2009 Nissan Skyline GT-R Review

2009 Nissan GT-R at Sendai Highland Circuit, a raceway north of Tokyo. After years of staring at various concepts, prototypes and Nürburgring test mules of the GT-R, it's finally time to drive the finished product.

An engineer waves us over after making his final checks, then hands us the keys with a smile so big you'd think he'd been knocking back Kirins since sunrise. We suspect he already knows what we came here to find out.

Does the 2009 Nissan GT-R really deliver the performance of the Porsche 911 Turbo for half the price? Time to find out for ourselves.

Getting Acquainted With Godzilla
Unlike most supercars, the GT-R doesn't sit only 2 inches off the ground, so it's easy to slide into the driver seat. This is a Japanese-market car, so we're on the right-hand side, which makes everything feel awkward. The seat is firm and narrow, and the high center console gives the cabin a tight, cockpit-style feel.

Start buttons aren't the novelty they used to be, but the GT-R's big red igniter just below the central shift lever does make us stop and think for a second. There will be 473 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque on tap once this sucker is running. It's also about 40 degrees F outside and we're on an unfamiliar track that packs 16 turns into just 2.5 miles of asphalt.

Gran Turismo this is not.

Push the button and the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V6 fires up with a low, uninspiring hum. We had heard it was quiet, but this is almost too quiet. Aftermarket exhaust manufacturers might as well start taking orders now.

The Nissan engineer leans in the window and sets all the adjustment buttons for the transmission, damper settings and VDC system to their "R" positions for maximum performance. He gives us a thumbs-up and another big smile. Yeah, he definitely knows something.

We slide the shift lever down into Drive and select manual shift mode by tapping it to the side. Left foot off the brake, a little gas with the right foot and the GT-R eases out of the pits slowly and smoothly. No SMG-style clunkiness here.

When the light at the end of pit road goes from red to green, we floor it in 2nd gear and promptly get drop-kicked onto the straightaway at nearly 70 mph. So much for turbo lag.

Pulling the right-side shift paddle snaps the GT-R into 3rd in one seamless motion that no stick jockey could match for speed or smoothness. Turn 1, a tight, slightly downhill right-hander is coming up quick, so we back off and get on the brakes. They scrub off so much speed that we hit the apex at all of 25 mph.

So far, this GT-R is all motor and brakes. Better take it easy for a lap to recalibrate.

Ram Air, Japanese Style
We get settled on the short straight before Turn 3. Although visibility is generally good, the GT-R's high cowl makes it feel especially big. And like a late-1960s Mopar, the twin intakes on the hood are visible from the driver seat. The bulky feel is no illusion, as the GT-R is 7 inches longer and 2 inches wider than a Porsche 911.

Turn 3 is a hairpin left that heads back uphill, so we swing wide, stay in 2nd and get on the gas at the apex. The GT-R turns in quickly — very quickly. Maybe it's our low speed, but there's not a hint of wasted motion in the steering. The slightest nudge of the wheel right or left delivers a response, so there's no need to muscle this car through corners.

As we crest Turn 4, which bends slightly right and onto the back straight, we're already in 3rd and back into the throttle. The GT-R is piling on huge chunks of speed now. If the speedometer were digital it would be skipping numbers, lots of them. Unlike our 2nd-gear slingshot out of the pits, this run to the redline is so smooth we hardly realize we're traveling at nearly triple-digit speed.

There's not much of a power curve. If you want power, it's there. It comes on heavy at nearly any engine speed, and you never feel the turbos spooling up either. This is a different kind of thrust than a big American V8. Not better or worse, just different.

Ignore the Numbers
Into 4th gear and the cabin remains calm right up to 120 mph. There's no valvetrain clatter like a Corvette and the engine doesn't wail in your ear like a 911.

Back on the Brembo brakes at the end of the straight and again they bite hard. The pedal is stiff and easy to modulate and you don't have to press all that hard to generate big negative Gs. We call up a couple downshifts with the shift paddles, and the dual-clutch transmission pulls off each one with a precise throttle blip that keeps the car steady on the pavement.

A quick left-right-left through a chicane and the GT-R starts barreling back up a hill through a long, sweeping left-hander. It's the last thing we expected, but the GT-R feels surprisingly light and maneuverable despite its curb weight of 3,836 pounds. That's 342 pounds more than a Porsche 911 Turbo and nearly 700 pounds more than a Corvette Z06.

The GT-R should feel like a big, lifeless brick, yet here we are, barely finished with our first lap and already we're tossing the car from one corner to the next with confidence. The precise steering and nearly total lack of body roll make it easy to place on the road, and there's little dive when the big six-piston front calipers are clamping down on the 15-inch drilled rotors.

The ultra-stiff chassis gives the adjustable Bilstein dampers a good platform with which to work, and the fact that we barely notice them working is a sign they're dialed in just right. Even when we misjudge a few of the final corners, our last-second corrections don't turn into frightening wobbles or twitches. Trust us: The 911 Turbo is not so forgiving in comparison.

Don't Doubt Mizuno

A few more laps and the GT-R now feels familiar and predictable. We're going through corners with enough speed to sense the all-wheel-drive system moving the power around from one corner to another. During the pre-drive briefing, Chief Engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno explained that the GT-R is more fun to drive through corners because you can get on the throttle earlier than with a conventional rear-wheel-drive car. It's an overly simplified way of explaining the GT-R's complicated ATTESA ET-S all-wheel-drive system.

