It’s old. It weighs as much as a house. It’s not relevant anymore. It’s expensive, for a Nissan. No manual, no care. It’s a computer car, a video game car that requires no skill to drive. It looks like a brick. It’s got no soul. This is how the R35 Nissan GT-R gets written off, now a decade into its existence.
You get all that out of your system? Good. Because in spite of those criticisms—some of which are valid, some of which are total bullshit—the GT-R still kicks ass. It remains a nearly unmatched performance bargain, capable of taking on vastly more expensive and modern metal and winning, unbelievably fast.
In other words, Godzilla’s still not to be messed with.
(Full Disclosure: We asked Nissan for a GT-R for a week and they obliged, loaning us one in New York for a week with a full tank of gas.)
What Is It?
The GT-R has been on the market since the end of 2007 now, so there’s a very good chance I don’t have to tell you what it is at all. You know this thing. Everybody does. In the week I had it I got a ton of waves and thumbs-up and cell phones coming out for photos. (Always from dudes, of course.)
It’s Nissan’s six-figure halo car, a twin-turbo V6, all-wheel drive, high-tech monster that has somehow remained at the top of its performance game since the end of the Bush Administration.
Yes, Nissan has added to the GT-R over the years, upping the power and features and interior quality and price tag to match, but at the end of the day it’s amazing that this more-than-decade-old machine is still as good as it is.
It’s heir to the Nissan Skyline GT-R dynasty, a motorsports legend that stretches back to the 1960s. Nissan split the GT-R and Skyline lines off in the 2000s and the former became its own model, while the latter became the cars we know as the Infiniti G-series and later Q50 in America.
And until recently, I had never driven one—a bizarre and glaring hole in my fairly robust car resumé. After having been a fan of good, sporty Nissans my whole life (and having driven both generations of the GT-R’s thematic rival the original and current NSX), I was thrilled to finally get behind the wheel of this beast. I needed to see what the fuss was all about.
I walked up to the car after a long day at the office, glistening with fresh rain, alone in the lot. Skyline visions danced in my head; Eurobeat filled my ears; my soul flew across the surface of Tokyo bay as the pending thrill of speed rushed through my blood. It was time. Finally.
I fired up the GT-R, and... nothing. No explosions, no roar, no soul-stirring engine sound or exhaust rumble. Nothing, aurally, to indicate I was in the supercar-killer I knew I was in. The car sounds incredibly blah at startup. Now I know why every GT-R owner has an aftermarket exhaust. I would too, if I owned this car.
That was followed by a 90-minute traffic jam in Manhattan. Godzilla and I didn’t get off to a great start. But that would change.
Getting To Know The Beast
Of course, any car is more than just its specs on paper, but the paper’s important here.
The GT-R powered by the VR38DETT, a twin-turbo 3.8-liter V6 that’s a kind of cousin to the ubiquitous Nissan VQ series of V6 engines. It’s a hand-built motor, one person for one engine, AMG-style. It puts out 565 horsepower and 467 lb-ft of torque. (The more expensive GT-R Nismo gets a boost to 600 horses, which is awesome but also wildly overkill.)
Power goes to all four wheels via an intelligent all-wheel drive system called ATTESA E-TS, the only gearbox option is a six-speed (yes, six gears, it’s old!) dual-clutch unit. Without question, it’s a big beast of a car, both in weight—it comes in at around 3,900 pounds—and girth, easily dwarfing the legendary R34 GT-R we’re all waiting until the 2020s to import.
In spite of this, zero to 60 mph still happens in about 2.9 seconds. Its top speed is a hair under 200 mph.
Let’s put that into perspective here: that means it’s roughly as quick as a seven-figure hybrid hypercar like the LaFerrari, or that Porsche 911 Turbo S I drove earlier this summer that cost $205,740, or that McLaren 600LT we just tested that stickered in at $324,874, or a Bugatti Veyron, or an Audi R8 V10 Plus, or the top-end Tesla Model S with its almost terrifying electric acceleration. Even being the tuner darling that it is, the GT-R is crushingly, brutally quick when it’s bone stock.
So the prospect of new GT-R ownership in 2018 becomes a question of what you’re willing to balance all that (relatively) cheap speed against. As I mentioned earlier, Nissan has updated this thing quite a bit over the past decade to match the price increases. The interior’s now pretty nice, actually, filled with hand-stitched leather that gives it the feeling of being a low-volume bespoke sports car. They did a great job there.
But then there’s the gauge cluster, with two small digital displays that would look at home Game Boy; the buttons you could find on any other Nissan; the hilariously dated navigation graphics; the subpar backup camera; the simplistic switches and buttons across the dash. But hey, it does have Apple CarPlay, though!
The thing is, well, it all works. It just does. By being this old, the tech is simplistic but super easy to figure out. Hit the “Function” button to cycle through several pages of track apps. There’s three buttons to adjust drivetrain, suspension and traction settings. That’s really it! In a world where every high-end car has a huge technological learning curve, the GT-R is refreshing in how straightforward it is.
What you need to know about the GT-R, above all else, is that it is fast. Stupid fast. Viscerally fast. Hilariously fast.
“Idiot, I knew that!” you scream, closing your laptop and hurling it into the sea. “I’ve been on car internet a few times since 2007, I’ll have you know!”
Well, put on your scuba gear and go get your computer, because stats don’t tell you the full story here. Unlike a lot of more modern turbo cars, there’s just a hint of lag down low once you stomp the gas. But after that, it’s a hard charge to triple-digit speeds. Make sure there’s nothing in your way when you do it, that your road is as cop-free as you can determine.
You’re always holding it back. Always. On every road, in every instance. You’ll run out of asphalt and guts and points on your license long before you exhaust what the GT-R can do. If you own this thing, you have to track it. It’d be such a massive waste of its capabilities, of its potential, and of your own ownership experience if you didn’t. I honestly find that sad to think about, a shameful misuse of such a proficient machine.
