The 2021 Nissan GT-R Makes Me Nostalgic for 2009

The Nissan GT-R is old. It debuted in 2008 as a 2009 model, and sports cars don’t usually last 12 years without a redesign. The GT-R managed that feat because Nissan is happy with tinkering and refining its masterwork, selling 300 or so cars per year and keeping the dream alive. Elements of the GT-R experience were dated five years ago—it has PS3 performance graphics in a PS5 world—but Nissan’s halo car is also a showcase for traits we wish hadn’t been bred out of existence.

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Hello, manual emergency brake lever. We’ve missed you. And guess what? There’s still room for cupholders. Almost as if the whole “we needed that real estate on the center console” excuse for electronic parking brakes is just that—an excuse to deny you the ability to rip righteous Ken Block hand brake turns in a snowy parking lot. Pull up on that leather-wrapped handle and listen to the signature ratchet of a manual emergency brake. When you want to release it, you have to pull up a little bit more to ease the tension before you depress the release button. A lost art, that.

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Once you’re rolling, the GT-R reveals its age in ways that seemed dated in the mid-2010s but now evoke nostalgic charm, almost like this is a 565-hp MG. For instance, its steering, which squirms and kicks and shudders with feedback because it’s still a hydraulic system. How many times have you read a lamentation of numb electric power steering? I didn’t appreciate the GT-R’s steering when I first drove the car, in 2008, because back then lively steering feel was common and expected, if perhaps on the wane. Now it’s a revelation.

The engine, too, is a throwback to the day when “turbo” meant something. Namely, a torque curve that resembles an avalanche coming down K2—there’s calm, then a distant rumble, and then a sudden wall of energy slamming you in the seat as you hang on and try to time your upshifts before the twin-turbo 3.8-liter V-6 engine—coded VR38DETT—slams into its rev limiter.

Modern turbocharged engines strive to deliver instant boost, a low-rpm surge that emulates a long-stroke, big-displacement engine. That’s not what the GT-R gives you. It’s not quite 1980s-peaky, but max torque of 467 lb-ft doesn’t arrive until 3300 rpm, which qualifies as old-school (the 2021 911 Turbo S hits peak torque at 2400 rpm). Beneath that, there’s a moment or two when you’re tapping the mic and saying, “Is thing on?” Then: boom. Avalanche. You have to plan for that and drive around it, which is also refreshing. For all its technical sophistication, its all-wheel-drive and dual-clutch wizardry, Godzilla doesn’t do everything for you.

Nothing, nothing… Hold on!

But it does tell you what it’s doing, mostly honestly. Besides the steering feedback, the transmission is constantly rattling and chirring and reminding you that it’s a transmission and there are gears whirring away back there in the transaxle. The exhaust, with its great blued titanium tips, issues an authentic voice (outside the car, anyway), with none of the contrived string-of-Black-Cats pops on the overrun that’s now so common. It’s amazing, in retrospect, that we considered the GT-R mildly aloof when it first came out, mainly because the all-wheel-drive system could make mediocre drivers look good and it didn’t offer a manual transmission. Now it feels like a mildly disguised race car, and that’s not counting the $212,535 NISMO version, which is a mildly disguised race car. The GT-R Premium starts at $115,335, which is one way it reminds you that it’s not 2008 anymore—the first GT-R we tested had a base price of $70,475.

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That one ran zero to 60 in 3.3 seconds, which was outrageous. The most recent one we tested got that number down to 2.8 seconds. But so does the less powerful and cheaper C8 Corvette. The world moves on, and 760-hp Mustangs move in.

But I’m glad the GT-R still exists, and that a handful of diehards keep buying it while Nissan presumably figures out what’s next. Because, as a grizzled biker said of the GT-R when I pulled alongside: You don’t see one of those every day.

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