Nissan’s Sports Car Strategy Rests on the Stable Genius of GT-R

August 13, 2018 Updated: August 13, 2018

The summer of 2008 was a fraught time for Porsche engineers. An all-new challenger bested many of its record track times on Germany’s Nurburgring, the car world’s unofficial arbiter of bragging rights. To make matters worse, it didn’t come from Munich or Maranello. It came from Japan.

Nissan Motor Co. dubbed it the GT-R. With a price of just $75,000, the speed machine could be purchased almost as easily as an Altima.

“It showed everything we were capable of doing from headlights to tailpipes,” Anne Corrao, Nissan’s chief marketing manager, said of the coupe.

News of the feat spread quickly, gaining momentum among speed freaks and fangirls who would never be able to drop six figures on a car, no matter how good. A few months later, a GT-R showed up in the Fast and Furious franchise, the first of a string of such cameos. Nissan even set up a promotion with Sony in which fans of the Gran Turismo racing game competed to become professional drivers. It was a master class in product strategy.

The vehicle went from zero to cult in a matter of days. Bruce Bennett Nissan in Wilton, Conn., was allocated five of the seminal GT-Rs. It sold them all almost immediately, said owner Todd Bennett. “Honestly, it was a steal at $75,000,” he said. “There were a couple of guys that could have bought anything they wanted. That’s not the clientele we’re used to.”

The GT-R ardor ran so hot that the car was given a nickname, a bit of petrol-charged vox populi reserved for only a few of history’s most beloved machines. Porsche has its Widowmaker, BMW its Clownshoe and Ferrari its Breadvan. Nissan’s GT-R became Godzilla, an homage to the original giant of Japanese pop culture.

Nissan’s monster turns 10 years old this summer and is, well, pretty much the same. The price and the power have ticked up, but the GT-R still lacks many of the features now considered standard on a swanky sports car. There are no autonomous driving features or electric motors (though Nissan is in the vanguard on both of those offerings). The infotainment system approximates a five-year-old Garmin GPS, and the key looks like it starts a budget rental sedan.

In a way, the Godzilla nickname is more apt than ever. The carbon-veined beast seems a bit brutish in a car world bent on minimalist design and ultra-efficient speed. However, it still breathes plenty of fire. The drive in a contemporary GT-R is equal parts intoxicating and incongruous. The car isn’t particularly light or small. With some contortion, one can fit a baby seat in the back; and with some more contortion, the baby. It also doesn’t have a particularly large engine. What makes the GT-R exceptional are two massive turbochargers, all-wheel drive and a neurotic traction-control system that makes an average commuter feel like Michael Schumacher.

The body is sculpted to channel air to all the right places: through those giant turbofans, over the brakes, and onto the spoiler. That metal wizardry—aided by the sheer weight of the car—sticks it to the road. Driving along a windy rural highway in upstate New York, the GT-R approximates a paint roller. Sticky, viscous and saturated with speed.

The stasis is intentional. “Honestly, they haven’t changed it much because they don’t need to,” said Akshay Anand, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “It just has to exist and be really fast, and the press has to say good things about it.”

Sales and production have remained steady even as output has surged from Ferrari, Maserati, McLaren, and Porsche.

What’s more, updating the GT-R would put at risk some of the rig’s hard-won cult capital. The people buying new GT-Rs now are doing so, in part, because it hasn’t evolved much. They don’t want a car that drives itself or silently cruises through the suburbs on a stream of electrons. They want the car they can shift themselves that runs on dinosaur fossils, which they lusted after as kids. Bennett at the dealership in Connecticut says the average age of a GT-R buyer has ticked down over the years.

Meanwhile, almost one-third of GT-R owners trade in a less expensive Nissan to get Godzilla, proof that the halo of the car’s appeal has brightened the entire lineup. “We’re pretty much in steady-state with the vehicle,” Corrao said. “We don’t want to overproduce it, and we sell what we make.”

Nissan is not the only manufacturer quietly playing old hits as it awaits the mass adoption of electric and self-driving vehicles. Fiat Chrysler’s fortunes of late have depended on its Dodge and Jeep brands, which have touted bigger, thirstier engines. Subaru, meanwhile, keeps flogging the same engines it has thrived on for decades, content to wait on electric motors until batteries are better. It’s a risky, lazy, unsustainable and often extremely profitable strategy.

These anachronistic autos also provide a bit of emotional horsepower in an increasingly anodyne market. Honda is trying to replicate a little GT-R magic with its Civic Type R, a furious street racer that generates 306 horsepower in a package that resembles an alien spaceship. Toyota, meanwhile, is putting the finishing touches on a new Supra, another fanboy favorite that hasn’t been in production since 2002. Even Lexus went for the emotional accelerator in 2016 with the LC 500, a 4,300-pound leviathan that can hustle to 60 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds.

“For these practical automakers, it’s increasingly important to have that excitement,” said Kelly Blue Book’s Anand. “The differentiators for these brands are these emotional things.”

From Bloomberg