Testing his theory is uncomfortable at first, since the car feels on the verge of understeer through some of the tighter turns. Adding more power seems like the last thing that's going to help, but, sure enough, a little midcorner throttle rotates the nose right toward the apex. Staying on the gas drifts the tail out a bit on exit as the power gets redirected to the rear tires. VDC is still activated in "R" mode, but if it's making any adjustments, we're not feeling them.

Getting so much movement out of an unfamiliar car makes us feel like Sendai regulars. The car needs only the smallest inputs to put it on the edge and keep it there. From the steering to the brakes to the transmission, it's all precise, quick movements. Sure, the car is heavy, but after you throw it through a few turns with nothing more than a few flicks of your fingers, the numbers become meaningless.

The World's Most Famous Porsche 911 Turbo

Pulling into the pits, we're exhilarated, not exhausted. It took just seven laps to go from pedal-stabbing rookie to calm, drift-happy veteran. Supercars are rarely so friendly.

Chief engineer Mizuno asks what we think. We tell him that it is rock solid and easy to drive, but we're not sure if it's as fast as the 911 Turbo. "Why don't you drive it for a few laps to compare," Mizuno says as he points to Nissan's own Porsche 911 Turbo test mule sitting at the end of pit lane. "Just two laps," Mizuno says.

Other than its roll cage and a competition seat, this 997-series Turbo is a stock model with a six-speed manual transmission. There are roughly 10,000 hard miles on it, but a thoroughly broken-in Turbo is still better than 99 percent of the cars on the road.

The Porsche is dead cold, so we take the first lap easy. Even at half speed, the 911 already feels surprisingly loose. It requires more steering input to get a response. Get on the brakes and it dives. Bend into a turn and it rolls. They're small movements, but compared to the GT-R they feel wildly exaggerated.

As we finish the first lap, we step it up a notch. In terms of pure power, the two cars feel very, very close. The Porsche's turbos come on a little more abruptly, but both cars are equal-size hammers at full boost. We dig hard on the 911's brakes at the end of the front straight and again we find more similarities than differences. The Turbo has a firm pedal that's easy to modulate, much like the GT-R.

Diving into the first turn is the real eye-opener, as the Turbo quickly gets a little unsettled. Like the GT-R, the 911 much prefers a steady throttle through the corner, but even when it settles down, we're still guessing where it wants to go. Steering corrections require far more input than the GT-R and the amount of body movement we get from the 911 is a stark reminder of just how buttoned down the Nissan is at speed.

If anything, the Turbo reminds us how much we like to do the shifting ourselves. The GT-R's dual-clutch setup is certainly faster and more efficient, but there's no substitute for the mechanical feel and driver involvement of a true manual linkage.

Keep Left
With the track work finished, we switch cars and head for a short loop on public roads. Mizuno has been quick to emphasize that the GT-R has a dual nature; he says the GT-R is "a supercar you can drive every day." We switch the Nissan's adjustable dampers to their softest setting, leave the transmission in automatic mode and recalibrate once again, this time to driving on the left side of the road.

For an engine that thrives at 6,000 rpm, this 3.8-liter V6 feels just fine at 1,500 rpm, too. That's good, since the transmission's automatic mode heads for fuel-sipping 6th gear as soon as possible. Of course, the slightest nudge of the throttle kicks the gearbox down to 4th. Ask for more and we're met with a slight delay before all the clutch plates and gears get lined up. Then it's wham, and we're off at full boost, wondering what the local speed limit might be.

The softer damping filters out some of the bumpier surfaces but it's still a stiff ride. Owners won't mind, but anybody in the passenger seat will. We expected the quick steering would feel twitchy on less-than-perfect pavement, but instead it's just a little on the high-maintenance side. In other words, no elbow-on-the-window-sill driving, but this car doesn't dive for the shoulder at every pothole, either.

Our only moment of "oh yeah, this is an all-wheel-drive supercar" comes when we pull a three-point turn in a parking lot. We hear what sounds like a couple of loose crescent wrenches fumbling around in the drivetrain when turning at full lock. Nothing is broken; it's just a little reminder that there are several differentials and driveshafts underneath the floor and they're not designed for slow, tight turns on dry pavement.

As we head back to the track, we confirm the usefulness of the navigation system as it manages to lead us in the right direction despite the Japanese voice commands. The rest of the interior isn't particularly impressive, since it's all about function instead of a style contest with other coupes in the $70,000 price bracket.

The Real Deal
Rolling back into the pits at Sendai, there's not much mystery left in the 2009 Nissan GT-R for us. Its world-beating lap time at the Nürburgring suggests this is one of the fastest production cars in the world. We wouldn't bet against it.

Then again, all-out capability doesn't mean much if you have to be a former Formula 1 driver to tap into it. That's not the case with the GT-R. It's well-balanced, forgiving and predictable in a way that allowed us to creep up to its limits without threatening to be the first ones to put a GT-R in a ditch.

The Porsche 911 Turbo puts it into perspective. The Nissan GT-R lives up to its billing as an affordable supercar that can go heads up with the world's best. The smiling engineer knew it and now we do, too.