FERNLEY, NV – Hailing from Tochigi, Japan, and weighing in at a polished tailpipe less than a small SUV, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd’s ’09 GT-R sports coupe at first seems unlikely to flip the ultra-high-performance arena on its lid.

It’s not the flamboyant head-turner buyers expect of a supercar, and its historic badge is only now being introduced into the U.S.’s automotive lexicon.

But as the first of the auto maker’s halo cars to be sold worldwide, Nissan has high expectations for the fifth-generation R35 model. And with this being the first GT-R not to be based on the Japan-market Skyline coupe, few cars have received more hype than this video-game icon.

After a day in the mountains, as well as on Reno-Fernley Raceway’s road course here, it becomes clear the new GT-R truly is something special. It accelerates and changes direction with physics-defying tenacity, and its high-speed grip and stability are nothing short of incredible for a street vehicle of any price.

Putting the aptly nicknamed Godzilla into context is difficult because no current or recent vehicle has made such over-the-top athleticism – and usability – so attainable.

Its $70,000 sticker, 3.5-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time and 193-mph (311-km/h) top speed put it in lock step with the equally affordable but less-practical Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Yet, by purposely eclipsing the benchmark of a Porsche 911 Turbo, Nissan ensures the GT-R can show its signature 4-ring taillights to most exotics more than double its price.

Nissan says this is the result of its “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere” focus for the car. But the more likely reason lies with the small, handpicked team of developers that treated the upbringing of Japan’s ultimate supercar like that of an obsessive race team.

The key element of the GT-R – the one that allows it to stick better the harder it’s pushed through a corner – is its adaptive ATTESA ET-S all-wheel-drive system.

A heavy rear bias provides good chassis response. However, up to 50% of the power can be shifted to the nose when the mix of yaw sensors and accelerometers call for more traction. Track-tuned electronic-stability controls provide a welcome safety net when searching out the limits, but most tight situations are best handled by mashing the gas and letting the AWD work its magic.

Unlike past models, the GT-R’s steel, carbon-fiber and aluminum Premium Midship Platform is unique to the R35 and allows its front-mounted, all-aluminum 3.8L V-6 and rear 6-speed, dual-clutch transaxle to be positioned closer to the center of the car for better weight distribution.

The twin-turbocharged VR38DETT (hand-built in Yokohama, Japan) quickly spools up 480 hp and 430 lb.-ft. (583 Nm) of torque from its plasma-lined cylinders, with the GR6 automated gearbox spitting out crisp, uninterrupted shifts either by itself or with the column-mounted paddles.

A few clunky gear changes at low speeds easily are dismissed, but the Shop-Vac-on-steroids exhaust note is a real letdown for a car of this caliber.

Adjustable Bilstein DampTronic dampers manage the front double-wishbone and rear multi-link suspensions with acceptable ride quality and solid body control, even in race mode, with the 4-wheel, 15-in. (38-cm) Brembo discs straining the retinas under hard braking.

High-performance summer, all-season and winter run-flat tires are available for the standard 20-in. wheels, which fit the GT-R’s large proportions and have knurled lips to keep them from slipping inside the rubber under massive cornering loads.

Nissan expects most U.S. GT-Rs to be Premium models shod with sticky Bridgestone RE070Rs, which produce loads of sure-footed grip at the expense of some interior road noise at highway speeds.

Tire roar and a funky exhaust are hardly deal breakers for a car Nissan tuned to lap Germany’s Nurburgring racetrack faster than almost any other production vehicle. However, a true supercar is about the allure of its street presence as much as its prowess on the track, and this is where the GT-R’s muscular styling can be polarizing.

’09 Nissan GT-R
Vehicle type front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 4-passenger coupe
Engine 3.8L twin-turbocharged DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 480 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque 430 lb.-ft (583 Nm) @ 3,200-5,200 rpm
Compression ratio 9.0:1
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automated manual
Wheelbase 109.4 ins. (278 cm)
Overall length 183.1 ins. (465 cm)
Overall width 74.9 (190 cm)
Overall height 54.0 (137 cm)
Curb Weight 3,836 lbs./ 1740 kg
Base price $69,850 (excl. dest.)
Fuel economy 16/21 mpg (15/11 L/100 km)
Competition BMW M6, Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Porsche 911 Turbo
Pros Cons
Amazing grip, speed Lousy exhaust note
Engineering marvel Drab interior
Bargain price A $70,000 Nissan?

First and foremost, the R35’s body is a functional element. Sculpted in the wind tunnel, it manages heat dissipation, has a slippery drag coefficient and produces significant amounts of aerodynamic downforce at speed.

Nissan calls the design “distinctly Japanese,” with “aero-blade” fenders and a “sword-edge” kink in the C-pillar. But it lacks the organic flow of a Ferrari or Aston Martin. And for a road-going katana with jet thrusters, the GT-R hardly leaps out of a crowded parking lot or causes pedestrians to walk into lampposts.

But with only about 1,500 units coming to the U.S. each year (starting in July), first adopters smitten with the car already are lining up to pay premiums at Nissan’s 676 “GT-R Certified” dealers.

The exterior’s digital theme carries into the 4-seat cabin, which is functional in its layout and spacious for two. But the atmosphere feels sparse, dark and cold, with sport seats lacking long-distance comfort and a sloping roofline that severely limits backseat headroom.

The sporty gauge cluster with central tachometer is useful when eyeing the next apex, and the center stack is well designed with simple climate controls, a large infotainment screen and switches for chassis and drivetrain adjustments.

Although navigation and a Sony PlayStation-inspired array of performance meters are standard, heated seats, side-curtain airbags and an 11-speaker Bose sound system – with two 9-in. (23-cm) subwoofers in the back seat – come only with the $71,900 Premium trim.

The most expensive option ($3,000) is a 7-coat Super Silver exterior finish that’s hand-polished by craftsmen at the factory.

The GT-R is further separated from the exotic-car norm by its Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle status, ability to dodge a gas-guzzler tax and usable trunk that can stow two golf bags and luggage.

With the wait over, it’s hard not to be impressed with Nissan’s R35 GT-R. Its image may resonate stronger on racetracks around the world than on Main Street America, but new-age enthusiasts are sure to embrace the car as the performance legend it undoubtedly will become.

Add in the price and a considerable dose of 4-season civility, and the fundamentals of the sports-car hierarchy go up in tire smoke.

msutton@wardsauto.com