Japan’s Godzilla-like GT-R Romps Over US

June 18 (Bloomberg) — With a thrust of the right foot, I send a liberal hit of high-test gas to the twin-turbo engine and the car blasts forward. Pressed against the back of my seat, I marvel at the source of this explosive power — a $70,000 Nissan.  

You read that right: A Nissan supercar. The GT-R is the most astonishing auto I’ve driven in some time, and it leaves me wondering: How does this blocky-looking machine — which is rather unbeautiful, honestly — suddenly change into something that blows faster than the wind?

Japanese supercars are rare these days. After the Acura NSX’s demise years ago, you could call them nonexistent. Yet most speed lovers have heard about the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a Japan- only car with specs that sound like the stuff of fantasy.

America’s version, simply called the GT-R, is really, finally here, accompanied by a lot of hyperbole — fast as a Corvette, handles as well as a Porsche, equipped with wings to fly over traffic jams.

After five days with this wunderkind in and around Los Angeles, I can report that it’s all true. I moved through traffic so cleanly that you can’t even convince me that it doesn’t actually fly.

Imagine the beautiful lines of an Italian exotic, evoking elegant speed and sweeping air. The GT-R is the exact opposite of that. At 3,800 pounds, it’s got a bulky frame, a hefty blacked- out nose, a wing on the back and four tailpipes the size of howitzers. If it were a cast member on “The Sopranos,” it would be Tony himself. Hardly the vision of fleetness.

Faster Than Porsche

Yet it goes from 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds, some 0.4 second faster than the Porsche 911 Turbo or Corvette Z06.

OK, fine. After all, the Nissan sports a 3.8-liter twin- turbo V-6 engine making 480 horses and 430 pound-feet of torque, on par with its core competitor, the $126,200 Porsche Turbo. So, sure, it goes fast. Yet even after I open it up on a toll road just past dawn and hit speeds that gulp up that expensive 91- octane fuel by the bucket, I still figure the GT-R to be a very speedy one-note wonder.

Then I get lost in the Santa Monica Mountains. On purpose, of course, because the range is covered with more spidery roads than your landlady has varicose veins. I’m pretty sure this is where it will fall apart — not unlike Lexus’s high-powered IS F sports sedan, which I reviewed on these roads in April.

The GT-R has a dual-clutch automatic transmission (no manual is available), yet I barely work the paddle shifter, mostly leaving it in third gear. There’s more than enough power range to scream up hills, roll around curves and roar down short straights.

Gripping the Curves

More importantly, all that power doesn’t defeat the suspension on the curves. The engine is behind the front axle, while the transfer case is at the rear, so there’s only slightly more weight on the front end than the back. And though it’s all- wheel drive, there’s a significant rear-wheel drive bias.

The result is that it turns in perfectly, even on challenging switchbacks, while never losing a sports-car attitude. The 20-inch Bridgestone tires, made specially for the GT-R, lend a nearly unbreakable grip. I thought it was going to be tail-happy, yet I find it very hard to break the rear wheels at all, and I don’t. The GT-R handles the curves as well as even a mid-engine Porsche — my preferred make of twisty troublemaker.

Who’s the GT-R designed for, anyway? It distinctly isn’t sexy. Both the exterior and the interior are very boy-toy racer. The ride is plenty rough, and though it moved like a banshee through traffic, it would be a tough daily commuter, especially since the very low front spoiler is almost guaranteed to get banged up. And those two back “seats” will fit few humans.

The sound of the engine is disappointing, almost like an airliner spooling up rather than any angry automobile burble. Fill-ups are frequent. The information system says I averaged 11 miles per gallon. Granted, that’s under spirited driving, yet … ouch.

Coming Soon

Deliveries should start this month, though virtually no GT- Rs are on the road yet. Of course, L.A. being L.A., it seems everyone knows about it. I’m the hero at valet stands, and a Nissan 350Z with a Nismo sport package follows behind me on the I-405 like a doting puppy.

So, yes, it’s designed for car and video-game geeks.

As I come out of the mountains, a Prius pulls up alongside at a stoplight leading to the Pacific Coast Highway. Inside is a family of three, the mom driving. She rolls down her window and I brace myself for the coming (and deserved) lecture about oil- burning machines.

The bearded husband leans over and asks, “Isn’t that the new Skyline?” Um, yeah, pretty much. His wife nods at him, and then asks, “So, is it fast?”

The 2009 Nissan GT-R at a Glance

Engine: 3.8-liter, twin-turbo V-6 with 480 horsepower and 430 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city, 21 highway.

Price as tested: $71,900.

Best feature: Performance worthy of the much more expensive Porsche 911 Turbo.

Worst feature: Kinda ugly, and a less-than-enthusiastic engine note.

Target buyer: The demanding speed demon.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)