It's already hot at 11 a.m. as we pull our 2009 Nissan GT-R into the visitor's parking lot at GM's proving grounds in Arizona. The Japanese supercar looks like a spaceship next to the aging, 1960s-era brick buildings that front the massive desert test facility on the outskirts of Phoenix.
Although the few GM employees who see the GT-R barely pay it any attention, we suspect they know why it's here. Somewhere deep inside this test facility there's a 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 getting prepped for a comparison test, and now the competition has arrived.
We make a few calls and sign a few release forms before a Cyber Gray ZR1 emerges from the main gate and pulls up next to the GT-R. The driver gets out, hands us the keys and gives a friendly warning, "Go fast carefully."
From here on out, it's the King Kong of Corvettes versus the Godzilla of Japan. We'll drive both cars more than 300 miles back to Los Angeles before putting them on a dyno, running our customary round of instrumented tests and wrapping it all up with hot laps on the road course at Streets of Willow.
Burnouts at 75 mph
We're barely out of Phoenix before the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 lays down the gauntlet, or more accurately, the stripes. That's right, drop the ZR1 into 3rd gear, nail the throttle and it will light up the back tires at 75 mph before launching you into triple digits.
This will never happen in the all-wheel-drive 2009 Nissan GT-R. Can't do it in a Ferrari Enzo, Lamborghini Murciélago or Porsche 911 GT2 either. Yes, the ZR1 is a truly sick automobile.
After a dozen or so high-speed smokies, we settle into a slightly more relaxed pace on the road west, where the ZR1 proves itself a surprisingly comfortable road car. The Chevy's adjustable suspension soaks up the kind of small bumps that make the GT-R annoyingly jumpy on the highway. Changes in the pavement don't generate nearly as much tire roar as the Nissan produces, either. Tall gearing is another plus for the ZR1, as it cruises at highway speeds with the tachometer needle hovering lazily around two grand.
So far, the ZR1 is mighty comfortable and massively powerful, but there are problems, too. The steering column shudders so much that we actually think there might be a flat tire at one point (a faulty tire-pressure warning sensor isn't helping), while the driver seat is a shapeless blob of leather and foam better suited to watching 12 straight hours of Saturday college football than a 200-mph supercar.
We also notice that the steering wheel appears to be the same unit used in the Cobalt. What, the suede-wrapped wheel used in the $70K Cadillac CTS-V is too expensive? It seems hard to believe given our Corvette's as-tested price of $118,520. Then again, this price includes the truly tasteless chrome wheels, a $2,000 option. Here's hoping for a chrome-stripping desert sandstorm on the way home.
Having driven the 2009 Nissan GT-R out to Arizona, we're already all too familiar with the GT-R's road manners. Its adjustable suspension has a Comfort mode, but it merely cracks your teeth into finer pieces than the standard setting. We also notice that truck ruts in the pavement will send the GT-R sailing into the median if you're not paying attention, while concrete highways produce so much tire noise that it sounds like we're riding inside a cement mixer.
That said, smooth stretches of asphalt make the GT-R feel more like a private jet than an automobile. The tire roar disappears, replaced by the faint whine of the twin turbos and a hint of wind noise. The seats are well contoured and firmly bolstered, while the meaty rim of the steering wheel feels substantial in our hands.
The rest of the GT-R's interior is laid out logically and it's solidly built using high-quality materials. Our test car is a Premium model with the optional iPod hookup and floor mats that pegs the price at $80,770. It's not a luxurious cabin, but nothing in it feels cheap, either.
Rating the Power
Once back in Los Angeles, we head straight for the Harman Motive dyno shop to see just how much power these two heavyweights are putting to the ground. Their ultramodern test cell is one of the most accurate setups we've used, so the numbers should be solid and repeatable.
First up is the Nissan GT-R. Its twin-turbo 3.8-liter V6 is rated from the factory at 480 horsepower and 430 pound-feet of torque. All this power is sent through a dual-clutch six-speed transaxle to all four wheels in varying degrees of torque split, depending on traction.
After several very consistent pulls, the GT-R generates 406 hp at 6,000 rpm and 399 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm. The power curves are a little bumpy as the output fluctuates slightly, but they're impressive otherwise.
