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2012 Nissan GT-R: Big on Performance, Short on Soul

Aki Sugawara
August 18, 2011


The Nissan GT-R is the car of my generation, or so people say. I grew up idolizing the then-unknown supercar in the ‘90s, and played countless hours of Gran Turismo to live out the fantasy of owning one. A highlight of my late-teen years was spending a day carving through narrow mountain roads in Hakone, Japan in a friend’s Spark Silver Metallic 1990 GT-R. I was mesmerized by the whining roar of the turbo as much as the scenery.

When news broke that the haloed badge would finally be released in the United States, I zealously absorbed all the information trickling out — the GT-R couldn’t strip its black rubbery camo soon enough. So when I was handed the keys to the Nissan’s updated 2012 GT-R, it was a childhood dream come true. Knowing of its Porsche-killing performance cred, how could it be anything but a transcendent experience?

But from the time I first sat in the heavily bolstered Recaros and pushed the console ignition start button, a realization slowly crept in: this isn’t the car I was eagerly awaiting.

Granted, the GT-R completely lives up to its exotic-sports-car-vanquishing fame—so if speed’s what you’re after, disregard the rest of this article, because the GT-R puts to shame cars two or three times its price, and in a more daily-driveable package.

But a sports car’s appeal isn’t just about how many German and Italian supercars it can pass on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. While Nissan has improved the GT-R for 2012 with a 45-horsepower bump (to 530 hp), a retuned suspension, structural bracing changes, interior improvements and subtle aerodynamic tweaks, none of those changes address the issue that’s at the heart of the car — that the new, game-changing and supremely engineered GT-R lacks an enthusiast spirit.

The problems aren’t what you’d suspect. Detractors of the GT-R tend to view its technological wizardry—like the ATTESA-ETS AWD (Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain)—as a negative, something that isolates the driver from the road by doing all the heavy lifting. And while the technology is a significant factor in its performance capability, it doesn’t detract from the driving. The nicely weighted steering, for example, precisely and faithfully transmits what’s going on with the tires. In corners, the electronically controlled Bilstein dampers grip the road with a feedback that feels direct, even analog; the GT-R stays neutral throughout turns with astonishing grip, seemingly defying the laws of physics. You can punch the throttle out of an apex secure in the knowledge that it will neither plow its nose nor slide its tail. And even when the vehicle dynamics control (VDC) kicks in R mode, it’s more to aid and enhance your driving rather than to take away.

The acceleration on the GT-R is sublime, too. For 2012, Nissan revised the launch control functionality, and all those millisecond computations equate to blistering acceleration. The ease of execution and neck-snapping grip off the line is otherworldly. When you can get to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds, the last thing you complain about is how computers are ingeniously maximizing your traction.

But performance doesn’t necessarily define the soul of a sports car. And that brings up the question: what is the soul of a GT-R— and what makes it a GT-R? For answers, we look to the mastermind behind the GT-R, Nissan’s chief vehicle engineer Mizuno Kazutoshi.

“In a single phrase: anyone, anywhere, anytime,” said Mizuno. “That the car would make an exceptional impression to anyone, anywhere, anytime. We call it the multi-performance supercar.”

But that’s the problem: whereas past iterations of the GT-R stayed true to Mizuno’s vision, this super-sized, high-tech rendition has strayed. Take the GT-R that catapulted the badge to global notoriety, the 1989 Skyline R32 GT-R—it was dominant in races to the point of being banned, and earned the now well-known “Godzilla” moniker. But compare that to the current GT-R (chassis code R35) and you can see that the new GT-R is an altogether different — and less inspiring — beast.

Nissan's R32 Skyline GT-R. (photo: igloowhite / Flickr)
Nissan's R32 Skyline GT-R. (photo: igloowhite / Flickr)

Selling almost 44,000 units in its 5-year run, the ’89 GT-R was an unexpected smashing success. In spite of its prestige, the ’89 GT-R it does not turn heads; its humble aesthetics evoked a Nissan 240SX more than a supercar, but has aged well. Inside, the dash was a sea of hard plastic and its flimsy HVAC vents were be prone to cracking over time. The interior also raided the parts bins of other models; the map light looked identical to an ‘89 Maxima. On the plus side, all those shared parts meant the cost of replacing them was much less expensive. Good luck getting 2012 GT-R parts on the cheap.

There was a taut simplicity and beauty to the ’89 GT-R that showed it was a dedicated sports car—with no unnecessary fluff or any pretense of luxury.

In contrast, the 2012 GT-R’s interior attempts to straddle the line between luxury and sporty, never quite succeeding with either. The chunky dash looks almost truck-like, in spite of the new carbon fiber dash accents.

The old R32 GT-R was also trimmer in size. Tipping the scales at around 3,150 lbs, it’s a featherweight compared to the gargantuan 2012 GT-R, which weighs 20 percent more at a hefty 3,800 lbs. Sit in a new Nissan GT-R and you feel like you’re maneuvering a barge compared to the ‘89 GT-R. It doesn’t help that the new GT-R beeps like a cargo van when in reverse.

And while the ’89 GT-R uses ATTESA AWD like the current GT-R, its predecessor felt more raw. Rev the old Nissan’s venerable RB26DETT engine and you were treated to an aggressive, almost muscle-car growl. By comparison, the raspy VR38DETT engine sounds like a Dyson vacuum. Sure, an Aston Martin V12 Vantage or Ferrari 458 Italia may not have the brute speed of a GT-R, but they don’t sound like an appliance when revving, either. It’s odd that even the older and slower VQ engine from Nissan sounds livelier. And, performance superiority aside, you’re inevitably more detached from the drive with a dual-clutch as opposed to a manual transmission.

But where the new GT-R really takes an about-face from the old is price. In 1989, the Skyline GT-R started at around $32,000. Factoring in inflation, that’s about $55,000 today, which is in range of the base C6 Corvette. The new R35 Nissan GT-R started off with a price tag of $77,000 in 2008, and has crept upwards continually, now starting at $89,950.

The sticker price alone means the GT-R is no longer a car for “anyone.” Rumors abound that Nissan took a loss on every 1989-1994 R32 Skyline GT-R sold (a stronger yen now doesn’t help, either), but regardless, the GT-R is no longer a car within the reach of the masses, even if it still has outstanding bang-for-buck performance.

Combine the high starting price, funky exterior styling (that personally strikes me as a cyborg catfish), unsatisfying aural accompaniment to the engine, and you have a car that alienates even more prospective buyers. Sales may reflect that; Nissan sold 1,730 units of the GT-R in 2008—a decent figure given the low-volume of the car and the fact that its engines are hand-built. But sales have been tapering, dropping to 1,534 units in 2009 and just 877 in 2010.

How can a sports car that has so much performance value and engineering ingenuity underdeliver? Because in the end, how fast a car laps a track doesn’t always move buyers. And maybe that’s the Achilles’ heel with the GT-R: what looks great on paper—and in a video game—won’t always pull on the heart strings in real life.

Nissan GT-R Facts and Figures


Sports car
Four passengers
V6 DOHC twin-turbo
6-speed semi-automatic dual clutch transmission
530 hp
448 lb-ft
Top speed
197 mph
Zero to 60 mph
2.9 seconds
16/23 mpg
Base price (incl destination charges)
Remarkable features
Has a slippery 0.26 coefficient of drag

Editorial disclosure: Nissan provided a test car for a week with a full tank of gas.