x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Godzilla attacks, the sequel

The new Nissan GT-R is as dominating as its predecessor was, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

The new GT-R clears the top of Mount Panorama and heads for the descent of the Esses. doing laps.
The new GT-R clears the top of Mount Panorama and heads for the descent of the Esses. doing laps.

Nineteen years ago, the Nissan Skyline GT-R legend grew from nothing until every teenage boy lusted after it and every Porsche and Ferrari driver feared its crushing acceleration and awesome grip. That legend started at the home of Australian motorsport, Mount Panorama, in the town of Bathurst.

Nissan had debuted its new car at Mount Panorama in 1990 in the annual 1,000-kilometre touring car race. The car qualified 11th, but got warmed up in the race, storming past the Cosworth Sierras, BMW M3s and Holdens up the mountain, where their V8 torque was supposed to dominate. It didn't matter that the Skyline didn't finish, because its 2:15.46 wasn't just the fastest lap of the race, it was the fastest race lap any touring car had ever posted at the track. It was dubbed "Godzilla" and the name resonated around the world. In 1991 and 1992, the GT-R won the 1,000-km race with the outspoken driver Jim Richards at the wheel, before race organisers banned the car altogether the next year.

Now, Nissan has thrown up another bombshell with the new GT-R, and we put it through its paces on the 6.2-km track that made the original car famous. We were sharing track space with a motley fleet of Porsches, Commodores, other Nissans, Lotuses and a confusing array of quick machines and quirky vintages. The new Godzilla has had a long gestation period, including some lap times at the Nurburgring in Germany that Nissan's benchmark, Porsche, found barely credible. Its numbers were widely known long before it launched. Everybody knew it had 480 horsepower from its 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V6, and everybody knew it had 588 Newton metres of torque, its all-wheel drive system, double-clutch gearbox and the rear diff and transfer case cuddling together in a transaxle that sat on top of the rear axle.

But is it still worthy of the Godzilla moniker? It doesn't sound like it when you fire it up. The gruff idle doesn't threaten like a supercar, but the GT-R has always gone its own way. It exudes the image of a fundamentally angry, purposeful, cranky car, as if it was treated badly as a kid and grew to like it. The GT-R has grunted its way into third gear before the pit-exit lane ends, and it's already streaking past 130 kilometres per hour. By the time it reaches the first crest on Mountain Straight, it's already pulling 230.

From turn two, there's a steep climb up to the top of Mount Panorama. But the GT-R's engine is arrogantly rejecting the notion of a mountain being here at all. From the seat, it feels like the thing builds up all the torque you'd ever need from about 1,500rpm, but in reality, it hits its peak at 3,200 rpm. The 90-degree Hell Corner is a third-gear corner, and it's faster than it looks. With this torque, you could probably fire out of it just as fast in fourth. There's little smoothness, but plenty of gruff from the V6 and the hiss of the turbos cramming air gets your attention. The right paddle gives fourth almost before the ripple strip ends, then you're in fifth and then you realise something important.

The GTR's Race Mode isn't the best thing on a race track. Most Race-type modes stiffen everything up. You don't want that here. It's squirming around on the suspension, walking sideways here and there up Mountain Straight, bump steering from one visually non-existent depression to the next. And then you hit the crest again. At full speed. It's at full roar in fifth and, while you should keep a bit to the left, it's walking so much that you give it more margin for error and you steer for the middle. And then you notice something very strange. The front end of the car is leaving the ground.

While the rear wheels are still touching the deck, they're carrying so little weight as to be earth-bound only by the strictest definitions. The front wheels, though, are unashamedly, brazenly dangling at full droop in thin air. The traction control light strobes and the skid control is caught between confusion and panic. The needle's snatching 250 before the braking zone, but the brake pedal bites hard, the GTR settles easily and it turns in hard. The run up the mountain is something else. It's already in fifth again before tight, uphill corner called The Cutting.

From there, the big Nissan builds more and more speed and, by the Reid Park gates, it's already travelling fast enough that you need to run it all the way out to the concrete on the exit. The rollercoaster builds momentum until you come to the realisation that you need to back off. McPhillamy Park is a fast left hander at the top of the mountain that demands astonishing commitment to take flat out. The GTR, even on an eight-tenths lap, lifts its inside front wheel across the blind crest at the turn-in point in fourth gear, but fires down the short straight into Skyline so fast that you don't really have time to remember what's coming up.

It's here that you feel its weight, all two tonnes of it sling-shotted beyond normality until you have to ask it to do unnatural things to bring it back down again. The blind approach to the steeply downhill Esses is OK, but the right hander makes the gizmos think too hard and the Dipper, which just falls away beneath the inside wheels in a tight left-hand bend, downright confuses them to the point where it won't pick up the throttle at all until it's travelled another 50 or 60 metres.

It's even worse when you come out of the Forrest's Elbow, the tight, steeply downhill, off-camber left-hander that signals a return to the softer countryside. It refuses to deliver all the drive coming out of the corner, waiting at least 150 metres before it pulls the trigger. But when it does, Conrod Straight never felt so short. It's already doing 250 at the dip, it's indicating 280 before the fast, right-hand Chase, and then there's the big brake bite for the 90-degree, blind left-hander. It stops but then it reaches Murray's Corner and it really doesn't want to stop a second time.

And this is the biggest problem. The Brembos are a decent size. There are six-piston calipers up front and four-piston monoblocs down the back, and all four rotors are 380 millimetres, but on a track like this, they don't feel like they're enough. Few race tracks are harder on brakes than Bathurst. The problem isn't stopping as such, because the brakes keep climbing off the canvas to have another go. The real issue is feel and confidence, because they feel bad and inspire none. From the top of the mountain onwards, the brake pedal is at a different height every time you go looking for it and it asks for a different pedal pressure to get the same jobs done.

But the rest of the car is awesome, especially the gearbox and the diff systems. It's a bit like a bigger, heavier EVO Lancer, because once you have the nose turned in, you can just stand on the throttle, point the front wheels where you want to go and rely on Albert Einstein down there to sort it all out. It shifts so quickly and smoothly that it never unsettles the chassis, even when you pull a paddle when the suspension is already loaded up to critical mass. The revs rise, you pull the paddle and there's no interruption at all before the revs start rising again in their purposeful but dull way.

The chassis, too, is superb. With all that weight sitting over the rear axle, the balance is far better than it ought to be, even though it's constantly battling enormous mass. But the real trick is that it never lets you feel like you're in trouble. Get the line wrong across the top and it has a little wobble on the rear suspension while the computer's thinking, before it sorts it all out. The trouble is that, for all its pace, for all its awesome grip and technology, it's just not fun to drive. We regularly parked it before our allocated sessions ended because it felt like we were driving a video game. And, as fast as that helps make the modern GT-R, how much fun is that? motoring@thenational.ae