For years, Nissan performance enthusiasts begged the company to bring its flagship, the Skyline GT-R, to the U.S. And for years, Nissan refused.
This caused quite a few GT-R fans to take the matter into their own hands by importing GT-Rs from Japan independently, which became a minor cottage industry. In California, for instance, it isn't unusual to see one of those gray market GT-Rs carving up mountain roads or basking in envious stares at informal car shows.
In 2008, Nissan finally relented, importing the GT-R to the U.S., minus the Skyline name. It's still a rare car here, given the limited production — quite a bit of the GT-R is hand-built — and the price, which is knocking on the $100,000 door. That's a lot of money for the most dedicated GT-R fan, typically a 16-year-old who spends most of study hall sketching the car with massive aftermarket tires and huge spoilers on the back.
But the GT-R has enough fans who have saved up their lunch money to own one of the most sophisticated cars sold in America. And, by the way, one of the fastest.
That's always been the problem with the GT-R. Unlike, say, the Chevrolet Corvette, the GT-R never seems that happy poking around town or idling in the Starbucks drive-through lane. Certainly it can handle such pedestrian duties, but it always seems a little bored, eager to show you what all-wheel drive and its twin-turbocharged, 545-horsepower V-6 can do.
Nissan made some major updates inside and out to the GT-R for 2012, and we thought that was it for a while. But for 2013, Nissan has made another batch of changes to the car, only a few of which are visible outside, and then only to GT-R aficionados, of which we learned there are many who seem to materialize at every gas station or grocery store.
Under the skin, horsepower and torque were increased for 2013; the interior appointments have been fine-tuned; the front bucket seats are much, much better; and the suspension and the transmission have been tweaked to improve performance.
The problem is that the limits of the GT-R are so high, the only way to gauge the success of those changes is on a racetrack, which Nissan provided, along with some 2012 and 2013 GT-Rs to test back to back.
And, yes, at full speed, the 2013 GT-R is decidedly better. Cornering is more precise, though there's no disguising that this is, indeed, a heavy car, approaching two tons. The ride is better too. The extra engine power is noticeable coming out of tight corners, less noticeable on longer straightaways. Fortunately, the big Brembo brakes are superb.
With all-wheel drive and a variety of electronic handling aids, the GT-R is very forgiving, and you'd have to do something pretty stupid on the track to get in serious trouble. Of course, with a zero-to-60 mph time of about three seconds and a top speed of about 196 mph, that opportunity is certainly present.
As always, driven at slower speeds with the windows up and the excellent Bose sound system off, the GT-R makes a lot of interesting little noises — clicks, whirs, hums — all indicating that this very complex car is working hard to make you look good. The transmission is a rear-mounted transaxle, which operates like an automatic transmission but has dual internal clutches to simulate manual shifting. Which you can do, if you want, using little paddles on each side of the steering wheel.
Though it is technically an automatic, it's more of an automated manual, and it works as well as anything you'll find in a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche, and very much improved over the model introduced in 2008. No conventional manual transmission is offered.
Mileage — 16 mpg city, 23 highway — is lousy, but what else would you expect? And don't even think about using regular gas.
In town, even with the electronically controlled suspension on its softest setting, the ride is firm but tolerable even on rough pavement. Inside, the cockpit is busy but moderately intuitive. The GT-R is a four-seater, but we've never seen anyone sit back there.
The 2013 Nissan GT-R is offered in two models: the Premium, tested here, starting at $96,820, or the Black Edition, which gets you Recaro seats, special wheels and tires, and a carbon-fiber rear spoiler for $106,320.
As is true with so many supercars, you have to exercise them on a racetrack to get the full effect of what you are paying for. As a daily driver, the GT-R is a willing companion, but you can almost sense the car's mechanical disappointment when you turn into Starbucks again.