In my 15-plus years of writing about cars, I’ve had the pleasure (and disappointment) of driving so many automobiles before they’ve even gone on sale—many of which I can probably never realistically own in real life. But the experience has been well worth the bittersweet reality check. Most recently, another one was added to that list: the 2020 Nissan GT-R Nismo.
The GT-R and I have had a long, serendipitous relationship. I was at the exclusive media launch in 2007 on the eve of the Tokyo Motor Show, ahead of its unveiling. I was one of the first journalists to review a 2009 GT-R on Philippine roads. There were also drives in a gaggle of highly modified R35 GT-Rs later on. The GT-R is an awesome car; it demands respect and attention. The sheer road presence, the immense power and the stupendous technology all working hard to make it stick is a true mechanical tour de force from Japan. Never had a Japanese car with so much technology ever been released to the global market. The GT-R forced other manufacturers to push the boundaries of their flagship models, too: Lexus with the LFA, Honda with the NSX. Yet, only the GT-R has enjoyed a massive success and a following bordering on fanaticism.
Unfortunately, despite the GT-R’s popularity and street cred, I was never fully sold on it. I was a fan and I respected the car, but it lacked one thing in my eyes: a soul.
In an age where video-game addicts can elevate themselves to real-world racing (Jann Mardenborough and Lucas Ordoñez, for instance), the original R35 GT-R perhaps appealed to a generation that lived life in video games. Even Polyphony Digital head honcho and Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi had been a gamer and game developer first before becoming very much involved in actual motorsports. Some 12 years after its launch, the GT-R has also elevated itself, finally finding a soul. Doesn’t this sound like something straight out of an anime series? Think Ghost In The Shell.
In 2017, Nissan massively overhauled the R35 with a revised, stiffer chassis, improved aerodynamics and a new interior to spruce it up, considering the car was already a decade old. I had the honor of driving it at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, and then riding shotgun with GT-R chief test driver Takao Matsumoto. The improvements were dramatic indeed: The GT-R moved more organically, and it felt more natural. To be more precise, it felt more analog and less digital—a strong criticism that had always been thrown its way. Previous GT-Rs had lacked progression. They had been either fully on or fully off, just like most digital gaming sensations even with force feedback on expensive gaming rigs. A validation drive two years later at Clark International Speedway proved that the GT-R was indeed less edgy, more benign and more predictable on the limit. But there was still a bit of soul lacking.
Last year, I had the GT-R for a few days and was impressed with its grand touring abilities as I brought it to Tagaytay through heavy traffic. It was stupidly fast. But crucially, it could discern when I wanted, say, 33% to 67% of its power potential, instead of unleashing all of its ungodly 100% power 100% of the time. And the stiffer chassis helped the car ride better through the nasty bumps and ruts of the Philippine highway system—more so than previous GT-Rs, considering the 2017 model had an even stiffer suspension.
And yet it’s easy to be blasé about the 12-year-old GT-R. Critics state that Nissan hasn’t kept up with the times, is selling a car that is effectively two generations. Hiroshi Tamura, the man behind the R35 GT-R, is quick to scoff at these detractors. Nissan continues to develop and modernize the widely celebrated sports car, depending on the budget Nissan gives Tamura-san and his team. And now, it looks like they received a generous budget for the 2020 Nismo model, as the changes are extensive.
Carbon features prominently on the 2020 GT-R Nismo. The roof panel, the front fenders, the hood, the trunk lid, and the front and rear bumpers are made of carbon fiber. The interior also makes use of lighter (by a total of 2.8kg) Recaro Sportster seats with side airbags and electric operation. The dashboard is covered in suede, which reduces glare under harsh sunlight. The three-spoke steering wheel is also wrapped in suede, and feels chunky and reassuring.
The biggest difference comes from the latest-generation and quite frankly massive 410mm front and 390mm rear carbon-ceramic brakes form Brembo
But the biggest difference comes from the latest-generation and quite frankly massive 410mm front and 390mm rear carbon-ceramic brakes form Brembo. All told, they reduce 4kg of unsprung weight per corner, and effectively account for half of the GT-R Nismo’s 30kg weight savings. It doesn’t sound massive, until you realize that reducing unsprung weight (or weight that isn’t supported by the suspension) has a factor of eight as compared with reducing sprung weight. In short, dynamically speaking, this GT-R feels like it shed 128kg. The brakes are also the most expensive upgrade on the 2020 GT-R Nismo, costing roughly $40,000 if sourced as separate aftermarket items, according to Tamura.
The weight savings from the carbon roof panel, at 4kg, also increase by a factor of four to eight, as it is the highest part of the vehicle. The vented front carbon fenders are likewise functional as they reduce lift on the front wheel arches, improving downforce without relying on artificial downforce enhancers such as a front splitter. The trade-off is that, at directional changes, when the front splitter can stop working, the GT-R feels more natural and less edgy on the limit. It also helps channel hot air from both the engine and the brakes away from the car, helping with the cooling. These aerodynamic adjustments add more downforce without creating more drag, as the vehicle’s drag coefficient (0.26) remains the same.
The turbochargers are straight out of Nissan’s GT3 race car program. New for 2020 are revised turbochargers with better vane aerodynamics for the turbine wheel that improve spool-up. Nissan also reduced the number of blades from 11 to 10, shaving weight by 14.5g for a swifter response.
The run-flat tires are also new. Made by Dunlop specifically for the 2020 GT-R Nismo, the front tires feature a new four-rib design with a rounded shoulder which optimizes steering feel, especially at turn-in up to mid-corner. The new rubber also feels more progressive and more forgiving at high-speed sweepers versus the more squared-off shoulder of the previous tire model. The four-rib design increases contact patch on the road versus the older six-rib design. At the back, the tread pattern is slightly different from the front as it retains the six-rib design, but the rear tires now have a new rubber compound similar to the fronts.
Lastly, Nissan worked hard to tweak the GR6 dual-clutch transmission’s algorithm. Shifts are smoother, downshifts and traffic driving are vastly enhanced, and the electronic brains know just how much or how little clutch slip to induce depending on the situation to polish driving smoothness (crucial to the GT aspect of the car) while also increasing traction in between shifts (necessary for bumpy racetracks like the EuroSpeedway Lausitz).