Part of that is the fact that the GT-R is crazy easy to drive fast. Chalk it up to the all-wheel drive system, the computer gizmos, the overall character or more intangible things, but nearly anyone could drive it at high speeds with total confidence and control. It’s always direct and pointed, always does exactly what you want it to do, whether that’s a run to highway speeds and back or quickly darting between other cars on the road to go for the gap.
It’s the easiest, least-intimidating extreme performance car I’ve ever driven. That seems like a contradiction, or something you don’t want, but the GT-R’s ability to simply get the job of going fast done is is pretty unbelievable.
Despite carrying all that weight and heft, ATTESA E-TS makes it a surprisingly agile car once it gets up to speed, super easy to point and shoot wherever you need it to go, as if with mind control. Oh, and it’s so old that it still uses hydraulic steering, so while the tradeoff is a lot of road vibration through the wheel—and there is a lot of that—it’s got a great deal more feel than most electric units we’re dealing with these days.
I’ll say the sound isn’t much to write home about. It’s thrashy and hard, like it’s two cylinders short of being a great-sounding exotic (it is), and full of air intake noise from the turbos. And like I mentioned earlier, it’s too damn quiet at startup. It’s a rewarding note when you get after it, but not one that’s especially memorable.
The GT-R’s gearbox shows its age by being a harsher unit than most automatics and DCTs on the market now. Gear changes felt hard and less speedy on upshifts than expected. Did I find myself wishing for a proper manual, or at least more gears, like the competition usually has these days? No, not really. An update will be nice whenever the long-rumored new GT-R shows up, but this unit’s fine, and it was really riding the top of the wave in putting DCTs on high-performance cars a decade back.
But overall it’s a deeply enjoyable car to drive, particularly to drive in anger. And I’ll say this too: there’s something truly fun—even subversive—about knowing how fast this car is despite its age and its badge. When you’re in it, you can go ahead and give a dirty look to that person in the freshest AMG or the Ferrari or the McLaren. You’re in an old-ass Nissan, and you could still wipe the floor with them. They exist because you allow them to exist.
The story’s a bit different around town. See, you could use a GT-R as your daily driver. It has a back seat, albeit a tiny one not suited for adults, and a surprisingly decent trunk. You could drive it every day! It’s just not a great way to live.
Even with this stock suspension, there’s no getting around how harsh the ride is. There’s a comfort setting for the dampers that’s supposed to smooth things out a bit, but it barely does anything and may simply be a placebo. Around New York’s garbage roads, dodging potholes and getting jostled by even slight bumps got old rather quickly. (The Porsche 718 Cayman GTS we had right after was vastly smoother and easier to live with as a daily; take that information as you will.)
Then there’s that transmission, which reads very much as a high-performance, racing-capable gearbox that’s asked to be on its very best behavior when you’re just driving it around town to get groceries and shit. It doesn’t do very well at this. Shifts in automatic mode in ordinary driving are hard and it sometimes finds itself hunting for gears. It’s fine, but being chill really isn’t what the GT-R is ideal for.
Then there’s the problem that relates to what the GT-R is best at: going fast. It’s what it wants to do all the time. It’s what you want to do all the time, too. You just want to hit the gas hard and flip through the gears and blitz past everyone else and see if you can hit that near-200 mph magic mark yourself. But you can’t! You never can, because that’s not how driving works! You’ll always run into traffic or cops or pedestrians or roadblocks or a family of ducks crossing the road.
This is a very frustrating aspect of the GT-R experience. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If only it did. As I mentioned before, you’re always holding it back somehow. And after the umpteenth traffic jam—crawling through gridlock in one of the world’s quickest cars—you just have to laugh because it’s all so dumb and hilarious.
Our GT-R Premium came in at $119,885, boasting nearly ten grand in options—the $4,280 premium interior package and $3,000 premium paint—over that including model’s $110,490 base price. There’s also the GT-R Track, which starts at $128,490, and the 600 HP GT-R Nismo, which is $175,490. There’s also a bargain basement GT-R Pure for $99,990.
It’s not cheap, and all of these are a healthy boost over the high-$60,000 range these cars were originally sold for in the late 2000s. Granted, more power and more features have been added since then, but it’s less the insane performance bargain it once was.
But it still is. It still bests other supercars that cost two, three, ten times as much. And it is a supercar. Don’t try and convince me otherwise. I don’t care who makes it or where the engine is. It has a hand-built motor, a bespoke gearbox and is one of the fastest cars on earth. If that isn’t a supercar I don’t know what is. It’s still one of the cheapest ways you can find to just go obscenely, wickedly, stupidly fast.
The GT-R was long knocked by enthusiasts, particularly the Euro-snob crowd, for a perceived lack of character. It was the car equivalent of a digital watch. I think it’s less that and more the embodiment of the spirit of the country that perfected the digital watch: technology above all else in service of a single goal, which is going fast. It remains the Japanese exotic car ideal, even more so than, say, the Lexus LFA.
And what’s really interesting is that the GT-R has aged into its character. It’s been on the market long enough now that it isn’t just old, it’s old-school. Hydraulic steering. Easy-to-use tech. A straightforward design. A jarring supercar quality that’s been ironed out of so many modern high-performance cars. In being the old car that can kick everyone’s ass, it’s more fascinating than ever.
And it’s Godzilla, more than ever. Godzilla may be big, and he may be ancient, but he loses very few fights. He’s still worthy of fear and awe, able to obliterate anything in his path. The exact same could be said of this machine, and that’s why I’m glad it’s stuck around so long.
You can make a fast car in 2018. But you still have the GT-R to contend with.