We get behind the wheel of an early example of the Nissan GT-R in its homeland of Japan to see if Godzilla can still live up to the hype.

Think back to 2008 and you’ll recall times being very different. More people bought manual cars than automatics, multi-point fuel injection was still the norm, and something with more than 300kW just seemed preposterous.

But then, the Nissan GT-R came along, and rather unlike the Lexus RX of the period which used a similar tagline in its marketing, it truly changed everything.

I remember vividly when it first hit the market. I and my friends huddled around laptops during school lunch breaks looking up specs and reviews and watching Jeremy Clarkson hurting his neck in one on a racetrack in Japan.

But not only was the GT-R the sort of car that simply looked like a stealth bomber and went like the clappers to impress schoolboys all around the globe, but it had the power to back it up for the adults who could drive them.

It all sounded like witchcraft was what had produced this thing, not Japanese carmaker that had needed to be bailed out by the French not long before. With a 3.8-litre V6 sporting two IHI turbochargers built in a hermetically-sealed laboratory that churned out 357kW and 588Nm – numbers that are impressive now, but radical even only a decade ago. Similarly impressive is the 0-100km/h time of a mere 3.5 seconds that such a great amount of power makes possible.

The rest of the drivetrain was pretty radical, too – following in the lineage of the Skyline GT-Rs that came before it, it sported a clever all-wheel drive system, but unlike them and just about anything else save the odd Volkswagen group product, it put the power through a six-speed dual-clutch transmission mounted at the rear of the car for better weight distribution.

But while that all sounds good on paper, it takes driving a car to really understand it, and having a steer in a GT-R is something I hadn’t been fortunate enough to experience. That was, until a couple of months ago while on holiday in Japan.

Now, I should point out, managing to get my hands on one of these wasn’t going to be as easy as asking for a press loaner, so I actually had to pay to drive this thing. The well-known Fun2Drive Owners Club based in Hakone, near Mount Fuji, are the ones who make such a thing possible thanks to their fleet of classic Japanese sports cars and Italian supercars.

Truth be told, however, it wasn’t this that I wanted to drive when I enquired about making a booking for their ‘Holy Mount Fuji Drive’ guided tour run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What I really wanted to get behind the wheel of was an R34, but with it already booked, I’d had to settle for this thing, not that it’s even close to being the worst compromise one would ever have to make.

After all the paperwork was sorted, and after we’d been warned about driving dangerously as we were shown photos of all the cars other renters had wrecked which included two GT-Rs, we were separated into two groups, given headsets which we’d be fed directions through, and very quickly got straight to business.

Setting off somewhat cautiously given the fact I’d just seen two identical cars to mine that had been put into ditches and barriers, the first leg of our group’s guided drive had us pottering around town on the way from home base in Hakone to our first stop – the Fuji Speedway, which has one of the longest straights of any racetrack in the world, and where a track day was going on at which we witnessed a Porsche Carrera GT was being driven at ten tenths.

I was glad the roads in these parts weren’t quite as perfectly maintained as those in Japan’s major cities as it gave a decent idea as to what it would be like to live with one of these day-to-day. After all, regular drivability is a big part of this being a GT car, and a Nissan.

It was here that the GT-R showed its age most, as the thing that spoiled the experience most in town was its terribly clunky transmission. While I don’t doubt the fact this is a regularly beaten-on rental played somewhat of a part in this, the fact this is an 11-year-old dual-clutch gearbox was inescapable. Compared to a modern Volkswagen DSG – or even a Hyundai DCT – it feels slow and rough, with every gear change shuddering the whole car around.

To go with that, the suspension was far to stiff for a GT car, too – certainly, it wasn’t completely unbearable, but it was far more firm than more modern cars one could have for the same money as a new one of these, such as a Jaguar F-Type or Lexus LC.

While I can’t say I had much of a chance to play around with the infotainment system, not that it would have been of much use given it was all in Japanese, the pixelated display in the gauge cluster just looked ridiculously outdated by modern standards. And that would be fine, given this is a 2008 model, but the same unit is still in use in 2019 builds which is rather inexcusable.

The one thing it does have going for it – and by it, I mean these early pre-facelift GT-Rs – is that it looks absolutely fantastic. Every element of its design it just spot-on, from the iconic quad-taillights to its aggressive nose, it still looks the part today. Shame, then, that Nissan had to go and put its corporate grille on newer models which just makes it look like an Altima with a silly wing on the back.

It did look hilariously big next to the other, older cars that were in my group though, which were an R32 Nissan GT-R, a Mk4 Toyota Supra, and an original Honda NSX. As we soon found out after our photoshoot at Fuji Speedway, it was all over this lot when it came to speed.

Now I’ll admit, as I was in the middle of the pack the whole time, I couldn’t exactly tear off in front of this lot, but the way the GT-R left behind anyone on its tail with even a tiny squeeze of the throttle was most impressive.

Hitting the Mikuni and Miyojin Touge, the GT-R quickly showed just what 357kW and all-wheel drive can really do. The way it puts its power down with such little drama is most impressive, and the force of that power itself is gut-wrenchingly strong.

Admittedly, there is a little bit of turbo lag to contend with when you first step on it, but once those twin-turbos spool up, it truly pulls like – excuse the cliché – an absolute freight train.

One corner quickly becomes the next before you even have time to think about what line you’re going to take into it, but thankfully it’s got that all under control once you get to that point. Where I thought this 1748kg barge of a car was going to roll and wallow through the corners, it remains superbly flat and steers with real confidence and precision.

And thanks to that all-wheel drive, you can get on the power early on the exit, meaning you’re back at the apex of the next phenomenal bend on these tight touge roads before you know it.

Oh, and the firm ride and annoying gearbox? Yeah, they both make total sense when you’re driving it like this. The faster you go, the more settled it feels, and the more you press down on the loud pedal, the faster and more precise those upshifts become as you pull on the paddles.

It’s on roads like this that the GT-R ensures that it ranks among the very best cars I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving. Sure, it’s not quite the soft GT car the first half of its name might lead you to think, but that R at the end sure is justified. It’s a truly R-rated experience, something this fast and powerful, and do keep in mind, they’ve only gotten faster and more powerful since.

There’s no doubt in my mind that after having truly experienced the GT-R doing what it does best in the perfect location to do it, the one known as Godzilla truly does live up to the hype built up for it by Top Gear and every other kid on the schoolyard 11 years ago.

Scouring through Carsales, you’ll see that an example of similar vintage and mileage to the one I drove – that is, a 2008 with a fairly low 30,000km on the clock – is worth around about $80,000 back here in Australia, and if you don’t mind one with a few more clicks than that on the clock, prices can get down to around $70,000 although they rarely seem to drop lower than that.

Given that price tag, it’s a hell of a lot of car for the money, and if you’re the sort who’s willing to take a gamble on reliability with what is a highly-strung car with an infamously problematic style of transmission, it could well be one of the best buys on the used market – especially when you consider the fact that a new one will set you back at least $189,000.

But regardless of all the very big numbers associated with the GT-R, the fact of the matter is that even after just over a decade, it still feels the part to drive hard, and that’s what really matters.

Patrick Jackson
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