You could call it my "road to Damascus" moment, although it really happened on the road to Gibisonville, Ohio. Just a bit over two years ago, I was behind the wheel of the kinda-sorta-new-for-2015 GT-R Nismo, hammering down a deserted two-lane beneath a thick canopy of five-hundred-year-old trees, listening to the Space Battleship Yamato rattle and clank of the transmission and the Dyson-vac-in-Carnegie-Hall whoosh of the turbos. Emboldened by the way in which the -sized coupe seemed to have limitless grip even on a rain-scrubbed road, I kept picking up the pace, first to "spirited," then to "ridiculous," then to "afterburner."
The GT-R matched me step for step. I could tell what each of the four tires was doing at all times. The machine had swallowed me and I could feel it think, anticipate its responses, work organically with it. At the foot of a long hill, somewhere near the Conkles Hollow Nature Preserve, I came to a halt and for one moment I experienced what they call satori. Enlightenment. Like Winston Smith at the end of 1984, I finally loved this mechanical Big Brother.
I had been one of the R35 GT-R's harshest critics when it appeared on the scene nearly nine years ago. Everything about the car had turned me off: the massive size and unforgivable weight, the mandatory too-clever-by-half double-clutch transmission, the B-36-Peacemaker-sized wheels, the SUV seating position. When I took a job working with a noted GT-R tuner a couple years later, I also came to despise the car's Byzantine complexity, frustrating service procedures, and plethora of mechanical weak spots.
Worst of all, the early variants of the car were remarkably uninspiring to drive. The raw pace was certainly there, but I was never particularly sorry to see an open-lapping session or back-road drive come to a close. The GT-R was ugly, it sounded goofy, and it seemed determined to smother the driver's talent beneath an avalanche of computer-controlled differential equations. (Pardon the pun.)
Various Track-and-Black-Edition GT-Rs came and went over the years that followed, and I dutifully drove them all, but it wasn't until that 2015 Nismo variant that I conceived some genuine affection for the car. I don't know how they did it, but the engineers at Nissan had finally figured a way to let the driver enjoy a two-way conversation with the tire patch.
Maybe it was the stiffer chassis, maybe it was a change in the various rubber and polyurethane bushings in the suspension, but whatever it was, the change was palpable to virtually every R&T tester who drove the car. It didn't make the top three of PCOTY balloting for 2015, but the big white Nissan earned our respect and affection in spades. And it caused me to reconsider my rather hateful and bigoted anti-R35 stance a bit.
Two years later, we have a new 2017 GT-R Nismo for our Performance Car of the Year test, so fresh out of the oven that Nissan gave our senior staff various dire pronouncements on the necessity of not damaging so much as a single carbon whisker in the front splitter because there was simply no way to get us a second car if anything happened. The chassis is further stiffened, the suspension is further revised, and there is a remarkably comprehensive suite of minor upgrades both inside and out.
You'd have to be what they call an otaku to notice the visual differences between this car and the old GT-R Nismo, but from the moment you start it up and grip the (properly) wheel-mounted shift paddles, it's very clear that the improvement is more than the sum of the changes.
The early GT-R could occasionally produce the sensation that the driver was floating above the road in a sort of lifeguard's chair, mostly thanks to the overactive body control, but this one leans and tilts and engages with the tarmac like it's just discovered that it's a descendant of the Datsun 510 and it wants to personally prove the fact to you. I cannot adequately express how much of difference this makes on the move, and how much it helps the car shrink around the driver.
The interior has lost some of its cliff-face grey blandness, but it's the dynamic improvements that really hit home. Turn the wheel on a gravel road, and you'll feel the surface grit in your hands. The control efforts are better-matched. The transmission's been to finishing school; it's still not quiet by any stretch of the imagination but it no longer sounds like it's going to spontaneously disassemble at stoplights.
This is a very old car now, and compared to modern efforts like the 991-generation Porsche Turbo S or the Acura NSX it might as well be a '78 Buick Le Sabre T-Type in terms of turbo lag, mechanical sophistication, and techno-wizardry. But here's the charming part: instead of trying to make the R35 platform keep up with the newest entrants in the segment, the Nismo crew has been dialing it further back into the past. Here's an example: The GT-R has hydraulic steering, so rather than switch to EPS like most of our PCOTY field for this year, Nissan has improved what's there so you get more feedback, more responsiveness, more wiggling nervousness in the wheel.
The stiffer body structure, combined with what I presume are significant changes in the sound insulation, make it easier to hear the wheels scrabble for grip, which makes it easier to make midcorner decisions regarding power application. And when you do get on the throttle, there's a happy harmony in the way the front wheels get just enough power to turn the front end. There's now room in the process for your own abilities as a driver. Instead of mindlessly pulling out of even the most tragically mis-entered turn, the GT-R Nismo offers bigger rewards for getting it right the first time.
It has to be said, of course, that some of my newfound enthusiasm for Godzilla has less to do with the car itself and more to do with the market surrounding it. Everybody's working day and night to make "sports cars" bigger, heavier, more powerful, less inspiring to drive, less interesting to operate. Just by refusing to follow the trend that they arguably set in motion themselves back in 2007, the engineers at Nissan have made the GT-R a more attractive choice to the enthusiast driver.
It's like what that kid says in The Matrix: "It's not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself." Still, I don't mind bending myself into some genuine affection for the latest and best super-Skyline. It's no longer much of a bargain, and it's certainly no longer the newest thing on the block, but it's finally become the driver's car that I wanted it to be ten years ago. Performance Car Of The Year? Not a chance. A brilliant choice for the JDM fanatic who wants the best GT-R ever built? Absolutely.