The Revamped Nissan GT-R Takes a Steamy Dip at Spa-Francorchamps

Japan's favorite supercar learns some manners for 2017

Nissan GT-R
Nissan

Nissan GT-R fans can rest easy: Godzilla still enjoys laying waste to the countryside. Only now, picture him with a teacup balanced in one scaly hand as he toasts your ass.

To keep the GT-R’s breathy flame alive in 2017 and beyond, "refinement" is Nissan’s watchword. It might seem like a lot of work for a car that’s found, on yearly average, roughly 1,300 stateside buyers since the third-generation R35 stomped ashore in 2008. But as with its reptilian counterpart by way of Detroit, the Dodge Viper, we’re glad to see Nissan burnishing its halo sports car—even this quick buff-up, a placeholder until an all-new GT-R arrives, maybe around 2020.

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My personal thank-you note is addressed to Belgium, specifically Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. Dating to 1921, the beloved Formula One track may have been tamed in the Eighties, safety-fied and shortened from 8.7 to 4.4 miles. But Spa remains one of the world’s fastest and, yes, most treacherous racetracks, including the notorious, uphill thread-the-needle gauntlet called Eau Rouge.

I’m about to drive Spa for the first time, a half-blind circuit whose shroud of fog and pelt of rain turns the surrounding Ardenne forest into some serious Misty Mountain shit. My blue 2017 GT-R awaits, with 565 horsepower (up 20 hp from last year) and a jaunty No. 8 affixed to its doors. All I can say is, thank God for all-wheel-drive. Though even that bonus grip doesn’t prevent a professional racer and instructor from spinning off the track and bashing a barrier just minutes before my stint. Mon Dieu.

We’ve arrived after a jaunt from Dusseldorf, Germany. Rhine River to our left, Belgium border right. Even on the autobahn, largely bound by rain and traffic that in reality lower the electronically posted speed limits, the Nissan is as bored as ever, a superhero in a world of mortal roads. I squeeze the throttle, hear the familiar twin-turbo moan of the 3.8-liter V-6, and watch helpless Fiats and Peugeots shrink like George’s post-swim package in “Seinfeld.” The latest GT-R, according to its charmingly passionate chief engineer, Hiroshi Tamura, is designed to let anyone, rookie to racer, travel up to 300 kph in heightened quiet and comfort. Translation: 186 mph on the way to a pedicure in Pawnee.

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That exhaust blat trumpets from a quartet of big-belled titanium outlets bequeathed from the 2016 GT-R Nismo version. The exotic titanium explains, but may not fully justify, yet another eyebrow-arching leap in the Nissan’s price: $111,585 to start for the Premium model that arrives in July. That’s about $8,200 more than last year. The Nürburgring-ready Nismo version, bumped to 600-horsepower bragging levels, follows in fall, likely for around $150,000. That definitely explains why only about 55 Americans a year have seen the wisdom of a Nismo upgrade for an already ridiculously capable machine.

Up front, a 20-percent-larger “V-Motion” grille and collagen-lipped spoiler improve looks and airflow alike. Dark sills trace the body sides, another form-and-function upgrade. As with Porsche’s latest 911, Nissan claims nearly every body panel is new, raising the same skeptical question: If you need to park alongside an old model to spot any real differences, why bother redesigning and retooling the body in the first place?

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There’s no such quibble with the Nissan’s newfound maturity. (Yes, that’s the word Tamura and other engineers kept stressing.) Now, compared with many GT-R owners, who seem barely beyond the Zac Efron demographic, drivers of other pricey sports cars can seem as youthful as the Cryptkeeper. The median GT-R owner is just 39 years old. That compares with 52 years old for the Audi R8, 60 for the Porsche 911, and 64 for the Corvette Stingray, the Sansabelt of sports cars. But Nissan says GT-R buyers, largely untroubled by creaky backs and other depredations of time, were nonetheless demanding more comfort and refinement. (Surely, they were satisfied with a 2.7-second catapult to 60 mph.)

