Payne: Nissan GT-R and Lexus GX show their age
Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne goes 0-60 in the GT-R, the car Nissan nicknamed 'Godzilla.' Henry Payne, The Detroit News
As we approach 2020, evolution is delivering us a new species of automobile.
Thanks to advancements in electronic and materials engineering, new cyborgs have emerged from the lab with light-speed performance capabilities outside, tranquil cabins inside: the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo, Chevy Corvette ZR1, Mercedes GT AMG 63. Next to them in our garages are three-row premium SUVs sitting on car-like chassis that can haul a soccer team to practice while deftly carving country roads on the way: Mazda CX-9, Audi Q7, Acura MDX, Buick Enclave.
But dinosaurs from a decade ago still roam the Earth.
Two of these museum pieces fit neatly in my stable recently: the 2018 Nissan GT-R Track Edition supercar and Lexus GX 460. They are the perfect family couple — the Lexus a three-row daily workhorse, the GT-R a dazzling thoroughbred. Take the Lexus up north to the cabin; take the Nissan up Woodward to the M1 Concourse.
In a fast-evolving era where premium nameplates get new bones every six years, they are relative fossils. The GT-R has been around since 2009, and the truck-based Lexus since 2003. My high-class couple is determined to stay hip even as their age is showing.
Start with the GT-R, aka Godzilla, whose nickname is ready made for my prehistoric metaphor.
This beast still roars. The U.S. isn’t the only country with a muscle car tradition. The Nissan Skyline GT-R is Japan’s Mustang, a legend that dominated Japanese touring racing for decades. Thus its nickname.
Nissan put the GT-R on steroids for international export in 2008. It waded across the Pacific and came aboard U.S. shores like no monster we had seen before. It shredded roads, ate Porsches and spit out ‘Vette bones.
Back then at Car and Driver’s benchmark Lightning Lap competition — who is fastest around International Raceway’s formidable 4.1-mile track? — the new kid from Tokyo destroyed the Viper SR-10, Audi R8, Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 GT3.
It achieved this feat with technology stolen from the future: torque-vectoring all-wheel drive, almost 500 horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 and telepathic handling. Nearly a decade later, Godzilla has been surpassed by many of its peers, but it still remains relevant as one of the most thrilling acts on the supercar stage. Credit consistent cosmetic, interior and performance upgrades.
My tester came in the GT-R’s latest wardrobe change, the $131,605 Track Edition. Similar to a Corvette Grand Sport (which offers a base Corvette engine package with the track-hugging aero tweaks of a Z06), the Track Edition splits the difference between a $111,000 base GT-R and the insane $175,000 NISMO by offering the latter’s chassis upgrades ... but without the 600-horsepower boost.
The result is still waaaay too much money, but if Godzilla is your kind of show, this is the ticket.
At M1’s Pontiac test track, the heavy, 3,915-pound GT-R shrunk in my hands. The steering is laser-focused, the stiff chassis balance 50-50 front-to-rear. Only at the limit does the car push, but the all-wheel drive system’s massive grip means it’s easier to put down the car’s nearly 565 horses. M1 chief instructor and pro-race driver Aaron Bambach had never had a GT-R on track and he emerged beaming.
Of course, maximum track response means switching on all three GT-R drive settings — engine, suspension and AWD — to R-mode (RACE) for hair-trigger response.
Try that on Michigan’s battered roads, and you'd better wear a mouth guard. I tried navigating the M-10 Northwest Highway Service Drive — its pocked roads look like London after the blitz — and nearly lost my teeth. Even on smooth roads it’s unhappy at low speed, bucking and whining until you turn it loose.
Driving the GT-R in NORMAL mode lessens the harshness (and the temptation to do 2.9-second zero-60 sprints since launch control can only be activated in R-mode) and allows a look around the cabin.
GT-R ergonomics have evolved nicely, its knob-drunk dash upgraded with spare controls and a tablet touchscreen. Alas, the touchscreen is slower than Heinz ketchup, doesn’t come with smartphone connectivity and hasn’t a clue what you’re saying when you activate voice command.
Frankly, I was so enamored by Godzilla’s roar — WAAAAAHHHHHRGH! — over 3,000 rpm that I didn’t need infotainment.
Alas, the Lexus GX 460 provided no such diversion to take my mind off its old age.
Built on the same body-on-frame ladder that braces the aging Toyota 4Runner, the midsize Lexus’ chassis is in the Mesozoic Age compared to similarly priced, unibody competitors like the Acura MDX and Buick Enclave.
These modern, nimble SUVs run rings around Lexusaurus which doesn’t so much drive as lumber. Happily, a good ol’-fashioned V-8 lurks under the hood providing class-leading torque and 6,500-pound towing capability (useful for when the GT-R just becomes so dang jarring to drive on Detroit’s roads you only want to tow it to Waterford Hills weekend track days).
GX’s polarizing, full-fascia, window-blind grille says Lexus all right — but it can’t match the sculpted MDX or the gorgeous Enclave. Interior aesthetics are dated, as are neglected safety systems like blind-spot assist and adaptive cruise-control that come standard on the MDX (if not, ahem, the Buick).
But the interior of the Enclave is otherwise a modern studio with Apple CarPlay and Android connectivity, roomy cargo, 9-speed tranny and easy third-row seat access that the 6-speed Lexus lacks. Even a unique feature like the Lexus rear swing gate (just like the old Buick Roadmaster wagon!) is a head-scratcher.
The swing gate is pregnant with features like a toolbox and pop-open window so you can reach into the boot without opening the gate.
But when you pull up to the curb to unload that big flat-screen TV, the swing gate opens ... the wrong way. Against the curb. So you have to walk around to the traffic side of the car and unload. That works in left-side-of-the-road Japan where the GX was designed — but how many three-row SUVs are sold back home?
The GX 460 is tough and Lexus-dispensable, but it’s even been lapped by the 10-grand cheaper Toyota Highlander. The scintillating, timeless Godzilla GT-R, however, endures.
Still, when the Track Edition got thumped in Car and Driver’s 2017 Lighting Lap by both the $80,000 Corvette Grand Sport and $63,000 Chevy Camaro ZL1, some will surely ask: Why did I just pay $131,000 for a Nissan?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Nissan GT-R
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-passenger sports car
Price: $101,685 base ($131,605 Track Edition as tested)
Powerplant: 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6
Power: 565 horsepower, 467 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 195 mph
Weight: 3,915 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 16 city/22 highway/18 combined
Highs: Still state-of-the-art AWD handling; wicked acceleration
Lows: Heavy; needs more refinement for the price
Overall: 3 stars
2018 Lexus GX 460
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 7-passenger SUV
Price: $53,450 base ($54,380 as tested)
Powerplant: 4.6-liter V-8
Power: 301 horsepower, 329 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (manufacturer); towing capacity: 6,500 lbs.
Weight: 5,130 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 15 city/20 highway/17 combined
Highs: Lexus service and reliability; nifty rear window
Lows: Boat-like handling; dated interior
Overall: 2 stars