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What made the GT-R special? Continuous improvement

A campaign of relentless updates kept the GT-R a giant-killer well into old age

6 Jan 2022

PRODUCT lifecycles tend to stretch a little longer than the typical six years when it comes to performance cars, but few production runs have extended quite as far as Nissan’s R35 GT-R.


Officially revealed in late 2007 at the Tokyo Motor Show and brought to Australia as a volume import in 2009, the GT-R finally walked up to the executioner’s block in October last year, cruelly culled from the lineup as a casualty of more stringent Australian Design Rules around side-impact protection – rules which go by the shorthand of ADR 85.


By the time you read this, the last of the final batch of R35 GT-Rs that were imported to this country ahead of the October 31 ADR 85 deadline will have likely been sold, signifying the end of Nissan’s super sports car for Australia.


But to be clear, the R35 GT-R is by no means dead – production continues in Japan for the rest of the world, as most other countries have yet to make the ADR 85 standard a hard requirement. However the R35, which was engineered years before the ADR 85 rule was first tabled in 2010, simply cannot be modified to comply with the side-impact rules, and has finally run afoul of the legislation.


It’s sad to see it go, but a 12-year run in the showroom is a solid innings. Though it was never a sales success – just 990 R35 GT-Rs were sold in Australia over those 12 years of official importation – the GT-R nevertheless provided a high-performance alternative to European supercar staples at an honest price point. 


It was also continuously improved by Nissan, such that the swansong GT-R T Spec that capped off the nameplate’s Australian presence was a massive step up in every aspect from the first iterations that landed in this country at the end of the noughties. 


To send off the R35 GT-R here’s a retrospective look at how the modern incarnation of Nissan’s ‘Godzilla’ evolved, what they were like to drive and how they became faster, angrier and more potent over the years.


2007 – Version 1

When the R35 GT-R was revealed in production form at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, it dominated headlines. Not only was it the triumphant return of the long-dormant GT-R badge – last seen on the R34 generation in 2002 – but it was also the first time the GT-R name had been divorced from the Skyline badge. 


While the Skyline continued in four-door sedan and two-door coupe form, the GT-R split off in dramatic fashion, adopting a unique platform that was only loosely based on that used by the Skyline (as well as the 350Z and 370Z) and taking power from a bespoke hand-built 3.8-litre V6 twin turbo engine. 


That power was also sent to a rear-mounted six-speed dual clutch automatic transaxle (all GT-Rs had up until this point been strictly manual-only), before being split between the front and rear wheels by a clever all-wheel drive system. 


The numbers were incredible for the time. It made peaks of 357kW and 588Nm, and a quasi-launch control mode delivered a 0-100km/h sprint time in the mid-three-second range and quarter-mile times in the 11-second region. 


However, the one set of numbers that mattered most was a Nurburgring lap time of 7:38 – a time which Nissan claimed made its supercar faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo, and a time that only shrank further and further as the R35 GT-R was developed. 


However, Australia never saw true Version 1 R35s – only a small number made their way over here as grey imports, purchased on the Japanese used car market largely for motorsport usage and for a handful of early-adopters. 


Official Aussie imports started in 2009 with some minor changes to the car (including a lower engine speed for launch control that improved performance and lessened drivetrain wear and tear), and its arrival in local showrooms with a sub-$160K price tag also gave it its best year of sales – 238 units for the 2009 calendar year. It would be the only year that GT-R sales went into triple-digits.


The next year, revisions to Australian cars were modest. Satnav software was changed, there were some minor suspension alterations to smooth out the ride and some alterations to cooling. 


2011 – More grunt

The GT-R’s 2011 model year update was no minor spec tweak or upholstery change. Rather, the big news was an extra 33kW and 20Nm from its 3.8 litre V6, bringing total outputs to 390kW and 608Nm – monster figures for the time. 


The 0-100km/h sprint was also pared down to a claimed 3.0 seconds, however independent verification of that is hard to find. Even so, the first major mechanical update for the GT-R delivered the goods, and made an already fast car just that little bit quicker.


2012 – Even MORE grunt

New wheels, recontoured bumper plastics and a set of front daytime running lamps gave the Nissan GT-R a fresher face for 2012, while Nissan’s powertrain wizards managed to extract a further 14kW and 20Nm from the engine, now sitting high and mighty at 404kW and 628Nm. 


Note that Porsche’s own twin-turbo AWD track slayer, the 911 Turbo, generated 390kW and 700Nm from its own 3.8-litre that same year.


Extra chassis reinforcements, larger front brake rotors, more cooling tweaks and a functional rear diffuser further honed the GT-R’s performance, as did a retuned suspension. Just three years after its arrival in Australia, the Nissan GT-R was already a very different beast.


2017 – New look, new cabin, new suspension… and yet more grunt

GT-R updates took a five-year snooze after the 2012 revision, however Godzilla made a comeback in 2017 with its first major facelift. The exterior look was thoroughly rejigged with new bumpers, headlight clusters, aero and wheels, while the cabin got a softer, more modern look and some extra sound deadening.


