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The Ultimate GT-R Comparison Test: I was deep into triple digits when it finally sank in just how good the 2009 Nissan GT-R really is. Yes, I'd already racked up a good 500 miles or so, and yes, I'd already been seduced by its raw power. But when your velocity already equals the take off speed of a Boeing 737 and you're still accelerating hard, well, certain things become clear.
For example, even though there was a pretty stiff crosswind sweeping across the Nevada desert, the GT-R was only moderately disturbed, not blown entirely off the road. The steering was exceptionally responsive to small inputs, yet never made the car feel twitchy. It boasts terrific forward visibility, a great thing, because at these speeds distant objects don't stay that way for long.
I was also grateful that Nevada's Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway near Area 51, is one of the least traveled roads in the U.S.
It was exactly the kind of experience I had hoped for when videographer Dan Sharp and I headed out earlier that morning from the MyRide.com offices in Irvine, Calif. The GT-R had arrived the day before, and though everyone wanted seat time - and by that, I mean everyone in the whole damn building - we barely had 60 hours left before we had to return our red beast. We already knew this was a phenomenal car, the kind that makes automotive writers reach for their Big Book of Hyperbole in lame efforts to simply describe its awesomeness to the vast majority of people who will never get the opportunity to drive one.
We're not immune: With all-wheel drive, a 480-horsepower engine, a six-speed automated manual transmission and all of it controlled by an array of computers, the Nissan GT-R is as awesome a technological achievement as Hoover Dam was in its day. The car's speed, acceleration, handling and braking power give its driver more opportunity for mischief than a weekend in Las Vegas. Then there's the buildup, marked by broken embargoes and a plethora of spy shots which preceded the GT-R's official unveiling, making it a worse-kept secret than the Area 51 military installation in the Nevada desert.
We all love making wild comparisons like that, but are they really true? We decided to find out. A road trip was the only way, one that would carry us to these three places - Hoover Dam, Area 51 and Las Vegas - all of which are conveniently located in Nevada. Only then would we see if the GT-R lived up to its billing.
Plus, since it was my idea, it meant I'd get to hog the car for almost 24 hours.
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Since we wanted to give the GT-R the full treatment, Dan Sharp, videographer extraordinaire, accompanied me on the trip, with strict instructions not to point the camera at the speedometer. By 6:30 a.m. we were loaded, with all manner of gear stuffed inside the car: video camera bags, still cameras, briefcases, a cooler, tripods galore, audio recording equipment and the two of us, of course. There was plenty of room in the car, actually, with its trunk surprisingly roomy, and the rear seat demoted to overflow cargo duty (like it's really good for anything else).
We were hoping that by heading out early we'd beat any traffic, and were soon proven correct. Heading north on Interstate 15, it became clear that the GT-R already has quite a following. Literally. The first was an early '90s Celica that had clearly seen better days, its young male driver flogging it mercilessly up the Cajon Pass in an effort to stay with us as we cruised, clearly wanting us to show off the ultra-Nissan's capabilities. Who are we to deny him? I cracked open the throttle and poured on the power, watching him disappear behind us. Yet to his credit, he wheezed his way back up to us, eventually passing us when we got to the flat straight section that runs through Victorville. We let him go; Interstate 15 is much more heavily patrolled than where we were headed. Besides, if we were going to get a ticket, it wasn't going to be from showing up some kid in an old Toyota.
While jumping on the GT-R's throttle is definitely fun, we quickly learned that doing so was going to mean frequent fill-ups at the pumps. After not even 200 miles, we made our first stop in Baker, Calif., topping off our half-empty tank before heading into the desert.
We could have saved time by staying on the Interstate, but what's the fun in that? There are great roads out in the desert - smooth, flat, lightly traveled roads - and we wanted to take the path less traveled. Our first diversion was California Route 127, otherwise known as Death Valley Rd. It twists its way north into the hottest part of the hottest place in North America, and here we were behind the wheel of the hottest car in North America.
