Not many cars are worthy of a nickname. The Nissan GT-R is. And that nickname is Godzilla. Like its namesake, it embodies fearsome power, a confrontational attitude, and pop-drenched Japanese culture. The current GT-R, dubbed the R35, went on sale in 2008 and was the first GT-R officially exported to America. It had 480 horsepower and was fast enough to scare me. Now I've driven the 2013, which pumps out 545 horsepower, and I'm scared all over again.
The GT-R is a descendant of the fabled Nissan Skyline GT-R line, which dates back to 1969. Nissan reconceived it in 1989 as the GT-R but didn't export it to the U.S. until three years ago. Like most American males, my first encounter with this muscled beast was a virtual one, racing it on PlayStation's 'Gran Turismo' video game and watching it epitomize Japanese speed in the 'Fast and the Furious' movies. It was the greatest car that everybody knew but nobody could buy.
Kazutoshi Mizuno, the car's chief engineer, has been working on the GT-R series since 1990 and has become Nissan's in-house speed guru (he also developed the stylish and popular Nissan 350Z). So why does a company that makes the bulk of its money on Altimas and Pathfinders throw down the gauntlet and create a machine aimed directly at competing with the Porsche 911 Turbo? "We thought of the GT-R as a supercar for all, even for those who wouldn't get to drive one," says Mizuno, who is based in Japan. (A supercar that costs $96,820, that is.) "Supercars such as those from Lotus and Ferrari figure large in popular culture, and we wanted the GT-R to be part of that." It also offered a boost around Nissan headquarters. "Basically, the engineering we did for the GT-R helped raise the overall level of engineering at Nissan," Mizuno says.
While I would have loved to drive the 2013 GT-R on the Tsukuba Circuit in Japan (or any track), the rolling hills near Nissan HQ in Nashville hold some pretty fine roads. But on my first full stab at the throttle, I'm reminded why Japanese-market GT-Rs are electronically subdued at 118 mph, unless the GPS system detects you're on one of Japan's racetracks. (Nissan made the engine-control computer difficult to hack, discouraging the citizenry from building 1,000-horsepower GT-Rs – something that proved easy to do with previous models.)
No matter how many hours you've spent applying your thumbs to your 'Gran Turismo' controllers, you will not be prepared for the reality of the GT-R's twin turbo. This is a car with an engine built by hand in a particulate-free "clean room," and one of the few that clocks zero to 60 in less than three seconds. It's so fast, the inside of the wheel rims are knurled so they don't spin inside the tires. It's amazing that was even a problem that needed solving.
Everybody on the road – from guys on crotch rockets to kids in clapped-out Sentras – seems to know what this car is and wants me to show them what it can do. I oblige, emitting lunatic laughter as the console's video-screen gauges – developed by Polyphony, the company behind the Gran Turismo games – leap into the red, and I tear off at typically ludicrous GT-R velocity. Mizuno-san should be proud. As should Japan, actually. Thanks to the relentless march of globalism, national automotive identities get blurrier each year. But the GT-R is gloriously awash with the distinctly Japanese affection for futurism, from its robot-spaceship styling to the dashboard's bounty of digital information. It's a big-budget Godzilla, fast enough to scare us all.