Assessing whether the Nissan R35 GT-R is good or not was somewhat complicated when it first arrived to take on any car, any time and anywhere.
Its many diehard supporters’ first and last line of defense to most criticism was that their beloved Godzilla could giant-kill the world’s best on a relative budget. Detractors charge that GT-R’s near pathological approach to red-misted performance left it sold short and somewhat built to cost in other areas.
Both offered solid arguments.
Twelve years and umpteen updates on, the latest 2020 Nissan R35 GT-R, tested here in brand-spanking 50th Anniversary Edition form, goes no way to simplifying what become an even increasingly complicated assessment. For the pros, the Japanese super sports car’s power and performance has only escalated. For the cons, there’s been an awful lot of polish on a car with developmental roots dating back almost two decades. But that’s not the really complicated bit.
“A GT-R is about total balance management,” says Hiroshi Tamura, chief product specialist and godfather (of sorts) of GT-R. “It’s not about chasing power figures,” says the bloke tasked with overseeing an entire era of supercar constantly pitched as being ever-hotter and yet ever-nicer and easier to live with.
Given the R35’s improvements have become so detailed and incremental on such a regular basis, it’s tough to deduce whether the new 2020 is any better or not than any of its lifecycle forebears.
Then, in front of journos at the 50th's Aussie launch in Queensland, Tamura presents a simple two-axis chart – vertical axis labeled Maturity, horizontal axis called Performance – that plots all ten key model updates (including Nismo) from MY13 through to the latest 2020. It’s enlightening. For instance, it suggests the MY17 GT-R offered a huge lift in comfort, yet ought to match an MY14 Nismo for heat.
It also intimates that a ‘standard’ MY20 GT-R should offer MY17 Nismo levels of performance – and the MY20 Track should emphatically trounce it – yet should sit by some measure as the most daily-friendly R35 to date.
Knowing how Nissan positions MY20 GT-R, and indeed the 50th specifically, is more than a little handy in passing informed assessment, right?
Based off the Premium Luxury version ($199,800 list) and lobbing at $209,300, the 50th essentially sits in the middle of a range topped with the hard-core Track Edition With Nismo Interior ($247,000) and tailed with your basic Premium ($193,800) jigger.
The whole range benefits from detailed changes that include revised turbocharger tech for the 419kW/632Nm 3.8-litre biturbo V6, transmission calibration updates, retuning of the suspension’s electronic governance, and fettling to the steering angle and braking performance.
The extra $9500 investment for the 50th brings mostly cosmetic changes: three “heritage era” two-toned exterior paint schemes, including a reboot of the R34’s famed Bayside Blue in a new four-layer Wangan Blue with white stripes, plus an exclusive two-tone Twilight Grey leather fit-out inside trimming everything from the seats through to the door trims and dash fascia.
Those lightweight, forged 20-inch Rays-supplied wheels and techy-looking blue-tinged titanium exhaust outlets look wonderful though aren’t exclusive to the 50th, which otherwise gets lashings of half-century-anniversary signage in badge or decal form left, right and centre, including that frankly low-rent looking signage just under the bootlid.
What’s clear early on is the 50th edition really targets fanboys and fangirls as a collectors’ piece, a five-percent price premium for largely feel-good – or perhaps feel-even-better – effect. That the near $15k-cheaper Premium offers identical go-fast credentials surely isn’t lost on anyone shopping around in the hot end of the local Nissan dealership.
Exiting downtown Brisbane and aiming north-west for the driving roads of the fetching D’Aguilar Range, the MY20 does strike me as the most polite R35 I’ve driven. It’s smooth, quiet and offers near seamless drivability from an engine that was once much peakier in mid-range take-up and a transaxle dual-clutch gearbox now almost entirely bereft of those annoying low-speed whirls and clunks that were once par for the GT-R course.
With virtually no grumpiness or sudden on-boost surges, it no longer requires tiresome concentration to tool around the ‘burbs in the nastiest Nissan.
