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Buzz machine in overdrive as Nissan's elusive GT-R rolls into Tokyo spotlight

The debut of the revamped sports car, nicknamed Godzilla, is the high-performance highlight of the show.

October 25, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — There's something about the Nissan GT-R that brings out the hype in people.

"It's been like anticipating an asteroid hitting the Earth," said Chad Glass, a 37-year-old North Hollywood storyboard artist who moderates a forum at www.nagtroc.com, a website dedicated to the high-performance sports car.

Glass was talking about the debut of the new GT-R, a vehicle most Americans have never heard of and most likely won't be able to afford when it shows up in the U.S., considering its probable base sticker price of around $68,000.

It made its officially sanctioned public appearance today at the Tokyo Motor Show, and whether the extinction of the dinosaurs, or even a down tick in sales of rivals like the Porsche 911 Turbo, will follow won't be known until the critics weigh in and drivers get their hands on it.

But ever since the last GT-R rolled off the assembly line in 2002, the underground buzz machine -- complete with spy photos, rumors of amazing track times and all the rest -- has been in overdrive.

Photos of a "masked" GT-R running laps at Germany's famed Nurburgring course last fall received more Internet hits than shots of Miss USA Tara Conner's hijinks, Road and Track magazine reported. Pictures of the final production version of the car leaked out last week in defiance of Japan-based Nissan Motor Co.'s efforts at a press embargo.

Overkill? Not judging by the frenzy that enveloped the Nissan area of the Makuhari Messe convention complex as the minutes ticked down the GT-R's formal unveiling. Dozens of photographers jostled for position as a giant video screen played footage of the GT-R tearing up Nurburgring -- 13 miles in seven minutes and 38 seconds.

And suddenly there it was, a silver streak that looked menacing even inching onto the stage with Carlos Ghosn, chief of Nissan, behind the wheel.

Ghosn told fans what they wanted to hear: It's an all-new 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-6 that generates 480 horsepower and goes from zero to 62 mph in 3.6 seconds. He described the GT-R as "the ultimate physical expression" of Nissan's "passion for performance," and boasted that it was ready to take on "anyone, anywhere, any time."

Noted auto critic Aritsune Tokudaiji, serene amid the tumult, wasn't impressed. "It lacks freshness," was his snap judgment -- although he did allow that the GT-R's comeback was the highlight of the show.

There are other important cars taking their bows here this week in what the industry refers to as "reveals," including the Mitsubishi 2008 Evolution, a turbocharged sedan with a bit of a street-fighter reputation of its own.

But for many American enthusiasts, the only reveal that matters is the GT-R, a car that goes by the nickname Godzilla and has achieved a status almost as legendary, despite never having been sold in the U.S.

The car traces its roots to a nondescript Japanese sedan from the late 1950s known as the Prince Skyline. By the 1960s, racing versions were kicking serious butt on tracks around the world. Nissan absorbed the Prince marque and added the GT-R suffix (for gran turismo racer) in 1969.

"It was like the little underdog car that came from behind and surprised the world," said Glass, of the Nagtroc website. "And because it was never exported to the United States, it became this mysterious legend over here.

"If you were lucky enough to have one, you were the coolest guy on the block."

When a manufacturer has a ready-made audience that doubles as a no-cost publicity machine for one of its products, it doesn't have to do a lot of expensive marketing.

And Nissan isn't. The campaign behind the GT-R has been decidedly small-bore -- no print or TV ads, no billboards. Just the nontraditional Internet marketing that's becoming a standard approach to selling niche products like the GT-R and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion brand.

Then there are those video games and movies. Early concept versions of the new GT-R have been featured in such driving games as "Gran Turismo" and "Need for Speed," and an early version was featured in the street-racing epic "The Fast and the Furious."

"This car has a lot of popularity among a lot of people who don't even have a driver's license," Nissan Vice President Simon Sproule said.

Of course, high expectations bring high risk.

"If this is a not a very good car, it will reflect very negatively on Nissan as a brand," said Davin Patton, 25, another GT-R Web forum moderator.

The automaker stirred up controversy with its decision to release the car under the Nissan nameplate. The company's Infiniti luxury brand reportedly had hoped to get the car to help it battle high-performance sports cars coming from Lexus and Acura.

And with production planned at 1,000 a month at Nissan's Tochigi, Japan, plant, it's not exactly a volume leader for one of the Japanese Big Three. But Nissan is counting on the "halo effect" that automakers get from a hot car.

"In volume terms, the car is one of our lowest-volume models," Sproule said. "But in terms of impact and reputation, it's probably one of our highest."

The GT-R goes on sale in the U.S. next summer. Nissan dealers here are already taking orders for December delivery to Japanese customers. Price tag: 7.7 million yen.

The U.S. price won't be announced until the car makes its American debut at the L.A. auto show next month, but the $68,000 figure seems likely.

Although that's a little more than half as pricey as a Porsche 911 Turbo, it's more than double the cost of Nissan's 350Z. And that price spread could put a dent in the GT-R's halo, at least according to one analyst.

"The 350Z was a car that got people into dealer showrooms," said Erich Merkle of research firm IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I like to see halo vehicles that are more on the affordable side."

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Hisako Ueno contributed to this report.

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