The 13-Year-Old 2020 Nissan GT-R Needs to Evolve — or Be Parked for Good

Like Godzilla himself, the GT-R needs to evolve for the times — or let new monsters take over.

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Nissan

While the movies vary on his exact origins, most versions of the story of Godzilla suggest its origins lie deep in the days before man. Some stories suggest he’s a dinosaur mutated by nuclear radiation; others say he was always that big and mean, and was merely awakened by the blasts of the early Atomic Age. Regardless, one common thread ties them all together: Godzilla Be Old.

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I bring this up because, in automotive terms, the Nissan GT-R — which steals its nom du guerre from Japan’s best-known monster — is about as old as The Big G himself.

When it debuted in 2007, the R35 was mind-blowing. Not only was it going to be sold in America for the first time, not only did it look like a starfighter from an anime space series, but it delivered a shocking level of performance for the price. 479 horsepower and 434 pound-feet, heading to all four wheels through a dual-clutch gearbox, meant it was blasting from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds back when Barack Obama was just the junior senator from Illinois. That was supercar speed then –and the GT-R delivered it at a base price of less than $80,000.

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And that was just the opening salvo. The R32 had had lasted just five years before being replaced; the R33 only four. Who knows, we wondered, what sort of miraculous GT-R would be prowling the streets in, say…the year 2020?

Yeah. That one didn’t turn out like we thought.

Walk into a Nissan dealership today, and you can buy a 2020 model year Nissan GT-R that looks almost identical to the one that debuted 13 years ago. Sure, it’s gained power over the years, but it’s also leapt in price; while inflation alone would have pushed the original R35’s base price to about $98K, the cheapest 2020 GT-R starts at $113,540 — $240 more than a Porsche 911 Carrera S, and nearly twice the price of the mid-engined 2020 Corvette Stingray.

My tester, though, carried a price of $123,040, as it was one of the trio of 50th Anniversary variants Nissan has on offer for the half-centenary of the GT-R name that debuted a few months before Neil Armstrong’s small step. The added cash snares you blue semi-aniline leather, unique 20-inch wheels, Alcantara headliner, a plethora of 50th Anniversary logos and a sweet paint job, featuring either blue with white accents, silver with white accents, or, in the case of my tester, white with red accents.

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Of all those upgrades, it’s the leather trim that makes the biggest impression; supple and creamy, it feels every bit worthy of a six-figure sports car, something that generally hasn’t been able to be said about the GT-R’s upholstery. The paint job is nice, but not $10,000 nice — not when you can score the same paint (minus the contrasting accents) for just $1,000 on the regular GT-R.

All the fancy paint in the world won’t change the way the GT-R feels to drive, though. As always, it’s entertaining; the taut, potent chassis feels stiff as carbon fiber-reinforced titanium, and the all-wheel-drive’s grip is nothing short of prodigious. Like in a Ferrari, the dual clutch gearbox’s automatic mode is fine for shuffling through traffic, but it feels wrong not to click through the six gears with the paddles once you’re on the run. And the 565 horsepower still slings the car forward with verve that’ll leave experienced drivers smiling and the uninitiated screaming.

But it’s still an R35, and the dated bits stick out more than ever. The dashboard’s central analog tach is much appreciated, but every other aspect — the analog speedometer with its unusably-small units, the digital tachometer with its early-1990s screen resolution, the LCD gear indicator that looks like a Reagan-era office calculator’s display — would look outdated in a $20,000 car. The drivetrain still clunks and thunks and whines in a way that recalls an earlier era of transportation.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, is just how those gripes also apply to the GT-Rs on sale a decade ago. When it debuted, the GT-R — especially in R35 form — was a bargain-basement supercar whose futuristic image was as integral to its success as its incredible performance. Here in 2020, though — when 911s and Corvettes can keep pace with it, when futuristic performance looks more like the Tesla Roadster or Porsche Taycan Turbo S than a Gundam-inspired 2+2 — the case for the GT-R seems increasingly difficult to make.

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So to Nissan, I quote The Shawshank Redemption: When it comes to the GT-R, get busy living, or get busy dying. If it’s supposed to be your halo car, your flagship, it needs to be deserving of that. It needs to be special, and special and stale rarely go hand in hand. All the 50th Anniversary paint jobs and blue leather interiors aren’t enough. Make it a hybrid that shows what kind of magic electric motors can perform, like Acura did with the NSX. Make it mid-engined for better balance, like Chevy did with the Corvette. Make it a pure electric car, like Porsche has been rumored to do with the next Cayman and Boxster. Use that groundbreaking variable compression engine tech from the new Infiniti QX50 to squeeze new levels of power and efficiency out of a sports car engine.

Just do something. Because the GT-R is too cool, too important an automotive nameplate to simply sputter out into sad obscurity like this. Either give the GT-R a new lease on life…or park it.

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