Can added power, revised exterior styling and renewed interior design maintain the brightness around Nissan's mighty GT-R halo car?
Releasing a revised, comfier, more refined, more luxurious and ever-more potent GT-R has almost become an annual practice for Nissan in the current R35 generation's now quite lengthy nine-year lifecycle.
Surely those tasked with massaging the modern Godzilla are running out of stones to turn. So if it’s a tough job fossicking for areas of improvement – undoubtedly with evermore diminishing returns - it must be even trickier to maintain the interest of prospective buyers and GT-R fanboys and fangirls alike who've heard the same old 'fitter and faster' spiel repeatedly.
This new 2017 Nissan GT-R, though, is touted as the biggest shake-up of the now mature breed. Problem is, Nissan’s ‘heavily updated’ is, by a great many other car makers' approach, little more than another light nip and tuck face-lift. For a full rundown of updates, see here.
It’s the sheer regularity of the GT-R updates that’s oh-so old-school Japanese ethos that largely appeases the die-hards and geeky gear-heads among us who might, from 50 paces, distinguish a 2008 GT-R from a 2012 or a 2015 model. The problem there is that today’s GT-R is a global proposition playing in a global sandpit where large, sweeping and obvious changes are the norm that commands buyer attention.
So does the MY17 range’s revised looks, interior spruce-ups and a modest hike in red-misted capabilities offer enough improvement to excite and appease the already converted and lure newcomers to the GT-R?
In choosing glowingly positive light under which to showcase its new thoroughbred, Nissan skipped its native Japan and instead chose Belgium’s famed Spa-Francorchamp to highlight the car’s newfound ferocity, and both the Germany high-speed autobahns and picturesque Belgium by-ways to showcase comfort and civility.
While the Euro-spec test cars themselves are quite close in spec to what Australia will get later this year, the tailor-made conditions that, we’d discover, naturally play to GT-R strengths certainly aren’t.
But, after a couple of days and hundreds of kays of driving on road and track, aspects of the MY17 GT-R shine through regardless of the venues and conditions on which they’re demonstrated. For one thing, this new apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And for another, small improvements in the right places can make a large and positive impact.
The refreshed exterior styling is a case in point. The actual changes are quite modest, comprising massaged front and rear ends, a reshaped bonnet and extended side sills, essentially. But in the flesh, it’s a noticeably more techy and muscular design with more on-road presence than any predecessor not flying limited-edition Nismo-branded credentials.
The interior design has been heralded as the MY17 GT-R's most extensive departure, but it’s far from radical in styling or integration. It’s slightly cleaner and a little more simplified and there are fewer buttons and switches, though it’s more a freshened evolution than a great leap forward. The driver’s instrumentation still looks dated, the large and blocky plastic buttons are hardly upmarket, and the revised software in the new 8.0-inch infotainment screen is far from leading edge. Audi and Mercedes-Benz’s interior designers won’t be losing any sleep…
Still, the cabin space exudes an air of purpose of proper driver’s machine and delivers convincingly in execution. The re-formed seats, for instance - hardly benchmark comfort, but they do an admirable job of pinning your torso in place during spirited driving. There’s no head-up display, no lane-keeping or active steering trickery masquerading as ‘safety’, and the sat-nav and reverse-view camera systems aren’t pillars of slickness, but there’s a cut-the-crap straightforwardness to equipment in the Premium level specification, which Nissan says will become the entry-level variant, more or less unchanged from our sampled Euro test car, on the Australian market.
On the march, acceleration pins you hard into the seat and can rob your breath in much the way its predecessors have over the past nine years. I’d be lying if I wrote that the extra 15kW – a roughly four per cent hike – can be felt by the seat of the pants. Also, Nissan quotes 419kW of power and 637Nm of torque (up around 9Nm), if on 100RON fuel, and that outputs may drop when using Aussie 98RON for locally released cars.
Nissan’s eye-opening claim of 2.7 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint remains (if unquoted in any literature we’ve seen), a figure that emerged with the 2013 GT-R and hasn’t deviated through three updates since. There’s a trick to it, too: R mode for everything except the adaptive suspension, which you keep in soft Comfort to squat the car’s rear to eliminate initial rear wheelspin, or else you’ll find yourself in the low threes.
