Parked side-by-side, two cars tell a story of automotive history. On the left, one of Nissan’s earliest attempts at performance, a 1962 Fairlady Sports. It has a 59-horsepower 1200cc engine but looks like a windup toy. On the right, a 2020 Nissan GT-R. It looks like what it is – a monster.
To the GT-R’s right is a lineage of brutality. Known by their chassis numbers, the R34, R33 and R32 are all tarmac-shredding beasts, packed with technology and turbocharged to the limit. Never officially available here, all are now importable under Canada’s 15-year grey-market laws. Together, it’s a family photo of city-destroying radioactive dinosaurs.
To understand what the GT-R really means, you have to go even further back. Two years after the quirky little Noddy-car Fairlady made its poorly received debut in North America, a company called Prince decided to enter the Japanese Grand Prix. The team was up against the likes of the Porsche 904 GTS, a purpose-built mid-engined racing car.
The Prince entry was called the Skyline, and it featured the oldest trick in the book. Engineers simply took a more powerful engine out of the larger Gloria model and stuffed it in the nose of a smaller car. It was awkward and ill-handling, but in the middle of the race, driver Tetsu Ikuzawa managed to slip past the Porsche to take the lead. The crowd leapt to its feet. A legend was born.
Nissan acquired Prince in 1966, and the first Skyline GT-R went into production three years later. It smashed the competition, as did the R32 GT-R that followed three decades later. That one garnered the nickname “Godzilla,” bestowed by the Australian press, as it stormed the podium in touring-car racing down under. The name stuck.
History lesson over; here’s the present state of the GT-R nation. As you climb in, the car feels huge. You sit up high in the driver’s seat, the hood ducts prominent in your field of view like the flared nostrils of some antediluvian beast.
The ride is extremely firm in all settings but not uncomfortable. The engine, hand-built in a climate-controlled lab and signed by a technician, responds quickly, torque building with boost. The transmission is sometimes slow to drop a gear.
Of course, these impressions come from treating the GT-R like a BMW 3 Series or similar. When the road empties and you really provoke it, all hell breaks loose.
There are quick cars and there are fast cars, and then there are cars like this. The engine isn’t as responsive as previously thought; there’s actually a fair dollop of lag as the turbos spool up to show their true potential. It’s just that the GT-R has far more power than you were expecting. There’s almost no typical engine sound at full bore, only the hyperbolic hiss of air being forced into the V-6.
All of the 565-horsepower peak output goes straight to the rear wheels. The GT-R is fitted with twin driveshafts to shunt power forward only when the rear wheels start slipping. Corner exit is shocking, all four wheels clawing at the tarmac.
This is a big car, far larger than its ancestors, but it shrugs off its weight like a charging bear. In tight corners, the GT-R changes direction instantly. Its pace still feels ample to taking on the world’s best.
By modern standards, the GT-R is an old design, especially when compared with the hybridized weaponry of something like the Acura NSX. It no longer represents the bleeding edge of performance technology.
Yet it is still more than capable of carrying Nissan’s pride, as it has for more than half a century. It is big, fast and brutally potent. It’s a dragon you can park in your garage. Long live the GT-R.
Godzilla is still king of the monsters.
- Base price / As tested: $129,998 / $139,998 + freight
- Engine: 3.8-litre twin-turbo V-6
- Transmission/drive: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic all-wheel-drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.4 (city); 10.9 (highway)
- Alternatives: Acura NSX, Porsche 911
The optional 50th Anniversary Edition features a host of decals and special badges, as well as the signature Nissan heritage colours of blue, silver or white. The badging’s not altogether tasteful, but the special blue is fantastic.
As a design that’s 10 years old now, the GT-R’s interior feels old. However, it is surprisingly well finished, with seats that look worthy of a car with this price tag. A Porsche owner might sneer, but it does feel special in here.
Clever all-wheel-drive systems, lightning-quick dual-clutch gearboxes and twin-turbocharged engines are mainstream now rather than cutting-edge. The GT-R can feel a bit clunky, with plenty of transmission whine. However, the cornering performance is still jaw-dropping, and the feel of the car is still entirely unique. It’s old-school and new-school all at once.
When the GT-R debuted a decade ago, its touch-screen displays were the stuff of video games. These days, you get an updated screen that’s as functional as anything else in the Nissan lineup. It works just fine.
As a 2+2 coupe with a 249-litre trunk, the GT-R is weirdly sensible. As with the 911 Turbo, this car offers ferocious performance you can live with every day.
The verdict: 8.0
Even 10 years after its debut, the GT-R stays relevant with continual small upgrades to power and performance. Though not quite the performance bargain it once was, it provides a driving experience like no other car.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up today.