The road itself winds so gently around the surrounding countryside that you hardly notice the bends, nor do you notice that you've let your leaden foot push ever so slightly downward until the speedometer is reading more than 100 mph. Oopsie. Going fast is one thing, but going fast and still feeling like you're going slow is the mark of an exceptional automobile.
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To avoid actually going to Death Valley, we diverted from 127 onto Old Spanish Trail Rd., an even narrower and less frequently maintained two lane that would eventually take us to Nevada. We paused for photography, not worried about leaving the GT-R in the middle of the road because it was clear that this particular stretch of denuded asphalt didn't get much use.
You can't help but take a close look at the lines of the car you're photographing, and we took the opportunity to drink in the GT-R's styling. It's not a pretty car by any stretch of the imagination, but it is eye catching. Sitting there on the road, the Martian landscape of the desert surrounding it, the GT-R looked like something out of a science fiction movie. Its look is one of brutishness and power, with none of the finesse of a Ferrari or the overtly heritage-driven lines of a 911. Yet it's unmistakable on the road, and during our time we got more "whatkindacarizzat" questions than we have in recent memory. While only a handful knew what they were looking at, all knew that it was something special, though many observers seemed slightly disappointed that the brand was Nissan and not something more exotic. Hey, what do you expect of unwashed masses, anyhow?
Photos and video taken, we reloaded our gear and continued on our quest. The twisty sections on our route were few and far between, unfortunately, compromised out of the equation due to time constraints. However, it was obvious to us that the GT-R's handling was as impressive as its straight-line speed. Without a track to fully exploit its suspension, we left the various damper, traction and driveline modes in the standard settings, but at no point did the GT-R feel hemmed in by its electronic nannies. Quite the opposite, we found that we could hammer it out of a low-speed hairpin and easily break the rear wheels loose, requiring a bit of countersteer before the stability control kicked in.
After playing in the limited twisties, we lit the afterburner and headed off for Nevada, crossing the border and driving south on Nevada Route 160 toward Las Vegas, and points beyond.
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Dam, Look at That!
At about 350 miles into our journey, as we were passing through Las Vegas for the first time, it occurred to me what a good overall road car the GT-R was turning out to be. The adjustable suspension has a "comfort" mode, and with it on, much of the harshness of the suspension is quashed. The ride is still stiff, of course, and it never approached the smooth feel of a Corvette, but it was much better than we had anticipated. Also, Nissan is incredibly lucky that my conscience won out and prevented me from stealing the seats. They're that good.
When you're lazily trundling along in traffic, the GT-R is just like any other car. It's not beating you up, the audio system sounds good, you can do the one-hand-on-the-wheel thing with ease, and it's clear that the car isn't some one-off specialty vehicle from a brute-force minded aftermarket tuner, or even a single-purpose speed-machine from a niche manufacturer. Fine, "GT-R" doesn't have the same mythical ring as "Murcielago" but because it's from the same company that makes Altimas and Versas, it's much easier to live with than the Italian exotic, plus, it kicks the Lambo's butt.
But to call the GT-R an "average everyday car" is like referring to the Hoover Dam we were rapidly approaching as merely a big pile of concrete. As we rounded the bend on the road to the dam, we were immediately impressed. Then there are the stats: It was constructed over the course of only four years, from 1931 to 1935, two years ahead of schedule. It holds back Lake Mead, a recreational area that brings joy to all who use it. When it was completed, Hoover Dam was noted not just for its immensity and the speed of its construction, but also for its architectural design and the testament it bore out about the technology of the era. Come to think of it, that matches up against the GT-R better than we expected: We've been waiting about four years for this car; it obviously brings joy to anyone who uses it; and it's one hell of a technological marvel.
