2020 Nissan GT-R Nismo First Drive: The Art of Continuous Improvement07/08/2019
“We are not God—or Buddha. So that means we will not be able to reach the goal.” Ask Nissan’s Hiroshi Tamura—aka Mr. GT-R—about the car that has consumed his life for more than 20 years, and the discussion quickly turns deeply philosophical. The goal in question is perfection, and Tamura-san believes the Nissan’s ultimate performance car can never achieve it. But that doesn’t stop Godzilla’s godfather from trying. The 2020 Nissan GT-R NISMO is a case in point.
This latest GT-R NISMO, the third R35 model to carry the storied NISMO badge, is a case study in kaizen, the Japanese art of continuous improvement. And for 2020, the ultimate performance version of Nissan’s ultimate performance car gets a swarm of changes that redefine the term “detail.”
Let’s start under the hood. The legendary VR38DETT V-6 has been given two new turbochargers, lifted straight from Nissan’s GT3 GT-R race car. These feature 10-vane turbines instead the 11-vane items used previously, and each vane is 0.3mm thinner, reducing the mass of each turbine by 14.5 percent. That means a 24 percent reduction in inertia, which, Tamura says, translates to a 20 percent improvement in engine response from zero to wide-open throttle.
The engine makes the same 600 hp at 6,800 rpm and 486 lb-ft from 3,600 rpm to 5,600 rpm as in the previous GT-R NISMO. It just feels livelier doing it. The shift control algorithm for the six-speed dual-clutch transmission has been rewritten to capitalize on the improved throttle response when in automatic mode and to deliver faster downshifts in both auto and manual modes to keep the car better balanced on corner entry.
Extensive use of carbon-fiber panels has helped trim nearly 23 pounds from the body structure. The carbon front and rear bumpers and new front fenders—with Porsche 911 GT3-style vents over the wheel arches—together account for 10 pounds of that. The hood, with integrated NACA ducts, is also carbon fiber, saving 4.4 pounds, and a beautifully rendered, handmade carbon-fiber roof panel saves a further 8.8 pounds. Those louvered front fenders not only look good but also help increase front downforce by just over 15 pounds without creating additional drag.
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The bulk of the 66-pound reduction in weight over the previous GT-R NISMO is down to a new brake package. Massive carbon-ceramic rotors—16.1 inches up front and 15.3 inches at the rear, clamped respectively by six- and four-piston Brembo calipers dipped in yellow paint that can withstand temperatures of 1,000 degrees C without discoloring—are now standard equipment on the GT-R NISMO. The new brake setup not only delivers a 36-pound reduction in total unsprung weight but also increased durability and fade-free performance under extreme braking conditions. With fewer pounds to manage, the Bilstein DampTronic shocks now have a 5 percent softer compression rate and 20 percent softer rebound rate.
One weight-saving feature U.S. and Canadian 2020 GT-R NISMO buyers won’t get, however: the new, heavily sculpted Recaro seats, which are each 3 pounds lighter than those in the previous model. Blame our unique airbag laws.
The new 20-inch, nine-spoke Rays forged alloy wheels are each 0.2 pound lighter than the previous car’s wheels and are shod with new Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600 tires—255/40 front and 285/35 rear—specially designed to eke more cornering grip and stability out of the big Nissan. The overall contact patch has been increased 11 percent, courtesy of a redesigned tread pattern—the outside quarter of the front tire has no longitudinal grooving—plus a more rounded shoulder that provides grip even as the tire rolls under the rim during extreme cornering. A revised production process reduces waste as the tire comes out of the mold.
To sum up, the 2020 GT-R NISMO is slightly lighter, is slightly more responsive, and has slightly more grip than the previous model. But the benefits are measurable, Tamura insists. He says that from a standing start, the 2020 GT-R NISMO will be 8 feet ahead by the time it hits 50 mph. The 5 percent improvement in cornering force and better brake performance mean a 5-second-quicker lap time at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
As part of our drive program, Nissan let us loose on the 2.7-mile EuroSpeedway Lausitz Grand Prix Circuit in both 2018 and 2020 GT-R NISMOs. Built through the infield of and using two straights from the giant IndyCar tri-oval built south of Berlin in the late 1990s, the GP track has fast sixth-gear straights with heavy braking events into tight third-gear corners, a couple of quick changes in direction in the infield, and several long, late-apex corners that punish the front tires. It’s bumpy in places, too.
For the exploratory laps the nannies were kept on, always prudent policy in a 600-hp supercar on an unfamiliar racetrack. But it didn’t take long to realize the traction control light was constantly flickering and the system’s computer was constantly pulling engine power. Switching the stability control to R mode brought the big Nissan to life, instantly freeing up the powertrain and the chassis for playtime.
Left to its own devices, the recalibrated transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, though it lacks the situational awareness of Porsche’s brilliant PDK, occasionally upshifting if you lift off the throttle momentarily midcorner. The quickest option is selecting manual mode and fanning the paddles yourself. The VR38DETT’s signature swath of torque provides plenty of leeway in terms of getting out of a corner in a higher than optimal gear, but there’s also now a distinct crispness to the throttle response at higher revs that wasn’t there before, allowing much more nuanced adjustment of the car’s attitude under power than was previously possible.
