Sunrise on a Sunday, and Los Angeles is still sleeping. My Blaze-colored 2018 Nissan GT-R Track Edition banks right off Cahuenga onto Mulholland Drive where it snakes into the Hollywood Hills. Stretched out before me, with the exception of a section of road that remains dirt and closed to vehicles, are 50 miles of some of the most famous twists and turns in America.
Named after William Mulholland, a civil engineer who designed and built the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the 1920s, Mulholland Drive to the east and Mulholland Highway to the west were carved into the Santa Monica Mountains as a scenic byway to bring L.A. residents from the city to the ocean.
On this day, however, Mulholland serves as my playground.
Ironically, on July 7, 2008, the first U.S.-spec Nissan GT-R was sold almost 10 years prior to my drive, and at L.A.’s Universal City Nissan dealership, which is literally walking distance from the easternmost end of Mulholland. Now, a decade after Nissan’s supercar first went on sale, I’m sampling a GT-R Track Edition with a $131,605 price tag.
Introduced for 2017, the Track Edition blends GT-R Premium and GT-R NISMO mechanical components. Take the GT-R Premium’s drivetrain and titanium exhaust system, pair them with improved structural rigidity, and then add a NISMO-tuned suspension, NISMO forged aluminum wheels, and body-weld adhesives to improve rigidity. Top it off with black and red Recaro performance seats, and you’ve got the GT-R Track Edition.
Climb into the Nissan GT-R Track, and those leather-wrapped Recaros instantly caress and support your body. Significant bolstering is suitable for a car with the GT-R’s performance capability, yet somehow doesn’t pinch or poke wider folk. Pass-throughs accommodate 5-point racing harnesses.
Much of the switchgear is pulled from the common Nissan parts bin, less obvious now than prior to the addition of a reworked dashboard for 2017. Instrumentation emphasizes the car’s tachometer, which is flanked by a smaller 220-mph speedometer that makes it hard to keep tabs on speed at sane velocities. A digital speedo is available within the driver information display. You’ll need it.
Push the red engine start button, and the twin-turbocharged, 3.8-liter V6 engine roars to life, ready to put its 565 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 467 lb.-ft. of torque between 3,300 rpm and 5,800 rpm to work. After a brief systems check, which requires less time than it takes to fasten your seatbelt, the dual-clutch 6-speed manual gearbox is ready.
The first third of my journey is freeway, wide open at 5:30 on a Sunday morning, and the GT-R returns 21.1 mpg at speeds between 70 and 80 mph.
On the fresh, smooth blacktop of the Ventura freeway as it crosses the lower half of the San Fernando Valley, the GT-R is at its quietest. Which is to say, it thrums like a 737 at 30,000 feet.
On concrete, noise levels increase dramatically, the 20-inch, staggered width, Dunlop SP Sport Maxx performance tires clearly communicating every change in surface texture.
Lane marker Botts’ dots sound like machine gun fire when changing lanes. A switch on the dashboard allegedly puts the Bilstein DampTronic shocks into comfort mode, though I discern little difference.
Unless you’re accelerating hard from a stop, the GT-R masks its true speed. At 80 mph, the car feels like it’s crawling along, making it a good idea to use cruise on the highway. Firmly planted, the steering resolutely fixed on-center, the GT-R is almost dull to drive in this environment.
Off the freeway now, passing Universal City Nissan, I’m ready to tackle Mulholland. Technically, it starts in disconnected bits and pieces within a neighborhood at the foot of the famous Hollywood sign, visible looking east as I climb into the hills.
Mulholland Drive is a torturous route, comprised of switchbacks laced atop the mountains separating Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the Valley. In this densely populated region, the road is lined with blind driveways, side streets, and corners, making it fraught with collision potential. Poorly maintained in many spots, a route for both cyclists and pedestrians, Mulholland Drive it is not a good road for driving fast.
Not in a car with such extreme limits as the Nissan GT-R, anyway.
So I loaf along, the transmission placed in its automatic mode, the GT-R’s gearbox audibly changing gears with a wet snapping sound, the suspension rattling over the cracks and bumps in the pavement. The speed limit is 30 mph. I’m doing 40, because of the possibility that people or dogs or bikes or traffic emerging from driveways and side streets could suddenly block the path.
What is clear, however, is that the Nissan GT-R provides outstanding outward visibility. On the freeway, I noticed how expansive the view is to the rear of the car, the GT-R NISMO-sourced dry carbon-fiber spoiler barely impeding the driver’s ability to spot cops who might be racing up from behind. Now, on writhing and rolling Mulholland, it is the thin windshield pillars and barely visible hood making it a breeze to thread S-curves and spot threats.
Nevertheless, as twisty and potentially enjoyable as Mulholland Drive could be, and perhaps once was, today it’s best driven sedately, perhaps in a rented Mustang convertible, by people making good use of the scenic overlooks that provide panoramic views of the suburban sprawl.
Crossing Mulholland’s towering bridge over the 405 freeway, I’m seeking the end of the road…for now. It doesn’t take long to reach where blacktop changes to dirt, the point at which activists successfully blocked paving in the 1970s. Infrequently traveled, the stretch of Mulholland leading to the trailhead is overgrown on each side, the double yellow lines marking the center of the road barely visible.
Continuing past the dirt, paved Mulholland becomes Encino Hills Drive, dropping into the San Fernando Valley through a suburban neighborhood. Eventually, I hook a left on Ventura Boulevard, a demographic demarcation line separating the “haves” from the “have nots.” In Valley real estate terms, “south of Ventura” is a good thing.