The tangible improvement is in tractability and corner exit drive. Some boost and ignition timing trickery has fattened the breadth of peak torque’s spread – it’s now available across 60 per cent of the engine’s useable rev range. GT-R is no longer torque-limited in first and second gears, said to aid low-rpm driveability, but like so many of the MY17 updates, it’s polishing work that’s not easy to detect. That said, this’d have to be the smoothest, quietest and more tractable R35 powertrain to date, easily the most pleasant to live with during urban and open-road driving. Nissan quotes 12 litres per 100km for the combined fuel cycle, though thirst skyrockets to 17L/100km around town.
There’s nothing terribly new in the powertrain department, but engineers have finally gotten on top of refinement issues with the six-speed dual-clutch transaxle: the whirls and clunks of old have been virtually eliminated, the clutch action is smooth when cruising, and there’s newfound precision and silkiness at play.
It’s not without foibles, though: very occasionally it can be terse and shunty and, inherent to its truly sequential design, it can’t jump ratios like most other dual-clutch systems can. The jump from a cruising sixth to an overtaking third demands and annoying pause as it shuffles down three gear changes…
The godsend is the new wheel-mounted paddle shifters, replacing the steering column-mounted flaps on every other R35 to date. It’s a welcome amendment as you can now upshift through sweeping corners with a half-turn of steering lock without having remove a hand from the wheel, which is handy when confronting the challenges of the utterly magnificent Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium.
The MY17 GT-R - sampled in not-for-Oz Black Edition trim - and ‘Spa’ seem made for one another, the fast-flowing rhythm of what some consider the ultimate driver’s track complementary to the Japanese super sports car’s dynamic character. It’s a union that’s as thrilling as it is satisfying.
The long-legged Nissan can feel constrained on public roads, but at serious track pace the new version seems to both point with a shade more accuracy and it displays relaxed and confident stability as the speedo needle climbs well north of 200km/h. It’s friendlier at high speed, easier to hustle, more responsive to finer driving inputs and inspires confidence in the driver to dig in and push harder. Needless to say, it’s wickedly quick when on game. Its makers claims these improvements are mostly due to increased body rigidity rather than changes in suspension and tyre spec, of which there’s little to mention.
Whatever the case, it works. At least, that is, in red-misted bursts of moderate duration…
The GT-R asks a lot of itself, particularly in mechanical grip, to produce its heroic pace and dynamicism. And after a dozen blinding laps chopped into three-lap stints, with rests in between, the GT-R will overcook its bespoke-spec tyres, which get punished under the Japanese hero’s portly 1752kg heft. With its talent fully extracted, the Nissan is out for a good time - though not a long time.
Once the tyres ‘go off’, the GT-R is noticeably less accurate to point, squirms around under brakes, and becomes less agile and responsive. The change in character demands tidier and more-concentrated restraint from the driver, particularly with the all-wheel-drive system’s eagerness to fire torque rearward and swing the tail with big throttle inputs. At this point, it’s easy to get the GT-R out of shape and much tougher to gather up once it does.
Excess weight has always been an R35 Achilles’ heel inherent in the engineering and construction at play, so not one easily fixed. On a track well-suited to GT-R character, other-worldly pace is on limited offer, but on tight country roads with less than smooth surfaces, it tends to cap the car’s lofty potential - as we found in our twin-test of the outgoing GT-R and the Porsche 911 Turbo.
Perhaps the Track Edition, bound for Oz and which lifts much of its handling package from the hard-core GT-R Nismo, will further harness the hyper-coupe’s stunning dynamics in longer stints and in less-than-perfectly match environments, but Nissan had none to test at the international launch. Understandable, as no Track Editions have made it down the production line yet…
More impressive than the white-knuckled stuff is just how pleasant the GT-R has become for grand touring. It’s a little nicer, quieter, more refined and comfier everywhere. Not by much, though, but the combined effect makes for certainly the most liveable offering in a near decade-old R35 linage.
It still slaps over road joints, tyre roar remains slightly intrusive and it’s still not very spacious inside, but if you were to pick a GT-R to spend endless hours covering great distances, the new luxo-laden Premium variant (which we tested for around 400 kays across Germany and Belgium) is surprisingly good. Or, perhaps more accurately, impressively improved.
This MY17 update offers no great surprises or big deviations in character or formula for the halo car. But by focusing on making a finer GT-R - rather than a patently faster one - there's little doubt that this updated range is the best of its generation.
Buyers put off by early-gen R35s’ cranky and cantankerous shortcomings might be well served taking another look at this revised version (arriving in Oz later this year) that’s smoothed over a lot of rough edges without losing the heroics that’s forged a modern legend.
That Nissan doesn't expect a price rise from the outgoing range's $172,000 (before on-road costs) launch point makes the latest GT-R all the more enticing.