A Corvette or Porsche 911 is still quieter. But a day in the GT-R no longer feels like being jammed in the engine hold of a cigarette boat as it bashes the waves. A new acoustic windshield ably smothers road noise. The Nissan’s wearying gear whine and driveline thunks are largely washed away. The structure is more rigid, including around the window frame. Anti-sway bars are stiffer than before, spring rates unchanged. But a more-generous envelope for dampers pours some sugar on the ride while boosting agility; Nissan claims the GT-R is four percent faster through slaloms. Lightened sport seats with reworked bolsters also go the distance for all-day comfort.

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The Nissan’s cabin still reminds me of the Jaguar F-Type: soft Nappa leather and carbon fiber scream “six figures,” while a few plastics and switches whisper “Nissan Altima.” Yet the interior springs a few surprises, beginning with metal paddles that hinge from the steering wheel rather than the column. (I say “hooray,” but some drivers will prefer the old arrangement.) The central navigation screen gains an inch of display, and keeps the clever Playstation-style performance readouts that were so novel at the car's 2008 American debut. The interior switch count is reduced from 27 to a mere 11, with snazzy new vents at outboard positions. Striking tan leather breathes new life into the cabin, loads better than the too-precious ivory that’s better suited to a Tory Burch bag. Tan hides pair especially well with new Blaze Orange exterior paint, both perfectly pitched to the GT-R’s anger-managing style.

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I’m personally feeling a bit pale as I dip my GT-R into a soaking-wet Spa. I’ve seen drivers with F1 trophies on their nightstands bite it here on Belgian summer days worthy of a Renoir tribute. But with the GT-R’s wipers sluicing the rain, and instructor Frédéric Mayeur pep-talking me around his home course, I paddle the six-speed, dual-clutch gearbox into first. Eau Rouge, dead ahead. The Nissan’s brakes and larger front tires—10 inches wide, up from 9.5—clamp the asphalt before an uphill shimmy over Eau Rouge’s blind crest. I may have cursed the rain gods, yet the Nissan proves instructive, with about as much grip and gusto as you could hope for on a playground better suited to a Slip-and-Slide. A 911 Turbo S might generate similar fun and velocity in this water-balloon fight, but that Porsche starts around $189,000. Audi’s R8 V10 Plus, another AWD weather-slayer, is $191,000. And a rear-drive Corvette Z06? I’d probably still be sitting in the pits, drying my Nomex underwear.

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The GT-R has always inspired confidence, like Walter Cronkite in his prime. But nuance has never been a strong suit, the Nissan serving up meat-grinding understeer when its over-weighted front tires exceed their limits. Even your mother could just hammer the gas, let the machines sort things out, and come off a hero. But truly skilled pilots saw through the Nissan’s shtick.

For now, I’m just gaining confidence in my wet line and traction when when the radio crackles with bad news: the gathering fog will smother any further laps. This is it. Locking onto a rabbit, er, instructor ahead, I mouth a prayer and go for it. Entering a plunging left-right chicane, I make a point of dropping the throttle and dialing in more steering. Instead of plowing and grinding, Godzilla swings its tail and drifts in easy-to-gather fashion. Nice.

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On Spa’s buttered Belgian waffle, it’s tricky to assess the Nissan’s upgraded game. But on a romp back to Dusseldorf airport the next morning, the dry autobahn now welcoming blasts to 150 mph, the GT-R does feel a skosh more balanced, certainly more compliant. Still a sledgehammer, now with a velvet wrap. Looking to straighten one of Europe’s endless roundabouts, I wrench the GT-R through the makeshift skidpad, and find myself pushing 100 mph at the entrance to a quaint Belgian village. A guy in a VW Polo sees me coming, sticks his hand out the window and flips me off. In a Nissan GT-R, some things never change.