The giant carbon-ceramic brakes—the largest ever fitted to a Japanese car—hauled down the 3,865-pound GT-R NISMO from triple-digit velocities with unquenchable vigor, lap after lap, though the initial bite on pedal application doesn’t have quite the authority of Porsche’s similar PCCB setup in the 911 GT3 and GT2 RS. And although the damper rates might be softer, the Nissan’s vertical motions still felt somewhat exaggerated over the bumps on the corner into and the braking area at the end of the Lausitzring GP Circuit’s back straight.
One other quibble: If you left-foot brake, you have to make sure you get right off the pedal before getting on the gas; otherwise the engine management system simply won’t feed in the power. It’s the sort of dumbed-down driving technology you expect in a minivan, not a supercar, costing time on the track even when you get the two-step timing exactly right. Please fix, Tamura-san.
Out on real-world roads in real-world traffic, the 2020 GT-R NISMO is a surprisingly good daily driver. In automatic mode the smooth dual-clutch transmission no longer sounds like a bucket of bolts in a cement mixer as it shuffles the ratios. The ride quality—with the suspension set in Comfort mode—proved more than acceptable for a car on 20-inch, low-profile run-flat tires, even when dealing with the less than perfect roads through Berlin during peak-hour stop-and-go traffic.
On the nearly empty autobahn south of Berlin, the GT-R NISMO cruised at a relaxed 130 to 160 mph, tracking true on the straights with minimal steering inputs and feeling resolutely planted through the long sweepers. A squeeze of the right foot on one long, long straight saw it effortlessly surge to 192 mph, and it was still pulling strongly when we lifted for traffic in the far distance. The original R35 GT-R used to feel like it was running out of breath above 120 mph. Not this one.
The 2020 GT-R NISMO is available in the same four exterior colors as the previous model—Solid Red, Jet Black Pearl, Super Silver Quad Coat, and Pearl White Tricoat—and there’s only one interior color scheme: black leather with red synthetic suede on the seats, and lashings of dark gray Alcantara and splashes of red highlights everywhere else. A small, cheap-looking satnav screen betrays the car’s age (the R35, of course, made its debut back in late 2007), but otherwise the interior, like the rest of the car, is beautifully put together. The GT-R NISMO looks and feels bulletproof, which is just as well, because all that kaizen doesn’t come cheap: The price tag is a breathtaking $212,425. That’s a $35,000 increase over the 2019 model.
It’s hard to believe we’ve been driving and enjoying Nissan’s ultimate performance car for more than a decade now. When you fire up the 2020 GT-R NISMO, it’s a bit like hanging out with an old friend: You know the neck-snapping acceleration and prodigious grip will be hugely entertaining, and you’re comfortable with the quirks, such as the relatively high driving position and the way the 54/46 front-to-rear weight distribution will murder the front tires if you try to bully the car through corners.
Nissan’s R35 GT-R has always been a unique supercar experience, nothing like a Ferrari 488 or a Porsche 911—or anything else, for that matter. And although it’s not perfect, the 2020 GT-R NISMO is the best R35. So far.
HOW GODZILLA GOT ITS NAME
In mid-1989 I was editor of Australia’s Street Machine magazine—yep, Roadkill‘s Freigburger and I have more in common than you think—and helping out on sister publication Wheels. The reveal of Nissan’s R32 Skyline GT-R was cover-story material for Wheels. Nissan wanted to race the GT-R against Ford’s all-conquering Sierra Cosworth in the Australian Touring Car Championship, the forerunner of today’s V8 Supercars series, so Australia would be one of the few places outside Japan where it would be sold as a road car. I was editing Japanese correspondent Peter Nunn’s story about it.
“The Japanese call it Obakemono—the monster,” Nunn wrote. “No wonder. It’s an arsenal on wheels powered by a twin-turbo straight-six producing 209 kW—close to the old 300-horsepower mark—with four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering,” OK, getting all breathless over 300 horsepower sounds a bit quaint when today’s six-cylinder Toyota Camry packs that much punch. But 30 years ago, it was a big deal.
Wheels editor Phil Scott, one of my great mentors and the man I’d eventually succeed as editor of the magazine, regularly ran ideas for covers and cover blurbs past me. Not that he needed to—a tabloid-trained journalist, Scott had a great feel for a snappy line that would sell a story—but he valued fresh eyes and fresh input because he knew something better might come from it. He taught me a lot.
The R32 on the cover mockup was bright red, a color the car never came in. That’s because the picture Nissan supplied was of a dismally lit dull gray car. Knowing he needed an image that would pop on the newsstand, Scott sent the pic out to a guy who’d mastered the then-tricky art of converting a color transparency of a car into a digital image and changing the car’s color, working pretty much pixel by pixel.
Scott wanted red, and red is what he got, though if you look closely, you’ll see the color of the window trim and even the black element behind the rear quarter-window glass were changed to red, as well. There wasn’t the time or the money to go back and fix it.
“Skyline Supercar!” read the main cover line. But Scott was wrestling with a second line that explained why someone should buy the magazine and read the story. I suggested swapping out “Skyline Supercar!” for “Obakemono!” figuring the odd-looking word would make people read a second line that went something like: “Nissan’s new Skyline supercar aims to take on the Sierra.”
Scott rightly pointed out an unknown foreign word would probably have the opposite effect: After trying to figure out how to pronounce it, newsstand grazers would get bored and move on to the next magazine. “Anyway,” he said, “what does it mean?”
“It’s Japanese for monster,” I replied, citing Nunn’s story.
“What, like Godzilla?” Scott asked.
And the rest is history …
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