Of course, there are significant differences. The Hoover Dam is constructed with 3.4 million cubic yards of steel-reinforced concrete, while the car is constructed of the usual combination of steel, composites, rubber, glass, etc. Hoover Dam's 17 generators are capable of producing 2,074 megawatts, or roughly 2.8 million horsepower; the GT-R's 480 horses are paltry by comparison, even if the car's performance suggests it's actually quite a bit more than that; at nearly 4,000 pounds, the acceleration the GT-R displays indicates more than 500 horses by our estimate. The dam's electricity production and water containment arguably made the modern version of Las Vegas possible, leading us to another comparison we made. However, the GT-R has one major advantage over this incredible Depression-era achievement: You can drive it. For gearheads, the choice is obvious: GT-R for the win.
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Deep Into the Nevada Desert
After replenishing the GT-R's ever-dwindling supply of fuel at a lonely Chevron station near the Dam, we headed back through Vegas on our way north, to the fabled desert around Area 51, and immeasurable unanswered questions: Would we see secret military aircraft? Would we find the solitary Black Mailbox (which, truth be known, is now white)? Would government agents in white Jeep Cherokees come swooping down the hills to claim our Corvette-devouring sports car in the name of national security? Would we get caught up in an Independence Day-type fight with aliens just to get back to L.A.? But most importantly: How deep into triple digits would we take the GT-R on the lonely stretch of Nevada's Highway 375? We were about to find out.
After a brief stint on Interstate 15, we diverted onto U.S. 93, where strange things started to appear in the desert well before Area 51. In particular, we were blown away by the existence of a lush green valley on the west side of the highway. The Lower and Upper Pahranagat Lakes look as out of place here as the GT-R itself as it blasted by trucks laden like they were packed by the Joads as they headed north on U.S. 93. A quick glance east showed us hills and the usual scrub desert, making us imagine settlers cresting those low peaks, seeing the water and saying, "Screw California, we're staying here."
U.S. 93, like most of the roads we encountered, was long, flat, and straight. While Dan decided to take a short snooze (the scenery gets boring quickly out there), I decided to start playing with the throttle. Imagine my surprise how quickly the GT-R accelerated with just a tickle of the throttle; not even wide open, it accelerated briskly to more than twice the limit on the road we were on. At this point, I just want to mention that, if you do decide to speed on public roads - and we don't encourage it, not one single bit - but if you do, a radar detector is a handy device, as is plenty of daylight and a complete and total absence of other cars on the road. 'Nuff said.
With another gas stop behind us at Alamo, Nev., we continued north to Nevada Route 318, which quickly forks into Route 375: the Extraterrestrial Highway. We're not making that name up, by the way. It was officially renamed that in 1996 by then-governor Bob Miller. After turning onto the highway, it's immediately apparent that you're going the right way thanks to a squat Quonset hut fronted by a gigantic metal alien sculpture. It marks the home of the New Alien Research Center, and by the closed look of the place, we're guessing not a lot of research is currently happening there. Still, any doubt that we had taken a wrong turn vanished.
Once you get past a brief twisty area through some hills, you turn north and are confronted with a long straight, roughly 20 miles or so, that gently slopes down into a shallow valley and back up again. The sight lines are incredible, and you can see every inch of the road until it gently sweeps into the northern hills. The air is clean and clear, the sun is at just the right angle to glint off distant windshields regardless of the time of day, and if you listen closely, you can hear the road beckoning. We're not saying that it's the perfect road for high speeds, but if we were to design one, it'd look a lot like this. Did we succumb to the temptation? Well, did you read the first paragraph of this story?
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The Truth Is Out There
To the west of this long stretch of highway is Area 51. To the east is, well, nothing worth mentioning until you get to Utah. Pass the hills to the north and you do find civilization once again. One of the first things you come to is a sign designating Highway 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway. Its lettering is a goofy 70's sci-fi font, and it's festooned with various stickers from visitors around the country. Most were simply place names, although a few were pretty funny; our favorite advised: "Jesus is coming, so look busy!" We paused briefly in the fading light, captured the GT-R's otherworldly presence against the otherworldly sign and, we admit, added our own bit of viral marketing to the vinyl-encrusted marker.
