Phillip Island, Victoria. One of the world’s great racetracks, a stretch of tarmac that is universally rated by the MotoGP stars as their favourite weekend on the calendar. Supercars drivers love it too, such is the challenge it presents. The location, perched along wild coastline, doesn't hurt either. As I walk into the back of the pit garage, the light rain that is falling begins to strengthen to a steady shower.
“It’s going to be nice and greasy guys. There hasn’t been any rain down here to wash the track off for a while,” says rally ace and driving instructor Cody Croker.
Not a worry in the world then. We’re only about to head out onto one of the most daunting racetracks in Australia in the facelifted 419kW/637Nm 2017 Nissan GT-R…
We’ll get to that – slightly terrifying – track drive later. First up, I get to experience something I’ve never done before. That is, drive an R35 GT-R on the road. Yep, I’ve driven the ‘new’ GT-R three times over the years – all on racetracks. The country roads around Phillip Island seem the perfect place to get to grips (in the confines of public driving anyway) with such a heinous weapon, and the rain hasn’t started yet, so the savagery might not be quite so, um, savage.
Read our pricing and specification breakdown for the details, but the basics mean the revised GT-R range starts with the Premium Edition from $189,000, then the Premium Edition with Luxury Trim from $195,000 through to the Track Edition (engineered by NISMO) from $227,000. No, the GT-R isn’t cheap, but then accessing a 2.7-second run from 0-100km/h and the aforementioned power levels isn’t cheap regardless of the badge affixed to the bonnet.
Those prices are up around 10 per cent across the board from the model this 2017 version replaces. Like the price though, power and torque have crept up by 15kW and 9Nm respectively. Crucially, Tamura-san, chief product specialist for the GT-R, explains that his engineering team has worked hard to improve the power and torque delivery through the mid-range, subtle improvements certainly, but improvements nonetheless.
Some things haven’t changed though. As Curt mentioned in his international launch review from Spa-Fancorchamps (where it wasn’t raining), extracting the eye-watering launch time remains unchanged. Select ‘R mode’ for everything except the suspension setting, which you leave in Comfort mode to best allow the rear end to squat down under launch load. The six-speed dual-clutch transmission remains too, and is reasonably smooth, despite the power it needs to transfer. At redline, the shifts are as rapid as you'd expect.
The exterior has been revised, primarily to add to aero efficiency and to improve overall cooling. Not such an issue on the road, but cooling becomes vital for owners who head to the track often according to Nissan. As such, the intake grille up front has been enlarged by 20 per cent, something that would usually kill aero efficiency. However, the engineers have worked hard to ensure that isn’t the case.
The lower lip of the front bumper has been changed, as well as the side sills and the lower edge sections of the rear bumper, which feature revised, sharper canards. These changes improve overall airflow from front to rear and the subtle changes made to the front guard near the crease line with the bonnet, assist in reducing turbulent air flowing around that area as well. In fact, the bonnet itself is new, with more structural rigidity than before. Tamura-san tells us that downforce above 200km/h is now dramatically improved – not that you’ll get to sample that too often in Australia. There’s also an eye-catching new hero colour – Katsura orange.
The most visible improvements are inside the cabin, where Nissan has worked hard to deliver a more premium feel, and an evolution that takes the GT-R to a level befitting its price tag. The infotainment screen is larger, up to 8.0 inches from 7.0 inches, there are fewer switches on the console (down to 11 from 27), the alloy dials are hewn from higher quality material and there’s a more intuitive multi-function control dial.
Along with these smaller detail changes, there’s new leather trim, which is finished to a more luxurious standard, and with more colours on offer as well. Those colours include black, tan, ivory and red. The black is a little lighter, so as not to darken the interior too much. Subtle, but it seems to work.
When you get comfortable behind the wheel and take some time to survey the interior, it certainly feels more premium and luxurious than the MY16 GT-R it replaces. The reduction in switchgear lifts the interior, where too many buttons and switches often feel – and look – cheap. The larger screen makes a difference and our brief experience with the multi-function control button was positive. The screen displays numerous parameters that train-spotters will love like g-force and throttle percentage along with more mundane readings like boost.
The interior still feels a little dated as it has for some time now. It is getting on for a decade old now remember. That’s especially the case with the driver’s gauge display and some of the switchgear, which lacks the delicacy and finesse of some premium Euro examples. The interior is certainly more premium than it was, but at the price point the GT-R carries, you could rightly expect an even more premium experience than the one you get. I reckon Nissan would claim the GT-R’s knockout blow is in the driving, not the switchgear, though.
On road, in Comfort mode behind the wheel of the Premium Edition, the suspension is impressively supple and the cabin quiet and insulated. Only coarse chip bitumen manages to transmit road noise into the cabin, and there’s little to indicate you couldn’t use a GT- R every day. At low speed, there’s still that, connected, raw, mechanical feel to the driveline, with some clunking and whirring going on. The transmission gets even smoother (and sharper) the more you tax it, and as such, it can be a little jerky at crawling speeds. We couldn’t care less though, given the power the driveline has to try to harness.
