Tackling Eau Rouge, the famously serpentine and undulating sequence of turns at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, ranks as the primo bucket-list item for race fans the world over. It’s our Walter Mitty hero fantasy, in which we stick it like Formula 1 champs — Schumacher, Hamilton, Senna and Prost, among many others — who have masterfully threaded the insane challenge over the years. Doing it in Nissan’s newly revitalized 2017 GT-R on a dark and stormy evening makes it all the more intense.
I arrive at the track in the late afternoon after a brisk run down the autobahn from Düsseldorf. The car felt sublime on the highway, courtesy of the Japanese carmaker’s newfound affinity for touring-car comfort and sophistication in its highly regarded, magnificently raw supercar. I was anxious to see whether it retained its white-knuckle intensity: would I float through Eau Rouge like a leaf, or muscle my way past it like a cheetah at full throttle?
This new GT-R — starting price for the Premium model is $111,585, which is $8,200 more than last year — is a refresh, not a complete redesign. The general look and feel of the pre-refresh model is still present, which is good, because this generation, dubbed R35 and introduced in 2007, is essentially perfect. Its creator, Shiro Nakamura, told me a few years ago that the next generation would have to be a totally different vehicle, as this one is a “complete” design effort and cannot be used as a starting point for a next-level redesign. The R35 is one thing; its successor will be another.
So design tweaks are modest and entirely functional: a more aerodynamically conformed, structurally rigid hood and a new front bumper; a new grille to increase cooling airflow without adding drag; an extended front spoiler to improve airflow; and reshaped sill covers to minimize lift and improve stability. Out back, a new diffuser and new air vents near the titanium exhaust tips all boost aerodynamics. New 20-inch forged alloy wheels are lighter, stronger, more rigid.
Engine: 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 565 horsepower
Torque: 467 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 2.8 seconds (est.)
Inside, a new dashboard and a driver-focused instrument cluster feature an enlarged 8-inch touchscreen. Seats are cushier to mitigate the previous version’s harder edge and to be more amenable to passengers. The paddle shifters for the dual-clutch six-speed transmission have been moved from the steering wheel column to the wheel itself.
The 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6 now produces 565 horsepower 467 lb-ft of torque — modest bumps of 20 horsepower and 4 lb-ft, mostly derived from increased boost pressure and ignition timing — and is more linear and responsive. The transmission has been tuned to smooth out gear transitions, thereby eliminating any sluggishness. The all-wheel-drive system uses an independent rear transaxle to allow full rear-bias that adjusts up to 50:50 depending on how hard you’re driving, and what the conditions are.
Of course, the car sorts all this out automatically. Which means that at Spa, staring down a wet and slippery track that will spank hard if provoked, I suspected the GT-R would bail me out of any trouble. It did. On my first laps I detected slight twitchiness in the turns that grew into stronger interventions when I got ahead of myself — yaw sensors diverting power to tires to nudge the car, rather than pirouetting me straight off the track. The throttle powered immediately out of turns toward the next potential disaster; the Brembo discs and 15-inch discs were always there to rein me in.
Staring down a wet and slippery track that will spank hard if provoked, I suspected the GT-R would bail me out of any trouble. It did.
I noticed, by the way, that the seats were a bit too forgiving. I don’t love stiff racing seats in a road car, but the cushiness injected into the GT-R to make date nights a bit more palatable also detracted from harder driving. I felt a hair less confident; my butt seemed to slide at every turn. A bit more stiffness and torso grip would be great.
Then came Eau Rouge — scary-steep in person, a seemingly effortless blip when viewed during F1 broadcasts. Behind the wheel, you see the whole shebang loom in its entirety, thanks to a protracted descent down the long straight leading to a trough before the turns. You storm over the curb to the left, aim right toward the next curb, then throw yourself over the blind crest with another left. It’s exhilarating, especially in the wet, when the car slips and slides its way through the gauntlet.
But the car did all the right things. I hit the turns with as much energy as I dared conjure up with the throttle, and pulled away intact — thrilled and satisfied. The GT-R handled everything so pointedly that my attention immediately and automatically moved on to the next challenge. Which is key in racing — can you look forward, or must you stay “with” the car to keep it out of trouble? The GT-R took it all like a champ, and made me feel like one, too.