By David Colman
It isn’t often one has the opportunity to sample three of the fastest sports cars in the world back-to-back on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But such an opportunity occurred during the recent Western Automotive Journalists’ 20th annual Media Day at Laguna Seca Raceway. The urge to compare the Nissan’s GT-R to Audi’s R8 and Jaguar’s XKR-S proved irresistible.
2013 NISSAN GT-R
Even though this supercar has been on the market for a while and is in its second detail revision, I never had a chance to drive it. “That’s why we brought them out” said Nissan PR chief Tim Gallagher, “Because we know many of you haven’t been in one yet.”
Gallagher requisitioned two GT-R Black Edition models, one red, one blue, plus two factory drivers to provide hot laps and oversee media driving behavior.
Toward the end of a long day, during which I already tested more than 20 cars, the Nissan proved to be one of the least fussy to drive. Its cockpit is sumptuous for a thinly veiled race car. It has heavily padded pseudo-racing seats, enough buttons on the dash to confuse a King Air pilot. And it has a stubby little stick for the six-speed double clutch gearbox that would not look out of place in a Nissan Versa. In fact, aside from the 220 mph speedo, the GT-R’s interior is decidedly docile and unexciting.
On the track, that unflustered mantra is no illusion. The GT-R belches no flames, stuns no animals, scares no bystanders. What it does do, with numbing regularity, is lap every other car on the track. That’s because it reaches 80 percentof its potential with minimal effort from its driver. Point it, steer it, flatten the gas pedal, and whoosh, you’re getting after the next apex, the next victim. The only point on the track where the GT-R showed any resistance to driver input was cresting the Corkscrew. If you cranked the wheel hard right at the apex to Turn 8 while stabbing the gas pedal, the traction control intervened and killed power. Aside from the slight bobble, the Nissan obliged in every way. The Dunlop Sport Maxx tires never came close to reaching breakaway. In fact, the 255/40/ZRF-20 fronts and 285/35ZRF-20 rears never gave an inch or issued a peep as I pushed the 4,090-pound coupe into each of Laguna’s 11 challenging apexes.
To extract the missing 20 percent from my conservative run, I jumped into the passenger seat and was chauffeured around Laguna by Nissan driver Jeff Rodriguez. He did not hesitate to driver 545 horsepower twin turbo 3.8 liter V-6 to maximum thrust. Compared to my hesitant top speed on the front straight of maybe 110mph, Rodriguez had no problem clocking 125mph before reaching brake marker number 4. Flying over the hump where the pit exit road meets the racing surface takes a kind of blind commitment I would never undertake in someone else’s expensive ($106,320) exotic. When I told Rodriguez that he had posted a top speed of 125mph, he simply shrugged.
2012 AUDI R8
Unlike the GT-R, with which I had so little familiarity, the latest R8 seemed like a old friend. Since its introduction nearly five years ago, I have spent two separate weeks driving both manual and paddle shift versions of this supercar. It was my first experience of the drop top, as well as the uprated motor. In metallic blue, the cabrio looks slinkier than a Manolo Blahnik stiletto. If ever an Audi was ready to win a knife fight in a dark alley, the V-10 R8 is it. With an old friend accompanying me as passenger, I launched the 5.2 FSI and was immediately impressed by the V-10’s uprated blat and whack in the back. This latest Ingolstadt ingot ferrets apexes like a heat-seeking missile latching onto hot exhaust gasses. There is a formula car immediacy to the entire driving experience here. From its semi-recumbent seating position to its twitchy 16.3:1 steering ratio, this R8 feels more nervously ready to boogie than a cat at the vet.
I was involved in every parameter of the decision making process — especially the choice of gear ratio. Like classic Ferraris, the manual gearbox R8 still uses a gated shift pattern that precludes quick cog swaps. Shift action needs to be deliberate and unhurried. Rush the shift and you’re likely to end up with the wand stuck in the neutral slot. I had initial difficulty upshifting from 2nd to 3rd because the gear slots are set so far apart that the location of 3rd is about where you’d expect to find 5th. Once I adapted to this idiosyncrasy, I didn’t miss another upshift, particularly important when exiting the 90 degree Turn 11 onto the long front straight at Laguna.
Although the 525hp V-10 R8 nearly matches the output of the 545hp Nissan and the 542hp Jag, its $170,350 price is higher than either the $106,000 GT-R or the $132,000 XKR-S. So to even things out a bit in this comparison, we need to evaluate the on track performance of the 4.2 liter V-8 version of the R8, dubbed 4.2 FSI, which produces 430hp and carries a base price of $118,450. After enjoying the phenomenal wallop of the V-10, the V-8 seemed slightly prosaic by comparison. Not by any means boring, but it's not in the same oomph league as the 11.2 second, 125 mph quarter-mile potential of the GT-R, or even the Jag’s 12.3 second sprint to 121mph in the standing start quarter mile. Although the R8’s straight line pizzazz is wanting, you won’t ever find yourself disappointed in its brakes or handling, both of which are supremely confidence inspiring. And the V-8 is without doubt the best balanced car of the trio, with reassuringly linear response to driver input, predictable and manageable power delivery, and driving manners so refined your butler will be happy to feed it breakfast.