Drive a short distance further and you come to the small burg of Rachel, Nev. Looking like little more than a trailer-strewn wide spot in the road, the sign proclaims that the population is "Humans: 90. Aliens: ?" The centerpiece of town is the Little A'Le'Inn, an establishment that clearly knows that the little town has roughly one thing going for it. Inside were four individuals, all of whom looked human to us, and all of whom we assume are used to seeing unusual things in their remote corner of the desert. Still, they seemed impressed by the red sports car parked in front of the building, and one wanted to know how he could get a job blasting around all day in Nissan GT-Rs. Step one: Move out of Rachel.
But enough about aliens and lore. We grabbed a few souvenirs and hit the road back to that lonely stretch. You can't actually drive to Area 51 - signs in the area note that it's perfectly O.K. for the military to shoot you if you try - thus, U.F.O. aficionados point to the Black Mailbox as a key spot for seeing lights in the sky, whatever they may be. The mailbox is actually white these days, and covered in its own array of graffiti and stickers. We spent quite a bit of time near the mailbox, and never once saw anything unusual in the sky. However, we did see a lot of white, government-issue domestic sedans and vans, and one of the white buses that ferry employees to and from the site. Geek nirvana, to be sure.
With our photography and video done and the sun finally behind the mountains, we asked ourselves, which is really the worst-kept secret? This one's a tough call. On one hand, the government managed to keep Area 51 from the public's mind for decades, and even to this day nobody's really sure what the heck is going on out there. Yet since the 80s, Area 51 has been an open secret, even though it was implausibly denied by the government for a long time. Then there's the GT-R, which we all knew was coming, a fact that Nissan made little attempt to conceal; they raced it at the 2007 Goodwood Festival of Speed for crying out loud. Secrets remained, however, such as how much power it would have, what the final styling would look like, and whether it would live up to its billing. We'd even say that the GT-R still holds some secrets, since we never got to put it on a track. We're going to have to call this one a tie.
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Vegas, Baby! Vegas!
With night fully upon us and no alien spacecraft to be seen, we returned south to Las Vegas. On the way we took the opportunity to play with the GT-R's built-in performance computer. Its digital display shows you in hard numbers how you're accelerating, cornering, braking, how much boost you're using and all manner of other performance and technical parameters.
The performance computer is very cool, and the flashing lights on the display reminded us of our destination: Sin City. We were heading to the self-proclaimed Entertainment Capital of the World in what is clearly the best performance bargain in the world. Vegas is high on the fun-per-dollar meter, and at a price of around $70,000, there is no car on the planet that can come close to the GT-R's performance envelope...or potential for behind-the-wheel mayhem.
Time was getting short, and we had little opportunity to do more than just drive on through. But there's no denying that Vegas is a trouble spot. With gambling, drinking, numerous "gentleman's clubs," and even rolling billboards advertising in-room "adult entertainment," it'd be easy to spend 24 hours in Sin City and wind up with a coincidental case of amnesia about the whole experience. On the other hand, we discovered out in the desert that there are plenty of things you can do behind the wheel of a GT-R that you'd want to keep to yourself. So far, it's a tie again. However, the GT-R has one significant advantage: To enjoy the pleasures of Las Vegas, you have to travel to, well, Las Vegas. However, the GT-R could be squirreled away inside your garage, ready to corrupt you at any time. Once again, we give the nod to the car.
So there you have it, two wins for Nissan's world-beater, and one tie. It was nearly midnight when we headed home, sticking to the Interstate on our way back to Irvine. As the miles rolled past, we thought about our time with the car. We'd had our fun, silly as it was, but when we put all that aside and simply thought about the car, it was a shocker. We'd expect performance like this from something costing $150,000, or even $200,000 or more. But with a retail price in the $70,000 range, the GT-R is simply awesome. Does it live up to its billing? You bet it does. It's more awe-inspiring than the Grand Canyon, a more towering achievement than the Eiffel Tower itself, grander than the Himalayas and....
Hey, boss, how's that travel budget looking?
By Keith Buglewicz
Photo credit: Keith Buglewicz, Oliver Bentley
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