Most expensive Nissan wows enthusiasts

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Car enthusiasts who lusted for nearly 20 years after Nissan's Skyline GT-R sports car are going ga-ga over the new-generation GT-R that's arriving on U.S. soil.

"Incredible," read the headline in Car and Driver magazine. Road and Track said the GT-R bested well-known competitors Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 Turbo in the magazine's comparison test.

It's not hype. The 2009 GT-R coupe is an exotic and intriguing machine whose 480-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 delivers power with a sharp yet linear thrust and whose passengers hear the odd clunks of a sophisticated, sequential, dual-clutch automatic transmission as they travel.

The race car-like suspension, all-wheel drive and novel positioning of the GT-R transmission behind the seats -- put there to help balance weight front to back -- create a car that handles like it's really on rails.

And the interior, with g-force graphs, hug-me leather seats and navigation with voice recognition, makes the GT-R seem like a roadworthy spaceship, not a car -- and that's before a driver tries the GT-R's Launch Control.

No wonder automotive buffs are excited.

To be sure, there are drawbacks.

With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $70,850 for a base coupe, the GT-R is the highest-priced production Nissan ever offered in the United States. (Skyline GT-Rs were sold in Japan but never officially in the U.S.)

But some dealers already are telling prospective customers that demand for the 2,400 GT-Rs coming to the States each year is so great, they need to pay as much as $30,000 over the window sticker price. And only some 700 select Nissan dealers can sell and service the GT-R.

The fuel economy rating for this two-door car is just 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway, or about par with that of a Toyota 4Runner sport utility vehicle.

Competitors include such long-running sports cars as the V-8-powered Chevrolet Corvette Z06 with 505 horsepower and a price of $73,255 and the $127,060 Porsche 911 Turbo with 480-horsepower turbocharged V-6.

Americans, who watched the previous four generations of Skyline GT-Rs from afar -- and in video games where the GT-R became a popular video car -- get the fifth-generation model, which is sold without the word Skyline in the name.

In real life as in the video games, the car looks exotic in a Japanese sort of way, with a large rear wing, a body that's low to the pavement, big, 20-inch wheels and a potent, get-out-of-my-way appearance.

It's fun to drive -- as long as other drivers really do get out of the way. The test car drew drivers and motorcyclists alike who raced to catch up to the car, then paced the GT-R to take in every inch of sheet metal.

The test GT-R drew a crowd of men -- young and old -- while it sat parked on a downtown Sacramento, Calif., street. They snapped pictures with their cell phones and gazed at it for a long time. Talk about a guy magnet.

And when I got inside, pushed the car's "start" button, shifted to drive and touched the accelerator pedal, the car lunged forward to the appreciative smiles of the fans.

The GT-R's engine is a 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 officially rated at 480 horsepower and with 430 foot-pounds of torque. But the buzz on the Internet for months has been that a GT-R put on a dynamometer registered 500 horsepower.

I expected some turbo lag, but try as I might, I couldn't notice any as power always came on strong and smooth.

Around 3,500 rpm, there was a nearly imperceptible sense of phasing of the engine, but it felt more like the workings of the engine's camshafts than a turbo, or two, stepping in.

An automatic transmission in a sports car like this may seem odd. But it has one of the best digital brains for shifting quickly and getting the most from the engine that I've experienced.

Besides, there are paddle shifters on the steering column that work well to let a driver shift for himself without needing to depress a clutch pedal. This mechanism makes the GT-R comfortable for driving in traffic.

But when fun is on the agenda and no other cars are around, there's always the GT-R's Launch Control, which comes on as a driver toggles some switches to accentuate the transaxle's handling of power and the suspension setting while also turning off the electronic stability control system.

With the left foot on the brake pedal and fingers on the right paddle, a driver can stomp the accelerator and spin the engine fast to 4,500 rpm while letting up on the brake.

It was a rush as the rear tires leave 10 feet or so of black rubber and I felt like I left half my brain behind, too. Launch Control, indeed.

The car rides stiffly, even when the suspension settings are set at the comfort mode.

And there was plenty of road noise from the test car's performance tires. All-season rubber is available.

Big brake discs fill the wheels for maximum stopping power. They and bright red Brembo-labeled brake components are visible through the jazzy wheels.

But I was disappointed to see that a sports car at this price doesn't automatically include curtain air bags and side-mounted, front seat side air bags. They are standard on the top-of-the-line GT-R Premium model only.

Finally, the GT-R has two rear seats. But hiproom of just 18.6 inches and negligible legroom make them best for storing briefcases and bags.

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