2017 Nissan GT-R First Drive Review

Updating a legendary car is the sharpest of double-edged swords for an engineer. Expectations from fans are off the charts, and any flaw or deviation from the mythos will be judged mercilessly. For what amounts to an exciting engineering project at an objective level, the acceptance and success of a car such as the Nissan GT-R can often hinge on forces entirely beyond the designer’s control. Even the less dramatic mid-cycle refresh can make or break a car whose legend has outgrown its actual performance. The GT-R is one of those cars, and it’s been stung by its own reputation before.

2017 Nissan GT-R

Last year, as you may recall, I joined a convoy consisting of a GT-R, a Porsche 911 Turbo, and a Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S up the easternmost edge of California. The GT-R did not win that comparison test. In fact, it placed last.

See, back in 2013, Nissan decided to build more than one GT-R. The standard car would become more of a grand tourer, and performance models, ultimately expressed by the NISMO edition, would retain the raw, brutal performance we enthusiasts loved about the GT-R. Although the NISMO is great, the standard car missed the mark, giving up too much capability for too little comfort.

Traveling to Belgium to drive the refreshed 2017 car, I had only one question on my mind: Did Nissan fix it? On and around the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit, I found my answer: Maybe.

Next, there are the structural and aerodynamic enhancements. The windshield frame and trunk area have been reinforced to reduce chassis flex under hard cornering, and the hood has been reinforced to prevent it from deforming at high speeds. The stiffer hood and improvements to the side sills, C-pillars, front splitter, and rear diffuser improve airflow around the car. The drag coefficient hasn’t changed—the improvements were offset by enlarging the front grille openings to improve cooling–€”but the car feels noticeably more stable at high speeds. This is best observed in the steering, which requires many fewer corrections at high speed.

Similarly, going too hard on the power too early at corner exit would provoke a small but sharp oversteer; again, it’s difficult to say whether it was a function of the cold, wet pavement and high-performance summer tires or an inherent behavior of the car.

On the occasion it was necessary to slow down, the big Brembo brakes delivered. Stopping power was strong and consistent lap after lap, and the pedal offered excellent feedback. It occasionally squirmed at the rear end under hard braking, but as with the handling, it’s difficult to say how much of a role the rain played.

An all-new steering wheel also improves the actual act of steering the car. Mercifully, Nissan has finally moved the paddle shifters from the steering column to the wheel itself, allowing you to keep your hands on the wheel and still grab an upshift as you exit a corner. The rest of the wheel benefits from a comfortably thick rim and better controls.

Unfortunately, the new paddle shifters aren’t perfect. Commands for shifts are met with a slight lag before anything happens, and inputs are lost when trying to downshift quickly through several gears when braking for a corner. It’s at best distracting and at worst frustrating if you’re trying to set a lap time.
The rest of the transmission, though, is actually improved. New software has smoothed out shifting during normal driving and reduced clutch chatter. It’ll still clunk a little going into first or second at low speeds and still chatters a bit when starting from a stop, but it’s nothing like it used to be.

Your neighbors, if they’re car people, will be happy to know that Nissan has indeed improved the GT-R. Not only that, but it also appears to have corrected course and finally found the proper balance of comfort and performance that eluded last year’s car. Although I can’t definitively say it drives just like the car we named Car of the Year in 2009, it gives every indication that’s the case. I hope I’m right.

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