FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium—By now the Nissan GT-R’s reputation must surely precede it.
On a dark and winding road on a rainy night, it can humble any supercar you care to name. It earned the nickname “Godzilla” for its ability to pulverize streets.
And the critics often say it’s a little too much like driving a video game: too artificial, too easy, and therefore a sort of empty experience. But is that true? Is any of the myth surrounding this car really true?
Despite the fact this generation of GT-R – the first ever officially sold in Canada – was introduced way back in 2007 at the Tokyo Motor Show, it’s all-new to me. Like you, I’ve read the reviews, heard the critics, and had a go at the online configurator, but I’d just never driven one—until now.
Looking down the hill at Spa-Francorchamps, one of the most dangerous circuits in motorsport history, as the rain started to fall, hand on the wheel of a shiny new 2017 GT-R, the myths go right out the window. All thoughts fly towards how to not crash.
Stefan Bellof – the guy who set the lap record at the Nordschleife in 1983, a man possessed by a godly gift for speed – he died here at Spa. He crashed just down the hill, at the bottom of Eau Rouge. I can see it now out the windshield.
First some back story. The GT-R has been updated for 2017. Nissan has been on a mission to civilize its ill-mannered wild child. Most won’t notice the updated bumper, or the subtly re-worked C-pillar and rear wing. But the aerodynamic changes are all purposeful.
They provide more cooling to the GT-R’s high-strung drivetrain without increasing drag. However, other changes – like the matte-chrome finish on the new grille – are purely for style.
Overall it still looks more like a tank than a sports car. It won’t get mistaken for anything else on the road.
The biggest changes for the refreshed 2017 model come in the cabin. This is a $110,000 car (roughly, because Canadian pricing has yet to be released). The previous model’s cabin didn’t exactly reflect its price.
Nissan has covered most of the plastic in leather, which is now available in a rainbow of colours. There’s a single huge strip of cowhide covering the dashboard. Nissan says the seats and bolsters have been tweaked in an effort to make them more comfortable.
GT-R diehards will appreciate these changes. But do they do enough to make the GT-R feel like a $100,000 car? Almost. It still can’t really compete against premium-brand rivals like the Porsche 911 or Jaguar F-Type in the luxury stakes, but at least this is an improvement.
Racing drivers reported too much movement from the front end of the GT-R. So, Nissan responded by stiffening car’s body structure around the front windshield.
In keeping with the mature, civilized theme for the 2017 GT-R, the suspension has been softened slightly. The range of adjustment from the Bilstein dampers is broader, between Comfort, Normal and R modes. The six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox has also been made smoother and less clunky at low speeds.
All settings are adjustable from the newly streamlined dash. Nissan boasts that the number of buttons has been cut down from 27 to 11. Unfortunately that still doesn’t bring the navigation system up-to-date.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an updated GT-R without a power boost, and this year is no exception. The 3.8-litre twin-turbo V6 gains 20 horsepower, for a total 565 hp. The more important improvement, though, is the torque curve, which is fatter across the rev range thanks to more precise fuel injection control.
Spa is an intimidating place, doubly so in the rain. But I’m not going in totally blind: I’ve driven the GT-R on Spa before. In a video game. From my couch. Right. Here goes nothing.
Wipers on, the GT-R accelerates down the main straight with all the urgency of a charging rhinoceros. At low rpms, the V6 gives off a high-pitched turbo whistle. By 4,000 rpm that’s overtaken by a hearty mid-range growl. By the time you reach redline in most gears, wind noise is the defining sound. Nissan isn’t giving out an official zero-to-100 km/h time, but it feels somewhere in the mid-three-second range.
At normal road speeds, the GT-R’s steering feels vague on initial turn-in. On a race track, however, the vagueness disappears once you’ve got the outside tires loaded. The steering starts to provide feedback just as the driver needs it most.
Driving up and over Eau Rouge, the GT-R dances all over the track, the front and rear ends slipping in turn. But from the driver’s seat there’s a sense of calm. The all-wheel drive system is reassuring in this case.
It is a little bit of a point-and-shoot experience initially. But turn the stability control to Race mode and the car comes alive. There’s balance to this chassis.
Yes, it’ll understeer all day if you ask too much from the front wheels going into a corner. But brake early, or dive deep into a corner on the brakes, and then get on the power way earlier than you think you should and the car will flirt with oversteer all the way out of a bend.
Of course, the limits are lower in the wet, which makes all of this easier to appreciate—but whoever said it was like driving a video game just wasn’t trying hard enough.
Canadian pricing has yet to be announced. With the luxury upgrades for model year ’17, expect the price to rise a little from the 2016 model’s $110,000 sticker.
Nissan is trying to change the GT-R’s rep. It’s not just a supercar-killer anymore, it’s also a Grand Tourer. And you know what? The new GT-R can pull it off.
It’d be an excellent choice as a daily driver for any speed freak. But as a sports car it’s a mixed bag. At road speeds I’m not sure drivers would ever get to feel the thrills and rewards this car is capable of delivering.
Of course, you could say the same about the current 991.2 Porsche 911, but at least it has better steering feel. The GT-R is at its pavement-pounding best on a race track, especially a damp and scary one like Spa.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.