Germany’s old Nürburgring, the Nordschleife, is a daunting and sometimes deadly place. Its 14 miles snake through the thickly-forested Eifel mountains. Its 73 bends, many over blind crests, are notoriously difficult and the penalty for getting them wrong is painful and frequently much worse. There is little run-off area before the inevitable encounter with steel barriers. And nemesis can approach at formidable speed on this, the most feared and challenging venue in motor racing – once described by then-F1 world champion Jackie Stewart as “the green hell”. Any car capable of 200mph can come close to achieving it on the mile-and-a-half straight. The extent to which a driver lifts off the throttle for the following long, blind but terrifyingly fast left-hand bend is a private matter between driver and Maker.
At such speeds and through such corners, unfamiliar forces come into play for even the fastest road cars, not being possessed of a racing car’s light weight and aerodynamic downforce.
What is no more than a simple, slight movement of the steering wheel or a lift off the throttle at 100mph to correct the line through a corner becomes, at 180mph-plus, something else entirely. At that speed, the car’s inertial mass is greatly magnified. The same steering movement or throttle lift has to change the course of a car that is effectively far heavier. To get it wrong and have to counter-correct means near-certain disaster because of the sudden transfer of weight. The car, unbalanced, will hurl itself from the track. There are many such daunting bends on the Nordschleife. As a result, it kills people. Hundreds have died since it opened 80 years ago, and nowadays it claims several lives a year, although that’s not something the authorities care to discuss.
And that, for a public road, is quite some track record. For the Nordschleife is a public road, except when it closes for the Nürburgring 24 Hours and other races, and some vehicle testing by carmakers. It is a toll road, all one-way and entirely without speed limits. Provided only that his or her vehicle, whether car, motorcycle or even bus, is road legal and insured, anyone can put ¤16 in the pay machine and set off for a lap.
Yes, it is obviously dangerous, but the Nordschleife is also magnificent. Should the authorities ever seek to move against it, the motoring world would take up arms. It is arguably the ultimate challenge for both car and driver. A lap time here is regarded by companies and individuals alike as the performance benchmark.
Which brings us to the Nissan GT-R. A year or so ago the Japanese carmaker caused a sensation when it announced that its new carbon fibre, aluminium and steel creation, the GT-R “supercar”, had trounced the times set by the long-acknowledged ringmeister, Porsche’s 911 Turbo.
We won’t go into details of minutes and seconds, but the hoo-ha which followed was as strident as some would say it was juvenile. Porsche claimed Nissan had cheated; Nissan retorted with the Japanese equivalent of “get lost”. But when the dust had settled, most old ’Ring hands concluded that the GT-R had indeed given the 911 at least a marginal drubbing.
How has a manufacturer whose reputation, at least in Europe, is for cheapish, humdrum motors come out with a car like this?
Without question, the GT-R is hard and raw-edged; brutal both in looks and performance. Forget the sophistication and refinement of rivals such as Jaguar’s XKR – its 503bhp offering similar straight-line performance to the Nissan – or Audi’s R8 “supercar”. The Nissan’s mechanically locking differentials operate with a resounding “clunk” as full throttle, 480bhp, 433lbs ft of torque and four-wheel drive hurtle it up the tarmac. It is the relentless torque which makes the acceleration so stunning – just 3.5 seconds to 60mph, en route to a top speed of 193mph. And it is the extreme body stiffness and hard, truly terrible ride – despite what is called the “comfort” mode of three available suspension settings – that allow its handling to tame the Nordschleife.
The message is quite clear: if you want a high-performance coupé capable also of being a comfortable daily drive, walk on by the Nissan showroom, despite the fact that the GT-R has reasonably attractive styling, two small rear seats and boot room for two sets of golf clubs.
But if your focus is entirely on performance and a life spent at track days, then the Nissan should be at the top of your list; not purely on grounds of ability but because it is a supercar bargain. The Black Edition test model I drove costs £59,400, with nothing – not satnav nor any other bell or whistle – listed as an “extra”. The Porsche 911 Turbo costs £100,000. Price-wise, the mighty 505bhp US-built Corvette runs the Nissan closest at £62,000. But it comes only in left-hand drive and falls short of the Nissan’s cornering abilities and build quality.
That said, there are some oikish aspects to the GT-R that are absent from its rivals – the result, I suspect, of Nissan being uncertain about the customer base for its venture into such prestigious car market territory. The consequence is a misguided appeal to machismo.
There are no less than nine selectable displays for the large, dashboard-mounted satnav and information screen. Some provide the basic information, such as satnav or audio system display. A dizzying array of other dials, however, offers ego-boosting but potentially hazardous distractions. Just how daft is it, for example, to have a lateral G-force indicator on “live” display while cornering on public roads? Who really needs to be tempted to corner yet faster while watching the G-meter to see if some new personal record can be set? Or to watch an accelerometer or brake retardation meter.
I have no argument with such systems being there. But they belong at track days and in the form of downloadable telemetry, for post-driving examination on a laptop. That’s the way the big boys do it, Nissan. So should you.
Nissan GT-R Black Edition. Breakfasts on Porsches
0-60mph 3.5 secs, top speed 193mph
22mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle
Audi R8V10, £99,580; Corvette ZO6 £62,100; Jaguar XKR, £72,400; Porsche 911 Turbo £100,134
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