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Review: 2009 Nissan GT-R

For years, Americans have salivated over this classic, mean performance car. Now we can actually drive it.

AUTODROMO DO ESTORIL, Portugal — I've got the first lap under my belt as I come out of the last  turn on this tortuous, technical track and head for the straight.

My racing buddy, the legendary David Murry, who has driven virtually all that can be raced on land, has always told me, "I'm ascared of the straights.''

It's meant to be a joke and yet here, as I enter the straightaway for the first time, a glistening flash brings back bad thoughts. I'm in a 2009 Nissan GT-R, wicked fast, and yet technologically stable.

But my mind's eye harkens back to 1995 and Ukyu Katayama crashing his Tyrrell on this very straight, not exiting the corner, but at the very start. 

Later, I think of "The Old Man and the Sea,’’ the Ernest Hemingway novel in which a Cuban fisherman battles a great and glistening fish as though he is battling life itself.

For the image in my mind was the tape reel of Katayama, launched, at the start of the race, as he shoots forward to pick up space on leaders still accelerating. He runs up on a driver in front of him.

Suddenly, he is airborne, his car twisting and rising and hurtling like a hooked and giant fish on a big steel leader.

Yes, Estoril can be a tricky and dangerous track.

But today's test car is all over it.

For this is the Nissan Skyline — redubbed the GT-R — a Skyline that has long lingered on the horizon for certain American enthusiasts of high performance cars.

Unfortunately, that horizon was mostly on a distant shore across the Pacific, where you could actually buy and drive the car.

We could read about the Nissan Skyline, salivate over the Nissan Skyline, but choose to drive it only on our racetrack video games.

Why, you might ask, drive a car that is for sale to the public on a Formula One racetrack?

Because most who are lucky enough to grab one of these, will likely (and should) take it to the race track.

It comes ready to go head-to-head with Porsche 911s, Chevrolet Corvettes, souped up Audis such as the R-8,  and other cars whose buyers want to race them on both the amateur and professional circuits, or who want to look imperiously at the driver beside them at a red light and give the knowing nod: "You’re dead meat.’’

However, given a price that starts in the low $70,000 range and climbs steeply after that, the GT-R, which as an excellent buy as the Skyline, has pushed itself into the ether of high pricing in addition to high performance.

And yet, there is little doubt that these will be hard to find. Nissan’s aim is to sell 1,000 every month.

But still, it must live up to its billing.

Does it?

As they say in Maine, hard by my home, "JEEEZUSSS Mona, what have we gotten ourselves into?"

And in Maine, that’s a wicked good compliment.

Give me 480 horsepower, 434 lb.-ft. of the torque that tugs when lesser engines might lag; six speeds to climb and descend; 15-inch rotors on my Brembo brakes. We’ll go dancing at high speed in a smoky café. That is, if you can consider the Formula One-designed Estoril track a café where the smoke smells of rubber, built for those who need more than a double cappuccino or a thick espresso to set them stomping.

And give me a car that can be tossed into corners and, even with understeer so common to all-wheel-drive vehicles, can be controlled with the throttle maybe more so than the brakes. I got this at Estoril, for sure.

Feedback from the steering wheel is excellent and even with stability control fully engaged, there is still the ripe opportunity to rip the rear wheels outward if needed. Turn it off, and it’s Katy bar the door.

I’m not sure the outer design will distinguish this car on the highways, except among the cognoscenti. Yet its gills aft the front wheel wells, twin portal quad exhausts beneath a defiant wing and sharp edges may do just that.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not a V-8 cranking out the juice. It’s a twin-turbo, 24-valve, aluminum V-6. The 480 horsepower can be expected from anyone who sets out to crank it in a V-6 these days. What is remarkable is the 434 lb.-ft. of torque. You could mount a snowplow on this AWD baby and keep your driveway clear this winter.

But let's not plow, let's rocket forward.

First, they’ve tucked almost all of the engine’s weight behind the front axle. Can you say, "confident, smooth handling?’’ Second, although it’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle, it properly behaves, when pushed, by sending  almost all of  the drive power to the rear, and yet slipping into a 50/50 split when the going  gets gunky.

There are also three distinct shift maps that handle full auto-mode, manual paddle shift and an "R" mode that somehow figures out how you drive and what you are up to and watches the throttle.

And at the center of control (besides driver, brake, throttle and sane approach) are the tres hombres of controls at center console.

Go to "R" and play racer boy/girl. And even here you can adjust for hard or soft handling response. Click the left switch for six-speed paddle shift, with a dual clutch rear axle, and tangible delights come from feet and hands. And finally, there is the no man's land of driving without Vehicle Dynamic Control.

It’s just you, the road, the car, the brakes, the throttle and your underpants. Bon voyage.

Considering that you’ll likely carry one or two people in the GT-R on daily routes, the Sierra Club will not come knocking on your door with a plaque. However, given its rapacious power, and its EPA estimated fuel economy of just over 20 mpg, and the fact that there won’t be many of them out there anyway, I’d give the GT-R a pass on keeping green.

If you buy this car, and want full access to all its options, you will need to spend lots of time tinkering with the various buttons, knobs and switches, on the console and on the wheel. The bucket seats have serious holding power and the steering wheel, a tri-spoke, low-slung affair, is an intuitive grab, even in tight corners.

Outside, there's a whole lot of activity trying to define itself. Headlamps like slitted snake eyes. A rear end that looks vaguely Mazda RX8-ish, a lower, ground-sweeping faschia that could be a Porsche, and rear quarter panels that, from the side, the back, to the rear whisper `vette.  Audi, Porsche, Italian jobs of questionable reliablity, and, more pointedly, the Corvette, need to keep an eye on this beast.

HOT POINTS: First of all, the seating. Very important when you want to slap a car through corners at high speed. You want a driver’s seat that will hold you in its cocoon of confidence. In the GT-R, you feel like you are wearing the seat like a comfortable, old racing helmet. I like to start, particularly in assessing a car on the race track, with a simple question: How do I feel.

The answer here: Comfortably and safely snuggled.

COOLING OFF: Why bother with a back seat and its added weight? Nobody is buying this car to take their kids to soccer games. And there is a heaviness to this car, at nearly two tons, that should be stripped away.

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