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2009 Nissan GT-R review: 2009 Nissan GT-R

2009 Nissan GT-R

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

11 min read

2009 Nissan GT-R

The Good

The 2009 Nissan GT-R is a unique car, employing impressive tech in its engine, suspension, and drive system. But its cabin electronics are also top-notch, with an advanced navigation system, digital music system, and cell phone integration. It tops the cabin tech with an in-dash performance computer.

The Bad

The ride is rough in the GT-R for normal street driving, and the mileage stays below 15 mpg.

The Bottom Line

The 2009 Nissan GT-R is a technical tour de force, with evidence of brilliance throughout. We would have a hard time with the GT-R as an everyday driver, but it offers fun and exhilaration at heart-stopping levels.

It must be Christmas, because a 2009 Nissan GT-R showed up in our garage. Just like how we spent 1973 transfixed by commercials for the Vertibird Rescue Ship toy, we slathered over every specification sheet and photo of the new GT-R since the concept was shown at the 2005 Tokyo Auto Show. And in each case, we finally ended up at the controls of one. The GT-R is definitely the biggest, baddest toy on the block.

The GT-R is essentially a race car made for the street. Production cars don't generally squeeze 480 horsepower out of a V-6, or have the transmission mounted at the rear axle. And the incredibly rigid suspension feels as if it was made for a race car. The car looks impressive and brutish, a theme that carries into the cabin and the driving feel. The Corvette Z06 has some scary competition in the GT-R.

Surprisingly, the GT-R is in no way stripped down, except maybe for the lack of an iPod port. Nissan put all of its excellent cabin electronics in the dashboard, which includes a hard-drive-based navigation system, an impressive stereo with plenty of digital music capability, and even Bluetooth cell phone integration. And those electronics share space with an incredibly detailed performance computer. This Nissan GT-R just doesn't compromise in its car tech.

Test the tech: GT-R versus virtual GT-R
We couldn't wait to drive the real 2009 Nissan GT-R, so months ago we picked up Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, which has a virtual GT-R. We compared the driving experience in each by taking the real GT-R for a drive on back roads north of San Francisco, and the virtual car in the game's Suzuka East track. In the game, we set the physics to Professional, as we figured that should replicate as closely as possible real-world physics.

There's room for a V-8 under the hood, but this twin-turbo V-6 gets the job done.

The first real difference we noticed was with the engine sound. The real GT-R makes an engine sound dominated by its turbos. The 3.8-liter V-6 isn't particularly loud or throaty, but when you give it power, the twin turbochargers whirr up like turbines. In the game, the engine sounds more generic, just a standard engine growl. Other things that just can't be replicated in the game is the hard ride, because of the low-profile tires wrapped around the 20-inch wheels and the rigid suspension, and the general cabin noise and vibration. The GT-R isn't a comfortable ride unless it's on a well-paved surface.

Acceleration between the real and virtual GT-R seems well-replicated. In the game, 60 mph seems slow, and it's difficult to get below that speed. With the real GT-R, we tapped the gas while getting on the freeway, and by the time we glanced at the speedometer, we were already at 60 mph. The GT-R has been clocked to 60 mph at times approaching 3 seconds. The kind of acceleration is really incredible. The big difference here is that it is much easier to modulate the GT-R's gas pedal than a PlayStation 3 controller, making it much easier to control the speed in the real car.

One hundred miles an hour and 6,500rpm in third gear are about right for the virtual and real GT-R.

The speedometer in the real car is much easier to glance at than that of the virtual car, and it helps that you can get a digital speed display on the tachometer and on the performance computer. While driving on public roads, our speedometer needle was generally in the 6 o'clock position, at 40 mph to 60 mph, while 200 mph is up in the 12 o'clock position. You also get a much different sense of speed--we could tell when we were getting up to scary while driving the GT-R down a two-lane blacktop with blind corners and rises.

The handling in the real GT-R truly feels phenomenal, as good as that of the Audi R8 we reviewed a few months ago. To get the real GT-R out of sorts, it takes the kind of driving you can only do in a controlled environment. We threw it into one particularly good corner with some speed, and felt the grip loosen for a fraction of a second, then get taken up by the all-wheel drive. In the game, we spent a lot of time facing backward in the sand as the car wiped out on the sharper turns. Maybe it was the difficulty in controlling our speed in the game, but we had a much harder time maintaining grip. It didn't seem to map well to our experience with the real thing.