Evidently, some characteristics simply can be massaged out of the monster. There’s still that fidgety ride even with Comfort damper mode and the thrum from those huge nitrogen-filled Dunlop run-flats – 255mm up front, 285mm in rear – seems ever present. But this really is the nicest, most commuter-friendly example I can recall driving, one that’ll also purr along motorways with a temperament that’s utterly unflustered.
There’s a large bag of sonic tricks at play: active in-cabin noise cancellation and multi-mode titanium exhaust with an anti-booming valve when it’s time to keep the peace; a loud mode with active sound enhancement for when you want to go to war. And it’s a nicely struck balance between the two.
The quicker-responding turbocharger trickery pays subtle dividends, though it seems to spool quickly and swell the boost in a nice, linear manner regardless of throttle input. However, this powertrain has long suffered tardy response in being called to arms, particularly from a cruising state, because the design of the dual-clutch gearbox demands it downshift through every gear sequentially. The sixth-to-third-gear overtaking burst still requires some patience and planning.
But once on boil, jeez, the GT-R bolts hard. I’ve long been skeptical of the sub-three-second 0-100km/h claims – yet to see or do it myself – but it will pin you hard and take your breath away once the right foot is flat. No great revelation there. But the introduction of Downshift Rev Matching, or DRM, really adds an extra dimension to the six-speed gearbox.
Essentially, the powertrain downshifts sharper and quicker, full ABS braking or not, in hard-core R drive setting, allowing full-attack mode to be more fully harnessed at saner road speeds rather than at lose-your-licence racetrack pace. In practice, it makes for more useable and flexible R mode simply by keeping the engine in its sweet spot more often, meaning you’re not constantly reaching for a mode button depending on how hard you want to push on.
The extra corner-exit punch now on tap really ups the potency of GT-R in tighter on-road bends.
Even in regular non-Track trim, the GT-R had tremendous corner carving grip and impressive accuracy and I have little doubt those behind the supercar’s constant evolution have moved heaven and earth to mask its portly 1765kg kerb weight.
GT-R’s portly heft has always been a point of contention between its supporters and detractors. The latter claim it (literally) anchors this whole generation’s outright potential, the fans counter its performance and dynamic trickery ultimately overcomes kerb weight shortcomings. To various extents, both are right. But its 12-year evolution proves excess mass is impossible to remove from the equation without starting construction from scratch – replacing its largely steel form with more aluminum, say - and that creating ever-hotter GT-R is almost entirely a case of throwing more firepower at the package.
How does this translate on road? The MY20 feels properly and effortless fast, if realistically no quicker or dynamically adept than any of its myriad R35 forebears. And while it’s impressively nimble for what it is, its heft does dampen agility a touch in tighter corners and demands the breadth and safe expanses of a racetrack to fully flex the chassis muscles.
On the topic of circuit work, R35 GT-Rs have always been dizzyingly fast, but regular versions without Track or Nismo in their namesake have long struggled to maintain maximum pace for extended lapping because they do work their bespoke Dunlop run-flats very hard. It seemed as if so many GT-Rs past were around for a good time, if for not a long time.
With no off-street testing at the local launch with which to assess detailed tweaks to the adaptive Bilstein Damptronic calibration, the revised steering geometry angle, Downshift Rev Matching or brake booster fettling, the jury is out on MY20’s ten-tenths capabilities.
While the MY20 and its mid-range 50-year commemorative version make no significant deviation from past form, it does strike me as the nicest, friendliest, well-polished and most well-rounded version in the R35’s lengthy lifecycle. After a dozen years of refinement you’d expect almost every bug to have been exterminated. And it seems most of them are.
There really isn’t enough major deviation here from past form to impact the divided opinions of staunch supporters or detractors. But by measure of Tamura-san’s “total balance management”, this latest update does stack up as perhaps the finest version to date.