Forget R mode out on the open road. The GT-R is simply too fast even with all the various fun police set in their sternest position. The way it piles on speed and surges toward the horizon through the mid-range is astonishing and it's ridiculously easy to bypass licence-losing territory and head straight to gaol time on public roads. The relentless urge from the turbocharged engine never ceases to amaze and regardless of how fast you’re travelling, when you mash the accelerator, speed keeps building rapidly. Squeeze the throttle pedal even to the halfway point, look down at the speedo and quickly toss up how much you value your freedom to drive on public roads before standing on the brakes. On that subject, the brakes, which have to haul the portly - 1765kg in Premium trim - GT-R down from warp speed time and again, do an admirable job on the street.
The two things you notice most when you wind the wick up as far as you can on-road are the steering precision and the beautifully controllable way the GT-R transfers its weight. The Track Edition, as we'll find out later is significantly firmer as you'd expect, but the Premium Edition is a road natural. Tamura-san tells us the team has spent a lot of time massaging the steering system so drivers will need far less minor inputs and corrections, especially at speed. When you tip the GT-R into a corner, matching that steering precision at the pointy end is the confidence-inspiring way the big coupe transfers its weight and squats down over the outside rear tyre. It means you can thunder through corners astonishingly quickly.
Now, back to the track. And, frighteningly, the rain I mentioned earlier. I start my session in the Premium Edition. As I slip past the 60km/h pit speed restriction sign and ease on the throttle I can feel the tail start to squirrel around immediately. This will be interesting. Cody is seated next to me, and despite me worrying about his hair going grey in the time it takes me to complete one lap, he’s smiling at the prospect of me trying to wrestle this beast around the Island.
I’m busy listening to his tips – “gently on the brake, now harder, off the brake, turn in, hold the line, tighter, don’t hit the apex too soon, now wind the steering off and gently on the accelerator, more pedal, that’s it, eyes up, prepare for the next apex” – so I’m not watching the central gauge cluster but rather trying to pick the best way to navigate the track.
I’m being as gentle as I possibly can with the throttle pedal, and yet, every time I squeeze it on at exit, the tyres break instantly into wheelspin. As we rocket down the straight, Cody tells me I used no more than 40 per cent throttle on the first lap, and yet the GT-R is a real handful. I’d love to see you show me how it’s done, I tell him.
“I reckon we wouldn’t be any faster than you at the moment mate. The track is like a skating rink today.” He's probably flattering my average ability compared to his telepathic car control, but you’d need to be as skilled as him to be able to get remotely close to the GT-R’s limits in these conditions.
For my second and third sessions, the rain has stopped but the track remains wet and I’m staggered by the way the GT-R can hold speed through off-camber corners when you get the steering and throttle inputs just right. Usually, instructors barking in your ear is an annoyance when you’re trying to work a track out, but I reckon I’m somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent faster than I would be without their expertise today. I’d never have the balls to push this much power this hard in the wet, without their confidence in knowing I’m keeping it all in check.
By late afternoon, with the rain cleared, we’ve blown a dry line around the circuit and I head out for one last run in the Track edition. I get comfortable in the cabin, and immediately notice the firmer suspension over the first few imperfections in the pit lane. The GT-R is so fast and so capable when the available grip is there, that you have to reset your subconscious parameters. You can brake later, use less steering angle than you think, get off the brakes earlier and squeeze on the throttle sooner than you think too. Once you exit the corner and let the GT-R fully off the leash, it thunders toward the next corner with relentless urge. The GT-R demands maximum concentration at all times, such is the velocity and the speed with which it is built. On a track like Phillip Island being behind the wheel of a car like the GT-R is a truly immense experience. I'm genuinely surprised at how effective the brakes are at speed, given the weight of the GT-R - the Track Edition is slightly lighter than Premium trim at 1760kg.
It might only seem like yesterday, but this ‘new’ R35 GT-R will have been around for 10 years when 2017 rolls around, so it’s no spring chicken in engineering terms. Regardless though, it remains an engineering masterpiece in many ways and this subtly improved 2017 model proves that minor changes in the right areas do in fact make a tangible difference.
Universally, we love the GT-R at CarAdvice. It might be ageing but it remains a technological tour de force, and a heavyweight example of just how fast a road car can be on-track when it’s in the right hands. Does the 2017 model befit the legend? We think so.
For many, the GT-R will always be an iconic performance weapon regardless of what the raw numbers say. Fans can rest assured though that the GT-R remains a true great, a shining example of Japanese engineering and a fitting testament to nearly 50 years of GT-R history. It’s just way too damned fast for Australian roads…