x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Nissan GT-R is a good ride, but a bland road companion

Road Test: The revised GT-R is a technical tour de force but Kevin Hackett finds it's lacking in personality.

The Nissan GT-R is an incredibly fast road car that few rivals can match for speed and cornering ability, but it does suffer from a few design flaws, inside it at least. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
The Nissan GT-R is an incredibly fast road car that few rivals can match for speed and cornering ability, but it does suffer from a few design flaws, inside it at least. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

As someone who has long dismissed the notion of having car windows so blacked out that nobody can see in from outside as being totally dangerous and irresponsible, yesterday I wished this Nissan GT-R had been so equipped. In plain view for every other motorist to see on the commute home from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, there we were: four grown adults squeezed into a bona fide Japanese supercar. To enable all four of us to actually be seated and strapped in, we were contorted to the point of comedy. Clearly the GT-R has another purpose because, unless your family or colleagues are amputees, you'll need something else.

Of course, the GT-R does have another purpose. It exists to showcase the technical prowess of Nissan, to prove it can take on Porsche and the like by creating a devastatingly fast, safe and reliable car that demands respect. It's nothing short of a legend, this car, but in my previous experiences it left me cold. As impressive as its turn of speed always was, it didn't excite me. I never had the slightest pang of desire to own one.

Nissan was listening to its critics, and comprehensively overhauled the GT-R for 2012. And this is my first time experiencing one after the company's obsessive team came up with what it thinks will keep us satisfied. And I have to say, after three days in it, I'm mightily impressed - pitiful rear seats notwithstanding.

To look at it, you'd think nothing had changed. Physically, it's identical to the original, and that's no bad thing because it's a masterpiece of honed, muscular, and malevolent intent. It looks hard and it is. The flanks are complex, the glass line beneath the roof sleek and the Ferrari-esque rear lamps, set deep into a sheer cliff face of a rear bumper, simply add the finishing touch. "It's a bit chav, isn't it?" one of my passengers remarked. Who cares? It's got road presence by the truckload.

Today, I'm making the journey to and from my office on my own, free to explore this car's attributes without any complaining. The revisions to the GT-R are significant: the 3.8L V6 twin turbo engine has been mechanically uprated instead of the usual reconfigured ECU and exhaust systems. It has new cylinder heads, new sodium-filled valves and a revised intake system - to increase throttle response and provide more power higher up the rev range.

The suspension has been overhauled with newly programmed dampers, the springs are revised and the gearbox shifts even quicker and with less fuss. The car even has different spring rates and rear suspension geometry that differs from side to side to make up for the weight of the driver. Nobody could accuse Nissan of not taking this mid-life refresh seriously.

But does it all come together to form a more entertaining experience from behind the wheel? I reckon so. In automatic mode, at low speeds, the gearbox clunks noisily and you can practically feel the levers and linkages engaging and disengaging. It feels recalcitrant and stubborn, as if it's straining on some invisible leash, begging to be let go. And once you do give the GT-R its steam there isn't much out there that can keep up with it. A Lamborghini Aventador might just about outrun it but it would be a very close match, with the Nissan only giving way to the outrageous Italian at speeds over 250kph.

Grip is phenomenal, the permanent all-wheel-drive system working in tandem with the stiff suspension to keep the car flat and secure even when cornering at speeds others would judge insane. It just goes and goes, seemingly without the slightest let-up. You'll run out of road or nerves before the GT-R runs out of breath - its performance is neck-snappingly brutal. How does a 0-to-100kph dash in 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 320kph sound? Exactly.

Even with 10,000 hard-driven kilometres under its belt, this test car feels as fresh and as tight as when it left the factory. It's impossible to escape the GT-R's humble Nissan origins when you scan the cabin's switchgear and the central display screen is blighted by graphics straight from a teenager's games console, surrounded by fake carbon fibre trim. The seats, too, look like they were upholstered by someone with a penchant for the 1980s but, for once, none of this matters. Because every time I stamp on the throttle, all I can do is hold on for dear life, stifling my hollers of joy while trying not to scoop up whatever car is in front of me.

Nissan's crack team of engineers has, indeed, improved the GT-R. It's greater than the sum of its parts but there's still something missing. It lacks character. As the speed piles on, there's barely an audible hint of V6 goodness; instead it's smothered by a loud whooshing noise from the turbos, as if there's a Tesla Roadster trapped underneath it somewhere. It sounds clinical, efficient and soulless compared with any of its contemporaries, and that would be enough to keep me saving for something else. But if the GT-R flicks your switch and you feel compelled to buy one, I salute you because, despite my continued misgivings, it's an incredible machine made even better.