2020 Nissan GT-R Nismo: The final incarnation
Nissan’s R35 GT‑R has been carving its own unique path through the motoring landscape since 2008. Fourteen years on, we drive the ultimate, and possibly final, incarnation: the 2020 GT‑R Nismo
Numbers define the GT-R, always have and always will. It’s that kind of car, one engineered and developed to the kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement. But also one that Hiroshi Tamura, Nissan’s GT-R chief product specialist, feels will never result in a ‘perfect’ GT-R. Not that this should be of concern, because while continuously improving the R35 Godzilla family we get to experience the likes of the latest Nismo interpretation of a GT-R.
Technically this is the 2020 model year Nismo GT-R, a car announced at the tail end of 2018, that we drove at the Lausitzring in the summer of 2019… and then 2020 did its thing so now it’s late autumn as the latest Nismo finally lands at evo Towers v2.0 to scare the neighbours.
GT-Rs have always looked tough, Nismos tougher still. Slab sides with carbonﬁ bre hanging from them. Creases as sharp as a Miyabi Artisan knife. Body panels slashed with intakes, aero devices shaped for a purpose that didn’t include aesthetics. Its European contemporaries might look as sophisticated as Fleming’s Bond ordering a martini, but the GT-R has an air about it that makes it more Jack Reacher walking into a bar fight. It operates in a different sphere to its contemporaries, too. Once the top of a healthy Japanese performance car tree, it now looks down on a barren trunk with only a few compatriots for company. The days of Impreza and Evo varieties of all sorts hanging from every branch are gone (although a green shoot is growing quickly in the guise of Toyota’s GR Yaris), which makes Nissan and Nismo’s commitment to the cause even more honourable, especially so when you consider Nissan isn’t exactly in a healthy condition right now. That it continues to direct resources to a 592bhp, four-wheel-drive performance car that bears next to no resemblance to anything else in its line-up is more than commendable. It’s bloody inspiring.
Despite a design that’s heading into its teenage years and is as familiar as that of any rival of equal iconic status, you approach a GT-R that wears the full Nismo battledress with a degree of apprehension. It’s in the same league as a GT2 RS, 620R or AMG GT R Pro when it comes to palm perspiration levels. Bravado is very quickly replaced with modesty, with what lies beneath this Nismo’s carbon skin running faster through your mind with every step closer you take to it.
As with rivals that focus on driver involvement and ultimate performance, lightness has been added in the form of carbonfibre, here for the bonnet, bootlid, roof, bumpers and front wings (whose GT3 RS-style cuts add 6.8kg of downforce while creating no additional drag). Combined, these reduce the body’s weight by 10.5kg. With an additional 9.5kg saved in other areas and 16kg knocked off courtesy of the carbon-ceramic Brembos, the Nismo comes in at 1703kg.
It’s not a sophisticated noise when you pull the aluminium door closed. The combination of the Nismo’s lighter-than-expected construction and dated fixtures and fittings will come as a shock to those used to Europe’s latest premium performance products. There is a nod to 2020, though, with carbon adorning the transmission tunnel and Alcantara the dash top, while the Recaro seats pinch, hug and hold you in all the right places, although they seat you a little high, or rather don’t drop low enough into the body of the car. Should you value tech and touchscreens over 592bhp straight-six motors and Dunlop tyres that have had their outer tread grooves removed to increase the contact patch area, you’ll probably get straight back out again. There is Apple CarPlay, but really that shouldn’t be your focus here.
But this has always been the case with the GT-R: you either get it or you don’t. Many don’t and buy a 911 instead, and while Porsche’s perennial sports car has been an ever-present rival to the R35, the two couldn’t be more individual. Only in recent years has the GT-R, in Nismo trim, come close to the 911 RS models, and even then it sits somewhere between the naturally aspirated GT3 RS and the demonic GT2 RS in character and performance. You’re unlikely to find someone who would dispose of either Porsche to own the Nismo, but there are also those who wouldn’t give the 911s a second glance on their way to buying a GT-R. That Porsche has launched and facelifted two entire generations of 911 Turbo and has just released its third in the time the R35 has been in production you can view in two ways: either Nissan is a little slow on the take-up and is milking the R35 for all it can, or it still doesn’t consider the project finished and has yet more to come. I’m firmly in the latter camp.
The straight-talking VR38DETT doesn’t sugar-coat the process of burning 98 octane and oxygen. Its starter button requires you to depress it a fraction longer than in more modern machinery and the result is as far a cry from an augmented amplified sound as you can get. Stone cold on a dawn autumn morning it has the gravelly tone of someone who spent the night with a bottle of bourbon and one too many packets of Marlboro Reds. The GT-R was considered to have a rough edge to its mechanical soundtrack in 2008 and time hasn’t smoothed those vocal cords one bit. And it’s all the better for it.
It’s in and around the straight-six that so much work has been done on this latest Nismo. With a pair of turbochargers taken from Nissan’s GT3 race car, their responses over those of a regular GT-R, the previous Nismo and the latest Track Edition are more noticeable than you’d ever expect. Once you’ve eyeballed every temperature gauge offered (there remains one for everything that has a fluid passing through it) you start to explore the throttle’s travel. There’s some lag – it’s to be expected – but there’s also less of it, and even on small throttle inputs the GT-R fills its lungs and heaves down the road with that trademark punch that has you involuntarily tensing as you would if you knew someone was about to leave their size-nine footprint on the small of your back. Some things never change.