Power and torque jumped yet again to 419kW and 637Nm and the dual-clutch driveline got a rejig to improve around-town refinement but overshadowing all of this was the introduction of a new variant to the GT-R family – the GT-R NISMO.


Launched overseas in 2013 in pre-facelift from and recording a blistering 7:08 Nurburgring lap time that was a full half a minute faster than the first record set by the R35, the GT-R NISMO we got was essentially the second version of that particular model. 


Lightweight forged alloy wheels, a massive rear wing and unique aero with vents aplenty gave the NISMO its own unique look, while a pair of larger turbos and a recalibrated ECU took power to 441kW and torque to 652Nm, and the 0-100km/h sprint down to a claimed 2.7 seconds.


The adaptive Bilstein suspension was also three times as stiff as the regular GT-R to help keep it glued to racetracks, and the NISMO was a brutally fast machine… provided you could stomach its $300K price tag.


2019-2021 – The Final Countdown

Wait, did $300K sound like a lot of money for a Nissan? In 2020 Nissan Australia took the GT-R NISMO’s retail sticker to an astonishing $378K. 


That extra spend didn’t change power outputs, but it did bring better-spooling turbos from the GT3-spec GT-R racecar, gigantic carbon-ceramic brakes, plenty of carbon-fibre bodywork, a set of racy front fender vents, retuned Bilstein dampers, Recaro racing seats and a kerb weight that was 30kg lighter than the outgoing GT-R NISMO.


Alongside it was a 50th Anniversary special edition, which wore a lairy stripe package that was at great odds with the rest of the car’s design, and a $200K-plus price tag that took the GT-R further away from being the value-oriented supercar that it was originally intended to be.


In 2021 Nissan Japan announced a retro-flavoured update to the R35 that brought in two colours from the 90s-era Skyline GT-Rs (Millenium Jade and Midnight Purple), while Nissan Australia confirmed the GT-R would be disappearing from sale as a result of ADR 85. 


As a last hurrah, the GT-R family briefly swelled to five grades with the arrival of the new GT-R T Spec and GT-R NISMO SV, both flagships for the regular and GT-R NISMO ranges respectively. 


The $256,700 T Spec bridges the gap between the standard GT-R and the NISMO, with carbon-ceramic brakes and a carbon-fibre wing giving it some track cred while the engine stays in “sensible” 419kW/632Nm trim. Meanwhile the NISMO SV shaves 100gm off its kerb weight by eliminating paint from its carbon-fibre bonnet, while also sporting a unique set of 20-inch forged aluminium wheels. 


Here’s why we’ll miss it:

To say farewell to the GT-R, Nissan Australia invited us to Sandown Raceway in Melbourne to take the new GT-R T Spec around the circuit. Time was tight and we only got a handful of laps in, but it was just us, the car and the circuit – no instructor to curb our behavior, no chicanes to spoil the straights. 


And from the moment we fired out of pit exit to when we pulled back in, brakes gently steaming, it was a brilliant reminder of what made the GT-R so special – its approachability despite its speed, weight and the driver’s talent.


Between the torque-laden V6 and the seamless shifts of the dual-clutch, the GT-R breaks through the 200km/h barrier easily at a circuit like Sandown, and we saw just a smidge under 240km/h before having to hit the brakes on both the back and front straight. 


Letting the auto do its thing is arguably the most efficient way to gather speed, but there’s also significant satisfaction in tipping it into paddle-shift manual mode and actuating those gearchanges yourself. Wait until the sequential shift lights start blinking red in your peripheral vision before doing so, and you get a thundercrack from the tailpipes to announce your upshift – very theatrical, very gratifying.


The fact we’re not in the NISMO doesn’t hold us back on the circuit, either. The T Spec’s suspension is obviously road-biased, but it’s got the roll stiffness necessary to contain the GT-R’s 1800kg mass as well as right damper calibration to ensure heavy braking doesn’t take too much weight off the rear wheels and compromise stability. 


In fact, it rides a nice balance between predictability and playfulness, with trail braking able to be used to help rotate the back end when coming into a corner a little hot, yet without having the car’s significant inertia simply carry you off into a gravel trap when you try getting a little experimental.


The softer dampers also help soak up kerbs, even the fairly aggressive ones at Sandown, allowing a straighter racing line between turns two and three and helping the tyres stay in contact with tarmac to allow you to stay on the power more of the time. 


Fudged it up? The stability control works a treat on the circuit, and the clever AWD hardware and software seamlessly shifts torque from front to rear to keep the car pointed where the steering wheel intends. Reaching the point of understeer is tough in the dry, though after a few fast laps the tyres and brakes do start to loosen their grip as heat takes over.


But at no point does it cease being an eye-widening, heart-pounding, grin-spreading experience. Is it the most sophisticated sportscar around? It might have been at launch, but 12 years is a long time. Is it still fast? Most assuredly. Will we miss it? Terribly.

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