There's nothing like open road for testing out the real Nissan GT-R.

As for the transmission, the game's automatic setting is far different than the real car's automatic setting. The GT-R uses a six-speed double-clutch manual transmission. There is no clutch pedal, as the dual clutches are controlled by computer. You can set it for automatic shifting or manual, using the column-mounted paddle shifters. In the game, the car shifts like a sports car, maintaining revs so you can keep power. The real car's automatic mode is designed for economy, rapidly shifting up to sixth gear even when you are only going 25 mph.

In manual mode, the real GT-R's shifts are visceral and solid. You can feel each one through the car as you push the left paddle for down or the right paddle for up. The game does a good job of replicating the match-up between speed, tach, and gear, but you just don't get that same abrupt power change in the virtual experience.

Recovering from yet another spin in the virtual GT-R, we miss the visceral feeling of the real thing.

Although we've spent many hours enjoying the virtual race track, nothing beats the experience of sitting behind the wheel of a real GT-R. For a good look at the Nissan GT-R's performance in a controlled setting, WebRidesTV has video of a GranTurismo 5 Prologue-inspired match-up between the GT-R and a Ford GT.

In the cabin
The cabin of the 2009 Nissan GT-R brings in many race car touches, but adapted for a road car. The deep front seats embrace you, but you don't have to mess around with a four-point harness. Although the steering wheel has a bubble in the middle for the airbag, the surrounding area, leading out to the three spokes, is metal and flat. Industrial-looking controls mounted on this flat area don't set torque and traction control, such as on a Formula One car, but handle more mundane features, like the cruise control and audio.

A high-resolution split screen map, with 3D and plan views, is an unexpected luxury of the GT-R.

We recently saw this same package of cabin gadgets in the Infiniti M45x, including navigation with traffic reporting, Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration, and a stereo system that handles many digital audio sources. The interface between the two cars is different--where the Infiniti has a big multifunction control knob, the GT-R relies on a row of buttons and the touch-screen LCD, which works perfectly well. The GT-R also has the same voice command system as the M45x.

For a detailed look at the navigation and traffic system, take a look at our M45x review. Here we will just point out that, as the system stores its maps on a hard drive, route calculation is fast and the maps refresh quickly. You can look at 3D or plan view maps, or put them both in a split screen. When you have a route programmed, the system will automatically detour around bad traffic. Route guidance is aided by text-to-speech, which reads out the names of streets.

When you rip a CD to the car's hard drive, it automatically tags the songs from its internal Gracenote database.

The audio system is similar, but a little short of, that in the M45x. You can rip music to the GT-R's hard drive, which offers 9.3GB of space for music, or play MP3s from a CompactFlash card inserted in a slot in front of the shifter. There is an auxiliary input, suitable for an MP3 player, but no iPod port. The single CD slot plays MP3 CDs, and there is XM satellite radio.

Sound quality is very good from the 11 Bose speakers around the cabin, although they have a lot of road noise to conquer. The system has a centerfill in the dashboard, two subwoofers, tweeters in the A-pillars, mids in the doors, and most obviously, two woofers between the back seats. This system didn't flinch at heavy bass and reproduced highs nicely, although the sound was slightly compressed, unlike the better separation from the audio system in the M45x.

The hands-free cell phone system is useful, in the sense that you just don't want to take your hands from the wheel. Of course, you might not want to answer the phone at all as you go speeding down country roads. The system can store phone book entries, which is nice, although we had to push them from our phone into the car one at a time.

One feature that would have been nice, especially with the sharply angled rear window, is a rear view camera. This is one car you definitely don't want to back into a pole.

This screen was our favorite on the performance computer, as we like seeing the torque split change in different driving situations.

As a feature unique to the GT-R, the car includes a fascinating and customizable performance computer. We covered this feature and some other aspects on the cabin in our Nissan GT-R cabin tech gallery at the last Los Angeles auto show. Polyphony Digital, the same company that developed Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, helped Nissan with the performance computer design.