What has changed is how Nismo has sharpened this GT-R’s response times. The race car’s turbos make do with ten vanes rather than 11 and they are all 0.3mm thinner, which results in a near 15 per cent reduction in mass, and inertia drops by nearly a quarter, combining to improve throttle response by as much as 20 per cent. Away from the numbers it results in an almost instantaneous response to your throttle inputs once that slight initial lag is overcome. Yet despite peak torque not arriving until 3600rpm, speed and revs pile on with a rabid ferociousness, and despite the timber it carries this GT-R still moves across the landscape with McLaren-esque athleticism as it calls on all of its 353bhp per ton. Then there is the noise. The induction growl, the angry, guttural roar that echoes along the titanium exhaust before exploding into the atmosphere through blue-tinged quadruple exhaust pipes, the whine from the turbos – all of them assault your senses, fight for your attention, but still your focus remains pinned to the horizon as the Nismo claws you into its grasp and a steely resolve falls over you. If you only ever drove this GT-R in a straight line and experienced its monstrous thump and lightning pace you’d be left short of breath but desperate for one more hit.
Thankfully we’ve more than a straight line to play with. It’s not a softly sprung car, the Nismo GT-R. They may have reduced the front spring compression by five per cent and the rebound by 20, but the GT-R remains a car you’d be kind to call stiffly sprung and not so far off from being cruel if you described it as having the ride quality of a cart. But this is when you’re milling about and using a Rs 1.78 crore (prices as per UK) GT-R for the everyday grind, because when you combine the performance of the blown six with the chassis the Nismo has been bestowed with, the whole package crystallises and the GT-R magic catches you in its spell. It comes down to the control the chassis delivers. The steering feels light on first acquaintance, overly so if it’s been a while since you last drove the least Nissan-like Nissan, but the directness and clarity that allows you to position it in, through and out of a turn remains unique to the GT-R. There will forever be sections of the internet dedicated to pulling apart the dynamics of the R35 as a point-and-squirt oaf with the tactility and involvement of a supertanker. These tend to be the views of those who have never driven an R35.
Squeeeeze the throttle deeper into the footwell, keep your grip on the wheel relaxed, let the inherently stiff body absorb any slack, and the Nismo flows with an unexpected delicacy, settling into a rhythm as you link the exit of one turn with the entry to another in ever shortening blinks of your eyes. What body roll there is remains measured and consistent, the Nismo settling on its Bilstein-supplied chassis with a precision that instils confidence and encourages you to explore deeper into the armoury on offer. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how keenly the Nismo reacts and moves to your commands, especially so the front end, which works every millimetre of its Dunlops’ increased contact patches to generate more grip under higher loads. In the dry you’ll need a commitment level that’s borderline reckless to breach traction, while in the wet and on poor surfaces there’s a level of grip that takes a few committed braking points and apexes for your grey matter to compute just how hard you can lean on the front axle into a corner and call upon the rear to get the job done on exit. It may lack the sophistication of today’s latest all-wheel-drive, 600bhp super sports cars but the Nismo GT-R drips character from every piece of carbon that’s been thrown at it.
Dig deeper and you find yet more precision and composure, and soon the GT-R has banished those early thoughts of a fidgety, roughriding machine that made low-speed journeys so tiresome. You feel, sense and experience those trad R35 high points but with more clarity, polish and involvement. You could drive a cheaper, more accessible 992 Carrera S across the same road at a similar pace, but Japan’s warrior offers a more exciting, engaging and rewarding alternative drive. It’s a unique experience; no other car thrills and excites like a GT-R. Never has, unlikely ever will.
The only component that holds the Nismo GT-R back and highlights its age is its six-speed dual-clutch ’box. Updated software has brought quicker upshifts and sharper downshifts in the most extreme R mode, and it needs them. Left in its regular mode the upshifts can’t keep up with the rampant acceleration, the delay between pulling a paddle for a downshift and the gear engaging measured in moon cycles. It’s a glaring chink in the GT-R’s otherwise impenetrable armour.
There’s no denying the GT-R remains an acquired taste and a brave purchasing decision when you consider the other cars you can buy for this level of financial commitment. Especially when £35k gets you an original R35 and for an additional £20k Litchfield will provide you with a 750bhp upgrade… Cost aside, however, the R35 Nismo GT-R remains one of the great driver’s cars. It hooks you in from the moment it takes its first lunge for the horizon and leaves you transfixed and addicted to its performance every time you experience the brutality of it all. It’s a physical and demanding car delivering a thrill we once craved and celebrated, and there’s every reason why we should still do so today, even if the £78k cheaper Track Edition offers 90 per cent of the Nismo’s performance.
There is also the very serious possibility this could be the last GT-R. Having forecast a $4.1bn loss for the year to March 2021, after posting a $6.2bn loss the previous year, even the most ardent enthusiast and GT-R fanboy must understand the challenges Nissan faces in making the decision to develop a replacement for such a wonderfully bespoke, niche and small-selling super sports car. But if this is to be Godzilla’s last breath as we know it, it’s one hell of a finale.