Monday 4 April 2011

Driven #28:- Nissan GT-R Black Edition

The weekend so far had seen me driving sensibly further and further North, on well trodden roads, delivering an E63 AMG to its excited new owner.

It was 16:30 when I was finally ready to leave Edinburgh. Although I could feel weariness creeping up on me I knew that there was at least 500 miles to cover before bedtime and I was anxious to get behind the wheel. Some of my impatience and urge to hit the road may have been because my steed for the return journey took the form of an ’09 Nissan GT-R Black Edition.

For the uninitiated, this is the hero-car of the Playstation Generation. Latest in a long line of hotted up Nissans to bear the GT-R name, this is the first to have been designed as an out and out performance car from the outset, rather than the comprehensively reinvigorated family saloon that the Skyline GT-R always was. This time around there’s a totally new chassis and bespoke body housing the latest evolution of the famous ATTESA E-TS torque distribution system, along with Nissan Vehicle Dynamics Control. There’s also an all-new 3.8 litre turbocharged engine. Very turbocharged indeed, as it happens, squirting out 480 furious galloping stallions, and V6 for the first time, moving away finally from the fine-sounding straight-six of its forebears.

It’s a gruesome looking beast. Nose on it’s uglier than any monster to have ever surfaced from the deep, looking a fair bit like a heavily accessorized Celica. Truthfully, that gormless snout would probably be less foul had the previous owner of the car not chosen to remove the GT-R emblem from the grille. However, side on, things start to make more sense and, from the rear three quarters it could almost be deemed attractive, making a feature of those trademark round taillamps. Nissan could, had they wanted to, have made the car as pretty as they wanted; witness the beautiful limited-run 390R. Instead they went for a look of pure functionality. The bodyshape in itself wins no plaudits for aesthetic achievement, but there are still delightful details to be found; the flush-mount door handles, for example, are works of art.

The inside story is one of functionality over form, too, although it certainly looks businesslike and impressive, as well as distinctly focused. You sit low in a deep bucket seat clearly tuned for tiny Japanese posteriors. If it hugged you any tighter you could sue it for sexual harassment. Before you is a small, clear binnacle with speed, revs and a digital gear display, not far different to that fitted to a fast motorbike. The dials move in unit with the adjustable steering column, which I had to raise to its highest setting to clear my ape-like knees.

It’s fair to say that this will not go down in history as the finest interior every conceived, nobody is likely to say “wow, that’s nice”. Instead, there are countless gadgets to play with including a BOSE hi-fi system with a colossal exposed subwoofer, great for impressing teenagers in MacDonalds parking lots. Up on the dashboard there’s a screen where you can scroll through a variety of different information screens, including digital gauges for things like throttle position, lateral cornering and acceleration G, various race timers and, hilariously, a bar chart recording fuel economy.

At low speeds it feels extremely highly strung. Starting out in auto mode, it resolutely refuses to change up a gear unless it really, really has to. It’s a grumpy bastard at shopping velocities, and then when you pull up to a halt it clunks down through the ratios at standstill with a violence that shakes right through the car. However, accelerate with more severity and the lower gears engage with a slam and your head jolts back with an energy that could result in internal haemorrhaging.

Having chosen to try a different route home, by 18:00 I found myself in Glasgow, trying to get out. Mystifyingly, for all its technological excess, this particular GT-R has no sat-nav, as I realised ten minutes out of Edinburgh. I drove on, looking for that elusive signpost for “The South”. It never came. By 18:30 I had run out of Glasgow and decided to stop and work out where I’d gone wrong. Using my Sony Ericsson Satio, a virtually useless phone but an exceptional camera, I finally got a GPS fix that revealed I had overshot the interchange by about 10 miles. I turned back, from the west the signposts were so much clearer. Soon enough I reached the M74, only to find it closed and a diversion in operation. Another ten minute detour and I was finally heading in the right direction. By now the scant reserves of fuel were all but gone, and I was hungry. I brimmed the tank with 50 litres of 98 RON, and bought two packets of crisps. I certainly know how to live.

