There can't be much life left in the R35. Is the most recent Nismo the perfect way to sign off?
By Dan Prosser / Monday, November 23, 2020
Just as well there won't be another R35 Nissan GT-R Nismo after this one. Every time I've driven one of these more hardcore GT-Rs I've done so exponentially closer to my home. In 2013 I tested the original GT-R Nismo on circuit, but not before I'd boarded a flight to Japan. After that, in 2016, it was on circuit again, but this time at Silverstone. This week, the car the latest 2020 Nismo, it was on roads I know well around Cheddar Gorge, only 15 miles from my flat.
At that rate, if there were a fourth GT-R Nismo, I'd be driving it in my own living room. Imagine the mess. This might all be a tad premature, though, because Nissan hasn't yet confirmed this is the end of the line for the R35. But it first arrived 12 years ago and it cannot go on forever. Maybe there'll be a limited edition model at some point with a plaque on the transmission tunnel reading 'This really is the last one, promise'. But if I had to bet, I'd say the R35 won't be engineered any further than this.
If that turns out to be the case, this is where more than a decade of constant tweaking, honing, refining and facelifting comes to an end. The GT-R has been overhauled on a near annual basis with uncompromising Track Edition and Nismo variants littered throughout. Nissan has been alone in its approach with this car, hasn't it? I can't think of any other that's been developed in this defiantly iterative way.
By this point, Nissan really is chasing marginal gains. Compared to the previous Nismo, this one features Dunlop tyres that have one fewer groove cut out of their circumference. One! That increases the size of the contact patch to give more grip, at least in the dry. If anybody other than a Nismo ride and handling engineer ever looks you in the eye and tells you they can notice the difference, call them a liar from me.
So too with the new turbos, which have one fewer vane apiece. That means less inertia and quicker response. I almost hope this is as far as the R35 comes for the sake of the engineers at Nissan – they don't appear to know when to stop. Elsewhere, however, there are more substantial steps forward over the previous model. Interestingly, Nissan describes this latest version as 'sharper and more rewarding as a street car', meaning it's perhaps recognised how punishing those earlier Nismos could be on the highway (although it still brags about a 2.5 second fall in lap time around its own development circuit).
The mighty VR38DETT twin-turbo V6 produces the same 600hp as before, enough to rocket the Nismo to 62mph in 2.8 seconds and on to 196mph. Its turbos are borrowed from the GT3 racing variant. Not only do they have one fewer vane; the vanes they do have are 0.3mm thinner than before. This, says Nissan, reduces mass by 14.5 per cent and inertia by 24 per cent. I suppose those are the kinds of gains you find yourself making when you evolve the same car year after year rather than start all over again with a new one.
There's more carbon fibre than before, most obviously the new woven roof that improves both overall weight (minus 4kg) and the centre of gravity. Meanwhile, tweaked carbon fibre bumpers and wings save 4.5kg, while the bonnet is now 2kg lighter. Other components have been lightened throughout the car, meaning the new Nismo is skinnier than the previous one by 30kg.
You and I might struggle to notice that weight reduction out of the road, but it has enabled Nissan's engineers to wind the spring and damper rates back a reasonable amount. The dampers are now 'softer' by 20 per cent and the springs by five per cent, revisions you wouldn't struggle to identify one bit. Finally, there are enormous carbon-ceramic Brembo discs that measure 410mm across on the front axle and 390mm at the rear – they contribute to an unsprung weight saving of 16kg – and lighter Recaro seats, too. At 1703kg the latest Nismo may be light for a GT-R, but it's still a hefty thing in overall terms.
These Nismos have never been short of visual presence, but this one looks tougher than ever, particularly in white with its contrasting carbon roof and arch vents. It seems to sit so close to the deck, its wheels swallowed by their arches, that you wonder how it can have any wheel travel and ride quality whatsoever. Like before, there is an optimistically-labelled Comfort suspension setting, which, in fairness, does take just enough away from the ride around town that you don't get beaten up.
