than makes up for any aesthetic shortcomings.

While the bulk of that performance comes courtesy the 545-horsepower engine slung under the hood, as much credit must be given to the advanced drivetrain wedged in underneath. At the rear of the car is a dual-clutch, six-speed transmission, spun by a driveshaft that runs from front to rear. That transaxle splits power between the back wheels and a second driveshaft, which runs up to another differential in the front.

Yes, it does seem odd to send power from the front of the car to the rear, and then back up to the front again, but after a few moments behind the wheel you’ll be convinced of the beauty of this all-wheel-drive setup. The car is fully rear-wheel drive by default, and it feels like it. It’s a heavy car (over 3,800 pounds), and so perhaps not the most responsive sports car on the road. Still, the front feels planted while the rear feels remarkably alive. Put your foot down and it’s the back that breaks free first.

Of course, you’ll have to be working mighty hard to make that happen. The differentials are quick to send power where it’s needed to keep the car headed in the right direction, a process that is almost totally transparent in the dry. It’s only in the wet, or other low-grip situations, that you can start to feel the differentials at work.

But, if you care to know just how all those horses are being routed to the ground, Nissan’s engineers have given you plenty of ways to see. The car features a selection of optional screens on the center multifunction display, streaming in dozens of parameters. The customizable interface, developed in partnership with Polyphony Digital (the house that Gran Turismo built), will give you everything from oil pressure to lateral g-forces. If you like, you can configure it to show you exactly how much power is being transferred front to rear, though we of course advise keeping your eyes on the road.

The screens are fun for a time, but the overall functionality of the GT-R’s infotainment system feels dated. It wowed us all then, but now it needs an update. It does offer A2DP Bluetooth pairing for audio streaming from a smartphone, and the navigation is serviceable, but the voice recognition is of the “speak slowly and repeat yourself often” variety, and there are certainly a lot of menus. The Bose sound system is quite good, at least.

Another place where the tech is lacking is in the driver aids. Yes, the traction control and differential systems are probably smarter than a fifth grader, but the car lacks common niceties like adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning. Sure, we’d rather be hooning around a track than idling down the highway too, but you can’t get everywhere in life on twisty roads.

Driver and passenger seats offer plenty of support through those turns, though many will find them somewhat narrow. Rear seats, meanwhile, are ill-suited for full-grown adults. Materials throughout the cabin are a mixture of good and bad, with lots of leather and carbon fiber, too, but some cheap plastics dampen the experience. The center console around the shifter is particularly bad, scratching with little provocation.

When idling along the GT-R is a reasonably comfortable place to be. The suspension can be softened right down, taking the edge off of the worst roads, though even on its gentlest setting the drivetrain cause some lurches and jumps at lower speeds — and clunks, which the manual humorously refers to as “unique noises” thanks to this being a “high-performance vehicle.” That won’t trouble you much while crossing big miles, though the fuel economy might. It’s EPA rated 16 city and 23 highway, 19 combined. We managed just 16.7 mpg over a few days of admittedly spirited driving.

The Nissan GT-R is a hugely impressive machine, a beacon of engineering excellence, and its only flaw is that it’s almost too good. Like many supercars, the limits here are so high you’ll rarely approach them on a public road. At least, not without putting your license, your insurance and your liberty at risk.

But, you can’t fault a car for being too good. In the right environment, particularly in inclement weather or on questionable roads, the GT-R truly is a monster that lives up to its “Godzilla” nickname, a calm and practical monster that can light the world on fire at the flip of a switch. Or three switches, as it were.

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