Leaving the filling station at Bothwell I finally had a chance to put my foot to the floor. Gearbox in full manual mode, suspension still in comfort mode, that heavily boosted V6 doing its best sonic impression of an industrial vacuum cleaner. Why can’t it sound better? I thought it a shame. There’s a quite interesting supercharger-style whine from somewhere, but it’s not a particularly characterful engine sound. Still, I suddenly realised that the GT-R is particularly adept at reeling in the horizon; staying on the right side of the law for the next five hours would be challenging.

I’ve driven some fast stuff before, some more powerful, torquier than the GT-R. But none of them can hold a candle to the Nissan. It is, there are few better words, deranged.

Accelerates from a standstill like snapped elastic, you can bank on sixty coming up in around three and a half seconds. From then on it doesn’t feel as if it accelerates at all, it just instantly superimposes a “1” in front of any speed you’re doing. It just teleports itself to another position in the time-space continuum. As soon as you issue the command with your right foot:

“I require another 50mph, please.”

“Already done, sir”.

Soon M74 gave way to M6, Scotland moved over for England, Carlisle, Manchester, Liverpool came and went. I was rapidly bearing down on the Midlands trying vainly to keep the indicated airspeed somewhere vaguely legal. On the one hand I was in a GT-R, late on a Saturday night, trying to get home with very little traffic. On the other hand I was in a big, bewinged, LOOK AT ME supercar that attracted far too much bloody attention. From everyone.

Every Subaru Impreza WRX in the country seemed to be on the M6 tonight, and every single one would draw along side, issue the thumbs up and try to invite me into a race. They knew they’d lose, they just wanted the honour of my competition. Every single time I politely declined, dismissing them with a wave of the hand. I had The FEAR. Our roads are pretty damn close to a Police State these days, and every time I dipped my toe into extra-legal speeds suddenly a police car would appear, usually on the other side of the road and unable to respond to my naughtiness, but still there, lurking in the shadows.

Also, was that a speed camera? What about that one? I found myself braking for mysterious vans, unfamiliar shapes, anything that could potentially fine me for too much tarmacadam enjoyment. The fun evaporated quickly, Occasionally a car would come past at 90 and I’d latch on to the back of it, assuming that he knew the roads or that, at the very least, if I was stopped then he would be too.

By 22:30 I had passed Birmingham and it was time to fuel up again. Shell V-Power for the Nissan, cappuccino and a double-choc muffin on the brink of staleness for me. Outside Corley services the GT-R received yet more attention. Kids saying “nice car”, petrol attendants asking “Is it fast?”


Maybe all this attention is a good thing? Thinking about it, this sort of car finds a unique kind of following. When people see it they react not with jealousy like with a Ferrari or even a Porsche, instead everyone wants to show that they’re an enthusiast. Demonstrating that they know the car seems to denote membership of some kind of elite Petrolhead society. Although I could have done without all the Subaru-mounted wingmen I was joined by, somewhere deep inside I felt slightly smug receiving all those knowing nods of approval.

So far on this journey at no point had I requested that the car deliver anything more than elementary skills. I had never come close to exploring the more advanced reaches of its obviously vast repertoire. I had seen and felt the acceleration, I had witnessed signs that the astonishing top speed seemed to be accessible in an instant. But all the while the car seemed to be grumbling about my underachievement as a driver. I had to find some more challenging roads before the night was out.

I had first slid behind the arcade-machine style steering wheel at about eleven in the morning. My first stint at the helm had been a learning experience, following my client as he drove yesterdays E63 AMG over undulating, Scottish roads from Dunbar to Edinburgh. The feats that the GT-R were capable of were all too obvious, but here I had to concentrate on just keeping up with the AMG and not getting lost. The former turned out to be easy. Gradually my confidence rose; I was really looking forward to my solo run.

It was such a shame that so many of the miles I would be covering tonight were on motorways, where so many of the cars talents were never explored. Fortunately, there is a stretch of road in darkest Essex with which I am very familiar. It would represent the conclusion of my drive, so I better make the most of it.

