From theology to Wikus van der Merwe, Gundam robots and excitable Japanese motoring scribes – it’s a weird road, but it does answer the question, does the Nissan GT-R have “soul”?
From a very young age I believed there were place for only three types of beings in Heaven – humans obviously being one of them. But perhaps even more deserving than us are dogs, because they love unconditionally and are more loyal than even your best (human) friend. Of course, Chihuahuas are excluded, because they are clearly not real dogs, but impostors.
But most definitely it is completely impossible for cats to enter through the pearly gates. In fact, I’m convinced they are Satan’s little helpers on earth – made to look cute when young on purpose, so that you take them into your house and into your heart. But then they grow up and start plotting how to make you so angry that you’ll curse so much that you’ll go straight to hell. Certainly, if I ever ended up in hell, I know who the guilty parties would be, two furry little demons named Mika and Lowa.
And the third? Well, cars would obviously go to heaven, too. I grew up imagining cars had souls. That at night they chatted to each other in the garage. And that they felt every little bump and scratch. That German cars were arrogant. Italian cars were hot headed. French cars were funny. American cars were slack-asses. And Japanese cars good at mathematics.
I guess I’m not the only one, because many motoring journalists speak of cars with soul, or sometimes character – that some have it, and that others don’t. Usually we say that cars such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis have soul, and it is often argued that French cars have character. But something such as a Corolla has neither.
More importantly, motoring journalists often revert to the “no character” excuse when we are faced with a car that comes dangerously close to perfection. In the eyes of many, then, a perfect car can not have a soul or character. Just ask Lexus, who have for years been trying to make perfect cars, but keep getting this same criticism. As a result I think they have now started building some flaws into their cars on purpose, in an effort to at least have some character.
And then there is the new Nissan GT-R. Nine out of ten reports will say that it is faster than the Porsche 911 Turbo, costs half as much and handles better, too. But in the end, that the Nissan is just a machine. A computer on wheels. A mobile PlayStation. That it will make it possible for you to corner at a trillion km/h, but that you will get out of it as stone-faced and unmoved as a man who has just read the owner’s manual of a refrigerator.
To understand the Nissan GT-R completely you must first understand the culture that made it. For the first-timer, Japan is a confusing, bizarre and, come dinner time, downright frightening place. But underlying all this fantastic country’s quirks and differences is a single-minded target – perfection. Walk into a fruit store, for example, and you’ll find every fruit individually packed, wrapped and neatly presented. Fruits with slight bruising don’t make the cut and go straight to juice factories… if they’re lucky. In restaurants, if you even look vaguely disgusted, or unhappy about something, you will make your waitress so distressed that she’ll just about burst into tears. This quest for perfection in everything explains why it took Nissan so long to develop the GT-R. The first concept was shown as far back as in 2001, and I thought it looked just about good enough to eat.
But Nissan thought otherwise. It then took about as long as other manufacturers take to develop and start production of an entire new model, before it launched a second concept, called the GT-R Proto in 2005. Still the company wasn’t happy, taking another two years before launching the production version at Tokyo. I was there that day. When the covers came off half the Japanese journalists in attendance just about fainted or wet their pants they were so excited. The other half I think were preparing to launch into a rousing rendition of the Japanese national anthem.
And then the stories explaining the long gestation came out. Nissan had wasted no expense or effort in its attempt to build the ultimate supercar. It had consulted with Lotus, apparently, on the suspension. Cosworth helped with the engine. Kazunori Yamauchi and his clever boys and girls at Polyphony (where the Gran Turismo games are developed), designed the multi-function computer interface. Each engine is built in what is called a “Clean Room” in Nissan’s Yokohama’s factory. Each engine takes about 100 minutes to be built by an “engine master”. And each engine is mated to a specific transmission. This car is built with such care and precision that if I were to ever board a space flight for a holiday on Mars in a few years, I’d like to know that the team that makes the GT-R had also built the machine that will get me there.
Then there are the looks. The GT-R is not pretty, that’s for sure. But it is certainly very Japanese. This was done on purpose. Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s “creative officer”, says the company didn’t want to build a facsimile of a European supercar. The GT-R had to be Japanese.
So what did Nakamura’s team use as inspiration? Gundam robots, that’s what. Dive into the startling sub-genres of Japanese anime cartoon culture and you’ll find the Gundam robots, a genre that is hugely popular. Essentially, Gundam refers to robotic weapon suits worn by humans, very much like the one Wikus van der Merwe wears in District 9. You can see the inspiration in the GT-R’s square lines and vents.
To drive, the GT-R also reminds me of these robots. I can imagine that a Gundam suit makes its wearer feel invincible. It’s the same story with this incredible car. From the outside the GT-R appears to be very big, but drive it hard and it appears to shrink. Then every element of the car starts to feel like an extension of your own body. It makes it possible to do things which every fibre in your body tells you should not be possible. I have never experienced grip levels as high as this Nissan’s in any other road car. You’ll have to read the road test in the October issue of CAR to see what performance figures we got, but I can tell you this – in reality it feels even faster. And the responsiveness is off the scale.
And yet so many have written that it’s got no character. And no soul. I can deal with the character complaint immediately, because the GT-R, despite Nissan’s best efforts, is not perfect. The ride is very, very hard. They say it’s a 2+2, and it should be, given its size, but it’s not. And I can see long-term ownership costs being catastrophic – I read somewhere that the transmission will cost around $20 000 to replace out of warranty. And I must tell you, that even when new that gearbox shunts and clunks so much that I walked away thinking that it is fairly fragile. Could be wrong, though… Clearly, however, the GT-R does have character…But what about soul?
Well, I’m no longer ten. So, I’m starting to accept that perhaps there won’t be any cars in Heaven. But of all cars in the world, I think the Nissan GT-R actually comes closest. It is a Gundam robot of a car. It becomes one with who ever is driving it, enhancing that person’s abilities and responding so instantaneously that I think it doesn’t need a steering wheel or pedals, because it obviously receives driver input via telepathy. This car feels like it is plugged into your brain.
The Nissan GT-R therefore manages to do something no other car can do – it fuses cold science and warm soul into one. And as a result, you can experience a little bit of Heaven, right here on earth.
A road test of the Nissan GT-R appears in the October issue of CAR. It got my vote, but what did the other testers think?