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GODZILLA REINCARNATE The people of Manhattan had no idea what was coming when writer Peter Cheney arrived in the roaring Nissan GT-R. (PETER CHENEY)
GODZILLA REINCARNATE The people of Manhattan had no idea what was coming when writer Peter Cheney arrived in the roaring Nissan GT-R. (PETER CHENEY)

When you're driving Godzilla, there is only one place to go Add to ...

When you’re driving a legendary machine known as Godzilla, there can be only one road-trip destination: Manhattan. And so I fired up the new Nissan GT-R and headed southeast. Yes, Godzilla was returning to New York.

Even if you’ve spent years behind the wheel of high-performance machines, the GTR is an eye-opener. Carving through the curves of the Hudson River Valley, I got thumbs up from an entire high-school team on a bus. At every gas stop, someone came out to ogle the royal blue GT-R. A tattooed young man in a black hoodie circled the vehicle as if it were a sacred object, then delivered his judgment: “That,” he said, “is badass.”

The GT-R is a particular kind of sports car. Light and playful it is not. It has the dense, metallic presence of a lethal piece of military ordinance. There’s no sunroof, since that would weaken the body structure. The shifter moves with the solid purpose of serious machinery, dropping the GT-R into gear with the kind of assertive clunk you’d expect from a rock-crushing machine. The 565-horsepower engine thrums away beneath the long hood, powerful and mission-ready. The GT-R is not so much a car as a high-speed sled, devoid of flex, creak or give: It feels as if it were milled from a solid block of titanium.

Blasting up the hills of upstate New York, the car is in its element, with endless power and fat, sticky tires that nail it to the road through sweeping corners. The Godzilla nickname, which was coined back in the late 1980s by the Australian magazine Wheels, suits the GT-R perfectly. Like its movie-monster namesake, it is a freakishly powerful Japanese creation.

Even at 150 km/h, pressing the GT-R’s throttle produces massive acceleration, as if the floodgates of the Hoover Dam have opened behind you. If you have a straight enough road (and are willing to risk some jail time), it will do over 300 km/h.

Crossing onto Manhattan Island, I enter a world where the GT-R’s prodigious powers are suddenly rendered worthless. Stuck in grid-locked traffic, the car never gets out of first gear, and the drive from the Empire State Building to Harlem takes nearly an hour. Even though pedestrians are passing me, the GT-R’s supreme charisma is undimmed. A street vendor abandons his hot-dog cart to run across two lanes of traffic and give me a high five through my open window. When I park uptown, a homeless man wanders over to study it, transfixed by the machine’s aura of raw power.

The GT-R’s roots reach back to 1969, when Nissan created a car called the Skyline GT-R, which quickly gained a cult following. That first GT-R set the template for future models – a compact, low-slung sedan with locomotive power and cruise-ship stability. The car I took to New York is the third generation of the model, and has a special, digital-era provenance: The car is featured in the video game Gran Turismo, and the game’s developers designed the GT-R’s multi-functional dash display for Nissan.

Great cars have a unique quality. Like great actors, they are one of a kind, iconic and entirely non-imitative. And on this score, the GT-R does not disappoint. Bear in mind that this car comes from Japan, a nation noted both for superb engineering and its habit of making derivatives and knock-offs. The first Mazda Miata may have been a great car, but the design was a direct rip-off of Lotus’s brilliant Elan roadster.

Japan has made billions by making improved versions of cars created elsewhere. If you wanted a Jaguar that didn’t leak oil, or a BMW that didn’t cost a fortune to maintain, you bought a Lexus. And yet there was something missing: the inspiration and originality of the car that Japan ripped off to make their perfected clones.

None of this applies to the GT-R. This is not a retooled BMW, Mercedes or Porsche; it is a machine unto itself, uniquely Japanese. The body looks as though it were designed by an origami artist, the engineering is relentlessly thorough, and then there’s that freakish power, as if the GT-R were, like Godzilla himself, the by-product of a nuclear experiment gone wrong.

Nissan chief creative officer Shiro Nakamura has compared the new GT-R to a line of Transformer-style Japanese robots known as Gundam, and declared it a true expression of his nation’s industrial ethos. “The GT-R is unique because it is not simply a copy of a European-designed sports car,” Nakamura has said, “it had to really reflect Japanese culture.”

After a day stuck in Manhattan traffic, I head north back into the mountains. The twin-turbo motor blasts its mutant roar, the tires stick and the GT-R leaves lesser machines in its wake. Godzilla returned to New York, and it was good.

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