There was a Ford KA travelling at a sensible speed I that would usually be content to sit behind and muddle along at, particularly at midnight after a 5 hour drive. Not tonight, though; I was in a GT-R, this could be my last chance. I selected R for Race for the suspension, moved the shifter sideways into Auto, and planted the throttle. I immediately felt (and saw on the display) some of the power transferring to the front , the wheel squirms perceptibly in my hand as the tyres bite into the tarmac. That suspension, made of granite in Comfort mode, was now diamond coated carbon in Race. All the time the car is goading you to attack the next corner with a little more alacrity.

I can report that the much vaunted religious experience that is wringing the neck of a GT-R is absolutely, undoubtedly, everything it's cracked up to be. It's as if some higher force relieves you of your duties and takes over, the Nissan is divinely guided from apex to apex by the hand of some tarmac god. All the hype and hyperbole you've seen splashed around, is correct. Driving this car fast across countryside is so easy it feels like you're on autopilot. The car will willingly corner or drift at daft speeds, on roads that shouldn't really be suitable for it at all, all the time causing you to ask yourself “Did I really do that myself?” By which time you're already at the next corner and ready to do the same again. 

The traction control was on. Never dared to switch it off, in case I went from hero to zero in the blink of an eye. I knew, instinctively, that the limits of this car were way, way higher than mine. Breathless and dumbstruck, I eased back to a sedate cruise.

Arriving Home at 01:00, I parked on the driveway, the car contrasting deliciously with the quiet, unassuming nature of my neighbourhood and hilariously juxtaposed with the family “spare” Ford Ka. Apart from a short drive to work tomorrow my GT-R career was as good as over, and it didn’t really matter. I don’t think I could have had any more fun without getting into significant trouble, in both legal and health terms.

I had travelled 504 miles since 16:30, including fuel and food stops. The GT-R had behaved impeccably, if thirstily, but in truth I could have made the journey equally quickly in any number of other cars. A vehicle like the Nissan, as awesome as it is, is totally wasted on that kind of trip. It’s not what it was meant for.

Those configurable dials on the dashboard were designed by Polyphony Digital, the programming force behind the Gran Turismo series of Playstation racing games. That fact is an interesting metaphor for the rest of the car. The motoring press make comparisons between the GT-R and a 911, or other sports cars at this price point; to me, that doesn’t really make sense. The GT-R belongs to its own, unique category. It is, if it were possible, a virtual-reality racer. To drive this car is a total-immersion experience, more about thrills than transportation. The dashboard is your games console, the view through the windscreen is, to paraphrase zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, just more TV.

Perhaps that was why the GT-R left me feeling slightly cold; I couldn’t really relate to it. It was capable of amazing feats, no doubt. Without any question it was the most able performance car I had ever driven, seemingly unencumbered by the laws of physics, but that’s because every aspect of what the car does has been artificially enhanced by banks of computers. It almost feels like, should you take the car to a track-day to prove your mettle, you ought to be automatically disqualified for cheating, the car is the one with the talent, not the driver.

I can say this based on my experience on that familiar country road near my home. There I was, barrelling along, drifting through corners at velocities to make my driving licence wilt and die, yet, and to my absolute astonishment, I was still in control. Never had I attempted to drive quite that insanely, and lawlessly, it was like I had made an evolutionary jump in just a few minutes. The truth is that I’m the same driver I always was, the car was really in control, I just had to aim it in roughly the right direction.

It’s then that you realise that this isn’t actually a car at all. It’s an interface. A program. Dial up how fast you want to go and the car obliges. To sit in, everything you see, you touch and you hear is there only to fulfil that objective. It’s just a tool. Nothing about this car is remotely artistic, and this makes it rather soulless as a conveyance. It’s an entertainment system, the most adult and realistic driving simulator money can buy. Gran Turismo incarnate.

Behind the wheel of a Caterham, for example, the car has extremely high limits but you know that it’s you and only you doing all the work. In a Porsche or a Ferrari, although there are various driver aids assisting you, at least you’re in an object that can be lusted after on artistic merit and carnal desire, not just the prepubescent wantings of a The Fast And The Furious devotee. It delivers thrills brilliantly well; that’s its job. But unless you spend every mile living on the very edge, its formidable but extremely specialised field of talent is somewhat irrelevant. It’s not a supercar, it’s not really a car at all. It’s a thing.

It’s a tool, it’s a weapon, it’s absolutely brilliant.

It's not for me.