Nevertheless on quicker roads the body still leaps about, the suspension trying hard but not always managing to iron out the surface beneath. But I've definitely driven stiffer, more uncomfortable factory-spec GT-Rs than this. Some have been close to unbearable on our hopeless road network, but the 2020 Nismo isn't among them. And whereas certain others have hunted out ruts and cambers in the road like a pig sniffing for truffles, this one, for the most part, tracks straight and true.
The engine is a monster. It's always been entirely unabashed about its turbocharging, wearing its forced induction like a badge of honour. There's always been a high boost threshold and a momentary hesitation when you opened the throttle. (Other turbo engines seem to want to disguise their turbocharging as much as possible, notably the Porsche 911 Carrera units that respond and rev out more like naturally-aspirated engines.)
Now, almost nothing happens until 4,000rpm. But once the rev counter needle swings through that point, the turbos begin blowing their gale and the car surges forwards in a frenzied charge for the horizon. It is seriously quick, this thing, but I think the horsepower race has overtaken the Nissan GT-R somewhere along the line. Even though it's now more powerful than ever, it doesn't terrify you with its straight-line accelerative urgency the way it once did.
There is some musicality in the soundtrack, though, a kind of top-end timbre that wasn't there before. Meanwhile, the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox isn't the most responsive of its type these days but it's plenty quick enough, both up and down.
In terms of character and the way it navigates a road, the Nismo feels so authentically GT-R it's as though no refinements or improvements have been made since 2008. You still hear the four-wheel drive system thunk and clang as you manoeuvre at low speed. The steering still has that chattering delicacy that belies everything else about the car – the grip and the power delivery and the weight and the size of the thing all scream brute force, the steering is sweet and talkative in your fingertips.
The car's signature adjustability is still present and correct as well. Most people who haven't driven a GT-R think it's all dumb grip and power, like a caveman wielding a crudely fashioned club. In fact, you toy with the car's balance on the way in, staying hard on the brakes late into a tight bend to excite the back of the car, then wallop the throttle pedal early in the corner to hook the four-wheel drive system up and send the car drifting elegantly away from the apex. That playfulness is even more accessible now and more clearly telegraphed through the car's major controls.
This is GT-R distilled. The essential nature of it has been ramped up a few percentage points, while its newfound composure on uneven roads has made it more usable than ever – and also more enjoyable much more of the time. This is the car the Nismo should have been all along.
What else? The brakes are mighty. Grip on these latest Dunlop tyres is huge, even on a damp road. But while there is a huge amount of friction between the rubber and the road, so too is there a huge amount of power between the rubber and your right foot. It therefore isn't difficult to send the car into sudden snap oversteer – rather more oversteer than the elegant drift you'd been aiming for – although the drivetrain tends to haul you straight again very quickly.
Judge that mid-corner throttle application just so and the way the car hooks up and fires you out of the bend is terrifying. You come away from corners in this thing so damn fast. In fact, you really need to have your wits about you.
Eventually you take a breath and notice all the other little things. The new Recaro seats are both comfortable and supportive, and while GT-R interiors have at times felt pretty low-rent, ever since the major 2017 model year overhaul, I think they've been more than adequate. The minor switchgear is all very good and the touchscreen (which you can also navigate using a scroll wheel) is absolutely fine. Slathered with Alcantara – across the top of the dashboard, around the rim of the steering wheel – the cockpit actually has a purposeful-yet-premium air to it.
If all that sounds jolly good to you, I can offer one very good reason not to get your name down for a 2020 GT-R Nismo. It's that you'll need to spend £180,095 to do so. I'm not even going to try to justify that price tag. After all these years, you'll know well enough if the Nissan GT-R thing is for you. The small number of 2020 Nismos that'll find their way into the UK will be snapped up by GT-R acolytes who'll know precisely what they're buying into. And all power to them – I can think of no better way for the R35 to sign off for good.
SPECIFICATION | NISSAN GT-R NISMO
Engine: 3799cc, V6, twin-turbo
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power: 600hp @ 6800rpm
Torque: 481lb ft @ 3600-5800rpm
0-62mph: 2.8 secs
Top speed: 196mph
Kerb weight: 1703kg
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