You can access the performance computer by pushing the Function button to the left of the LCD. A knob lets you scroll through the four customizable screens, marked 1 through 4, or the set screens, marked A through G. These screens use a variety of graphs and virtual gauges for wheel turn, torque split, gas and brake pedal percentage, turbo boost, and many other performance parameters. There is also a stopwatch for timed runs.

Under the hood
For such a muscular looking car, it's surprising to only find six cylinders under the hood. But Nissan wrings 480 horsepower at 6,400rpm out of this 3.8-liter V-6 with dual turbochargers. It produces 430 foot-pounds of torque between 3,200rpm and 5,200rpm. Our experience being pressed into the back seat with even 50 percent gas pedal bears these figures out in a qualitative sense.

The architecture of the car is unique, with the engine and transmission at opposite ends to balance the car out. The six-speed dual-clutch manual transmission has a shifter that merely puts it in park, reverse, neutral, manual, and automatic. In manual mode, you can shift up or down with the shifter, but you have to resort to the paddle shifters. In this car, we have no problem with this arrangement.

The downshift paddle is on the left side. You can get the car into manual mode by tapping a paddle or pushing the shifter to the right.

The automatic mode shifts early, getting up to sixth gear at only 25 mph. But with this much horsepower, the engine isn't bothered as it idles along at 1,500rpm, keeping the car moving easily. During one stretch of road, we had the transmission in fifth when we decided to pass a car in front of us. We went from 45 mph to 85 mph without changing gear, although a drop down to fourth gear or third gear would have blasted us by even faster.

We found city driving frustrating, as we could feel how much power we had on tap that couldn't be used. In these low-speed traffic situations, the automatic shifting felt rough, adding to the uncomfortable feeling of the suspension. There is a comfort mode for the suspension, but it doesn't smooth things over that much. We felt the driving experience in traffic was better than in the Audi R8, which suffered a lot from its R-Tronic transmission, but it didn't come close to the BMW M3, which drives easily in stop-and-go traffic or on the track.

The car's very stiff suspension absorbs road imperfections nicely, keeping the car stuck to the pavement, but it doesn't coddle the driver at all. In corners, there is no lean and the steering is very responsive. All-wheel drive, which defaults 100 percent torque to the rear wheels but can shift a full 50 percent to the front, helps keep the car gripping in the corners and under acceleration. This all-wheel-drive system, along with traction control and suspension, uses computer-aided adjustment to keep it at optimum settings no matter the driving conditions.

These switches control torque, suspension, and traction. The red lights indicate R, or track, mode.

Nissan advertises the GT-R as the supercar that anyone can drive, as it is hard to get it out of control. But in hard cornering we felt a small but satisfying amount of slip that got taken up by the car's systems. There are three switches on the instrument panel that let you adjust various settings for torque, suspension, and traction control. Each can be pushed up to R mode, with accompanying red lights. We drove some stretches of highway with the settings in R mode, but didn't notice a huge difference. The track is where these will matter. The torque switch can also be set for snow, the suspension for comfort, and the traction control to off.

As of this review, fuel economy numbers for the 2009 Nissan GT-R haven't been published. But don't expect them to be good, considering the amount of horsepower the engine produces. During our time with the car, we got about 14 mpg. On the plus side, and something we find impressive given the GT-R's supercar status, is that it is expected to meet California's Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle standard, one better than the minimal LEV requirement.

In sum
The 2009 Nissan GT-R goes for a base price of $69,850 or $71,900 for the premium model, which we had. We don't expect there to be options with this car, although there will be the usual destination charge. Few cars will get you to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds for this kind of money, and none offer the innovative driving tech of the GT-R at this price.

For our Car Tech rating, we give the GT-R near top marks all-around. It's a beautiful exterior design, although there are some odd creases when you get close, such as the joint between the B-pillar and the roof. The cabin tech benefits greatly from Nissan's already excellent hard-drive-based navigation system, stereo and Bluetooth. We can ignore the lack of an iPod adapter, in favor of the brilliant and unique in-dash performance computer. As for the under-the-hood mechanics, it is all very brilliant, only falling down in fuel economy.


2009 Nissan GT-R

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 10Performance tech 9Design 10


See full specs Available Engine GasBody style Coupe