2012 JAGUAR XKR-S
Over the years, I’ve worked my way up the Jaguar hierarchy of imposing road machines, from the 3.8 liter British Racing Green XK-E I owned in 1963 to the Primrose 4.2 liter E-Type roadster that replaced it in 1966. More recently, I’ve driven a bevy of delightful XK models, ranging from the base XK to the tarted up XKR. But in all the intervening years since I owned my E-Types, I never felt Jaguar built a decent successor to those early classic sports cars. Now, at long last, they have. New for this year is the pull-out-all-stops model XKR-S which I first saw on display at the San Francisco International Auto Show in November, 2011. This menacing, purposeful beast really stole that show, and now, hunkered down in the pits at Laguna Seca, done in black on black, with a hint of “London Tan” leather for contrast, the XKR-S looks like it’s ready to step into Victory Lane at LeMans.
Since all the basics were already present in the current XK line, producing a standout like the “S” was simply a matter of focusing on ultimate performance at the expense of any other consideration. Revised engine mapping, and a boost in compression ratio from 9.1:1 to 9.5:1 allow the Eaton 4 lobe supercharger – the same one used on the Corvette ZR1 – to boost output of the 5 liter V8 to 542hp. For comparison purposes, that’s more than twice the output of my 265hp Series 1 XK-E. Like the GTR, the “S’ is available only with a 6-speed automatic (torque converter) gearbox, although a pair of large steering-wheel mounted paddles allow you to control gear selection manually. On downshifts, the system blips the throttle to match rpm as you decrease speed seamlessly.
On the track at Laguna, I never had time to mess with the paddles. I just selected “Drive” from the rather incongruous looking rotary dial on the central tunnel, a holdover element from lesser XK models. Blasting up pit lane I could tell this was no ordinary XK. Since it was a convertible, and since the top was down, the blasphemous sound track from the Popeye motor reverberated off the guardrail and sent me into an aphrodisiac fit of Jaguar lust. On the short straights linking Turns 2 to 3, and 3 to 4, the bad Jag exploded with a violence not seen from this breed since Duncan Hamilton won LeMans in a D-Type 5 decades ago.
On the extra-long pull from Turn 4 to Turn 5, the XKR-S generated such an unrelenting head of steam that extravagant pedal pressure was required to bridle the snarling, 4,100 pound beast for a skittery trip through Turn 5. Although gripping the track with monstrous Pirelli P Zero tires (255/40ZR20 front, 295/35ZR20 rear), the “S” could not belie the maxim about a body in motion wanting to stay in motion. Momentum prevailed over contact patch. Nasty as it was in a straight line, the big Jag felt nose heavy under braking, with substantial rear-to-front weight transfer apparent as the nose dove. The big cat was somewhat reluctant to swap direction when thrust into the Corkscrew, but mind bogglingly rapid on the launch from Turn 11 up the front straight. Top speed is listed at 186mph, and I’m sure we blasted through the Laguna Seca radar trap at more than 115mph. This would be a great car for the Silver State Challenge or other unlimited, open road, top speed event, but negotiating the twists of Laguna Seca was not the forte of the XKR-S.
And the winner is…
Although the Jag may have been slightly out of its element at Laguna, it would undoubtedly make the best daily driver of the bunch. Both the Nissan and the Audi suffer from poor lateral and rearward vision, so lane changing, parking and rear view police spotting all become annoying problems. The Jag also sports the classiest interior, with enormous, high-backed racing style buckets that support you better than your acupuncturist. On top of all that, this behemoth returns an astounding 23mpg on the open highway. But since we’re at the race track for this test, the Jag’s win as a street ride is of notable but secondary importance. Which of the two remaining contenders scores the track rat’s laurel wreath?
The Nissan GT-R is a remarkable accomplishment. It is undoubtedly the fastest assassin of the bunch, posting screaming hot trap times, generating impossibly high yet blessedly uneventful cornering forces, and hot lapping Laguna like a scaled-up Traxxas R/C car. Yet therein lies the seeds of its downfall. The Nissan is about as engaging to drive as an R/C car that you control remotely. Aside from keeping your right foot planted and looking out for slower traffic (i.e., everything else on the track), the GT-R doesn’t leave you with a whole lot to do. Nor does it look great, or even sound great, unless you are fond of big butts and angry hisses. The Nissan reminds me of the Chaparral 2J “Sucker Car” that destroyed the morale of the opposition in the Can-Am Series 42 years ago. It was the fastest thing on the track when it ran, running off and hiding from the McLarens and Lolas. Yet its driver, Vic Elford, hated the car because it was too easy to drive. Spectators hated it because it hissed instead of snarled, kicked up dust clouds, and was about as exciting to watch as a vacuum cleaner. The GT-R is the heir apparent to the mantle of the 2J – incredibly fast, composed and well behaved, but ultimately uninvolving from a driver’s perspective.
That leaves the track title to the R8. Sure this Audi can be a handful in the real world, with mail slot rear vision, annoyingly notchy, gated shifter, and the constant fear of marring its beauty by parking in the wrong spot. But on the track, the R8 emerges as the clear winner in terms of driving fun, handling accuracy, and aural feedback. The main reason the R8 predominates is the location of its engine. On a racetrack, you can’t beat the laws of physics, so you can’t beat a mid-engine car. In this threesome, the R8 boasts the lowest Center of Gravity (CG), and the most central concentration of mass (Low Polar Moment of Inertia). To my eyes, it’s also the best looking car of the bunch, with supermodel aero tweaks in coupe or cabrio form, and enough carbon fiber to build a 787 Dreamliner. Without question, the R8 bumps your blood pressure reading enough to require an immediate dose of Lopressor.
David Colman has been writing vehicle tests for 25 years. His work has been featured in AutoWeek, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Marin Independent Journal.