The 7-lane-wide boulevard is almost empty, disconcerting given that the summer sun is higher in the clear blue sky. No cars. No people. Nothing open. It’s like a post-disaster landscape right out of Stephen King’s classic “The Stand.”
Ventura leads me into Calabasas, and where the boulevard ends, a convenient sign directs me to the paved continuation of Mulholland Drive. Driving deep into a neighborhood, I find the non-descript resumption of the road, lined with post-war tract homes of various size and condition.
In this urban environment, driven in automatic mode, the GT-R is remarkably docile. Just raspy enough to convey the performance residing within, but quiet enough not to anger slumbering suburbanites, the supercar negotiates neighborhoods in relative quiet and with relative ease.
Even the massive 15-inch vented and drilled brake rotors, clamped by 6-piston front and 4-piston rear monoblock calipers, are easy to finesse, the somewhat heavy brake pedal’s modulation producing sure but smooth stops. The mechanizations of the dual-clutch gearbox, as well as the rock-hard ride, are constant reminders that the GT-R was born to run, so I head west on Mulholland Highway for some open road.
At Las Virgines Road, Mulholland Highway starts to offer a driving enthusiast some promise.
Out this far west of L.A., there are fewer homes, driveways, and intersections, making it safe to open the car up – as long as you’re familiar with the road. Blind corners, fallen rocks, wet shadows, and precious few guardrails exist, and tinder dry brush means that any lapse in judgment carries far greater consequence than just damage to car and driver.
I switch the GT-R into manual shifting mode, and literally rocket across Las Virgines when the light turns green. Godzilla, as Nissan’s supercar is sometimes called, has a dual personality. In automatic mode, depending on the circumstance, I’ve discerned a brief bit of turbo lag and unexpectedly sluggish delay in response. In manual mode, the GT-R behaves like a beast.
In about three seconds, the GT-R exceeds the posted speed limit, underscoring the limitations associated with driving high-performance cars on public roads. There is only so much you can safely enjoy when driving a car like this anywhere but on a closed track. You get hints of the potential, but no real taste of the possibilities.
Zooming along the northern border of Malibu Creek State Park, the GT-R enters its element. Speed is effortless, steering is sharp, cornering is capable. Though stiffly sprung, the car grips the wrinkled and rumpled blacktop with tenacity.
Passing by the Rock Store at around 7:30 a.m., motorcyclists are already gathering as a part of their weekend ritual. Heat is in the forecast for the day, and bicyclists are now a regular part of the landscape, active lifestylers getting a ride in before the sun cooks the landscape. Though I’m just now getting to the good stuff, it’s more important than ever to drive with vigilance.
Winding my way up “the Snake,” I switch back and forth between second and third gears, the transmission responding with rapid-fire speed. The GT-R’s excellent visibility is particularly critical now, the car bending around blind corners and threading narrow stretches of canyon with enthusiasm.
Rounding the final corner, a favorite of drift kings, the GT-R’s all-wheel drive digs in and rockets the car around a final kink in the road, where an audience has already gathered to watch weekend warriors tackle this twisting section of road. Now, it’s time for braking, as I’m entering a notorious weekend speed trap laid just before Mulholland intersects Kanan Road.
Thus far, I’ve driven the GT-R on somewhat familiar roads. The stretch of Mulholland west of Kanan is a part of my usual vehicle test loop, a section I’ve driven, on average, once a week for almost 20 years. I know its every nuance and danger zone, and it is here where the GT-R shines brightest.
The degree to which this car preserves speed is ridiculous. The speed-sensitive steering is fast and accurate, never putting the wheel-mounted shift paddles out of reach. The brakes are impervious to fade, no matter how hard or how often I stomp upon them. The suspension virtually eliminates all unwanted body motions, while the ultra-high performance rubber supplies extraordinary grip.
Through it all, the Recaros, still perfectly comfortable after more than two hours in the saddle, keep me firmly anchored behind the steering wheel, allowing me to focus intensely on the task at hand. A handful of thoughts flit into and out of my consciousness:
“This might be the fastest run I’ve ever had down this road.”
“Short of rocks, dirt, or a wet patch, nothing could dislodge this car from the pavement.”
“Is my life insurance policy up to date?”
Frankly, upon arriving at Mulholland Highway’s westernmost point, where it meets Pacific Coast Highway, I’m relieved. Though the 2018 Nissan GT-R Track is an exceptionally talented performance machine, it is simply impossible to safely explore its handling capabilities on public roads. To try is a fool’s errand, even on a road you know well.
That leaves this decade-old supercar a real-world, one-trick pony of sorts, delivering hyper-speed acceleration for seconds at a time.
With the transmission back in automatic mode, I turn right onto PCH, stabbing down hard on the gas, breaking the rear end loose for an instant, getting stuck in turbo-lag purgatory for a moment, and then whooshing northbound, past the County Line surf break, past Neptune’s Net, and, on this particular day, past a film shoot for Porsche’s Mission E Concept.
Whereas the aging and raw GT-R, now slurping gas at a rate of 17.6 miles for every gallon of 93-octane fuel, represents the analog supercar past, the electric and sophisticated Mission E represents the digital supercar future. One that likely involves self-driving technology.
Skeptic of autonomous vehicles that I am, given the choice between the two, I’ll take the Nissan GT-R, please. Aside from torque transfer to the wheels with the best grip, variable-rate shocks, and an exhaust sound enhancement system, the only thing that’s active or adaptive on the GT-R is the driver.
And to my way of thinking, that is as it should be.
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