Among serious car enthusiasts, the Nissan GT-R is an example of what a Japanese automaker can build when the focus is the mission more than the bottom line. One way to describe the GT-R is as the combination of what Porsche can do with a six-cylinder engine stuffed into the sleek, but not an overly refined body of a C6 Corvette.
In other words, Nissan has made the conscious decision to concentrate its efforts and resources on the powertrain instead of reshaping the exterior every five years. So the GT-R is the stuff of legends among performance junkies and Japanese car lovers. And for many Nissan fans in the U.S., the GT-R is a JDM car available in American-spec form.
JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market and refers to vehicles produced by Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota solely for distribution in their home country. Some enthusiasts appreciate JDM cars simply for the engineering and technology while others are inspired by the tuning and racing aspect of JDM culture. Purists believe that true JDM cars are only right-hand-drive models built just for Japan—some are brought here as JDM imports. A broader definition of a JDM car is one produced by a Japanese manufacturer that may or may not be exported outside of the country.
Japan’s car market is very different than the ones in the U.S. and Europe. Cars in the land of the rising sun are very heavily regulated and taxed (particularly on larger engines). Driving styles are different, too. There’s less straight-line highway travel and more motoring along curved, hilly roads. And, the typical Japanese car owner drives about half as much as their American counterpart. As a result, Japanese consumers want state-of-the-art machines that provide sophisticated performance and precise handling.
The Nissan GT-R is the successor to the storied Nissan Skyline GT-R that gained fame for its successes in Japanese races during the 1960s and 1970s. The automaker used these competitions to hone its engineering skills. We’ll save the full Skyline story for another article, but the original GT-Rs helped burnish Nissan’s racing and performance creds.
Fast forward to the start of the 21st century and Nissan needs a halo car following its linkup with French automaker Renault. The company looks to the Skyline GT-R R33 and R34 for inspiration. But, not wanting to limit potential sales, it sought to incorporate the latest technology (here’s that JDM thing again) to make the new GT-R useful beyond the track.
The GT-R debuted in 2007 and shares little with its predecessors other than a name badge and quad taillights. Unlike the American performance formula of stuffing huge V-8s under the hood or the Porsche 911 way of a rear-engine flat-six, Nissan takes its own direction.
The result is one of the most advanced V-6 engines (a Nissan specialty) on the planet. The GT-R gets conventional front-engine placement but goes unconventional elsewhere. First, the only transmission is automatic. Second, all-wheel drive is standard. These distinctions are not only well-suited for the Japanese market (yes, a JDM theme again) but make the car ideal for daily driver duty in other markets like the U.S. and Europe.
The GT-R shook up the automotive world again when it beat a 911 Turbos time around the Nürburgring in 2007.
In 2008, Nissan set the GT-R loose on America. Other than having the left-hand drive and a few minor modifications, the U.S. version of the car embraces all of the GT-R’s standout features. The car was an instant hit with performance addicts and JDM-culture aficionados. In its first two years, Nissan sold about 3,300 GT-Rs in the U.S. Indeed, that’s a fraction of the 911’s sold here for the same period (about 15,000), but it represented a significant win for Nissan.
The GT-R shares zero resemblance with the Skyline GT-R. And this was intentional. During development, Nissan wanted a car that appeared crisp and modern. At the same time, it needed to reflect its Japanese origins. So, the softer exterior of the Skyline is cast-off in favor of a sharper and more muscular design.
Interestingly, while Nissan’s Japan-based staff penned the overall concept, the automaker also asked its American and European designers for help.
At the heart of every sports car, of course, is the engine. In developing the GT-R’s power plant, Nissan sought to squeeze everything it could out of its existing 3.8-liter V-6. So, in true JDM style, engineers turned to turbocharging technology. Keep in mind that the GT-R is not some lightweight racer. Thanks to the all-wheel-drive system, the car maxes out at about 3,900 pounds.
In its first years, the GT-R benefited from 487 horsepower and 430 lb-ft of torque. In 2007, Motor Trend gushed over the car’s performance and a 0-60 time of 3.5 seconds. The magazine justifiably bestowed supercar status to the GT-R. Let’s also not forget a top speed of 193 mph.
Continuing to embrace the JDM way of doing things, Nissan engineers regularly improve the GT-R powerplant. There’s a modest bump in output for 2010 (485 horsepower and 434 lb-ft of torque), and things get more substantial starting in 2012 (530 hp and 448 lb-ft of torque). The following year, horsepower hit 545, and torque reached 463 lb-ft. Since 2017, GT-R output is rated at 565 horsepower and 467 lb-ft of torque. Car and Driver say 2017 and newer GT-Rs can hit 0-60 in just 2.9 seconds. Other sources report even better times.
This chart shows the gradual increase in engine output for the GT-R. As you can see, it’s all about steady improvement over rapid jumps.
Just as with engine improvements, Nissan has gradually introduced overall enhancements to the GT-R. In fact, you really have to know your GT-R front ends to spot the differences among the model years. That is to say, the GT-R has undergone few noticeable exterior changes since its launch.
Most notably, the 2011 model year (in the U.S.) saw a reworked front fascia that incorporates LED accent lighting and better radiator and brake cooling. Along with the new front end, an updated rear diffuser helps improve airflow and downforce. The GT-R also benefits from the cabin, suspension, and brake updates.
The 2017 model year sees the next round of upgrades for the GT-R. A new front end incorporates triangular cut-outs for the LED accent lighting, while a refreshed rear end offers gentle updates. Mechanically, the GT-R gets an updated suspension, brakes, and exhaust system. The interior gets improvements, too, including a new infotainment system.
Nissan has launched numerous special editions and variants since the model’s early years to keep the GT-R fresh and relevant. Arguably, the most significant is the 2013 GT-R Nismo (Nissan Motorsports). This track-focused beast became the then world’s fastest volume production car at the Nürburgring (a record since exceeded by Porsche 911 variants and a handful of other supercars). The output gets cranked up to 600 horsepower and 481 lb-ft of torque, and it only takes 2.5 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standstill. Other Nismo Nismo special editions have been produced with equally exciting performances, including the 2020 GT-R Nismo.
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Posted Monday, January 10, 2022