Next up is the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. With a Roots-type blower feeding the 6.2-liter V8, this engine is rated at 638 hp and 604 lb-ft of torque. It, too, sends its power through a six-speed transaxle, but it all goes only to the 20-inch rear wheels.
Like the GT-R, the ZR1's engine pulls very consistently over several runs. The final numbers are 505 hp at 6,200 rpm and 494 lb-ft at 4,200 rpm and the power curves trace perfectly smooth arcs. No bumps, no dips, nothing.
You might expect the difference between the two cars' results to be greater than the 99 hp we observed. Although this outcome suggests that one manufacturer is being a little less forthright about its numbers than the other, our resident engineers suspect it has more to do with how the two companies dial in the intercoolers during dyno testing.
The next day we head to the test track to run the numbers. The GT-R opened a lot of eyes when it ran 11-second quarter-mile times earlier this year, so our expectations are even higher for the more powerful ZR1.
Launching the 2009 Nissan GT-R is a no-brainer thanks to its electronic launch control system. Set the switches to their appropriate positions, hold the brake, let the engine speed come up and let it rip. After a few consistent runs, our best time from zero to 60 mph is 3.8 seconds (3.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). The quarter-mile goes by in 11.8 seconds at 118.6 mph. These are mighty respectable numbers for an $80K street car, and more important they're numbers that are easily repeatable.
With the 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, it's a whole different story. This Corvette might have huge 335/25R20 tires in back, but since they can't even maintain grip when you put your foot down at highway speeds, you can probably imagine what happens when we try to nail it from a standstill.
We try every method possible to get the car out of the hole quickly — slipping the clutch, modulating the throttle and various combinations of both. The result is a best 0-60-mph time of 3.8 seconds (3.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and a quarter-mile time of 11.5 seconds at 128.3 mph.
The acceleration numbers of the Nissan GT-R and the Corvette ZR1 might look close, but the ZR1's trap speed says it all, because it's pulling away fast at the end of the run. An impromptu drag race between the two cars shows that although the GT-R can keep up with the Corvette up to around 100 mph, it's all over from there on out.
There's more to attaining supercar status than quick quarter-mile times, so the slalom, braking and skid pad tests are next. With its sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, the GT-R should have an advantage here, but the ZR1 has some pretty high-tech hardware of its own.
A set of carbon-ceramic brake rotors are included as one of the Corvette's most notable upgrades, and they're no joke. They provide enough bite to haul the ZR1 down from 60 mph to a stop in just 96 feet, an amazingly short distance matched only by the $192,000 Porsche 911 GT2.
Through the slalom cones the ZR1 shocks again, with an average speed of 74.7 mph. Not only is this fractionally faster than the all-wheel-drive GT-R's 74 mph, it smokes the GT2's 71.6 mph by a long shot and leaves the last Corvette Z06's 69.2 mph feeling a bit slow.
The ZR1's number on the skid pad is no less impressive, as the sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires hold on long enough to generate 1.06g.
Despite the Corvette's world-beating numbers, we don't lose sight of the GT-R's still impressive stats. Not only does the 3,918-pound Nissan post nearly the same slalom speed as the 3,366-pound ZR1, the GT-R stops from 60 mph in 106 feet and posts a 0.93g on the skid pad. On a normal day against normal cars, these numbers are good. But next to the ZR1, they suddenly look a little soft.
The Final Test
Since driving in a straight line, a circle or through a bunch of orange cones only has limited appeal, the final test is held on the Streets of Willow, one of the road courses at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. It's a fairly tight, 1.8-mile course, but there are two 100-mph straights that let both cars open it up a little.
Our test driver hops in the GT-R, quickly gets up to speed and lays down some solid laps right out of the gate, the quickest clocking in at 1:25.09. He then moves to the Corvette, which takes a little more time to sort out. The lap times drop quickly, though, and the ZR1 finally posts a fastest lap of 1:23.87. Once again, the ZR1 is quicker than the GT-R, but the raw numbers don't tell the whole story because the two cars are completely different animals around the course.
With the 2009 Nissan GT-R, it's a simple point-and-shoot exercise. The car feels steady, sure-footed and drifts into predictable understeer at the limit. Its seats provide solid support and the steering is direct and responsive. It doesn't have the flickable feel of the lighter Corvette, but its rock-solid chassis inspires the confidence to push it harder. There's very little brake fade and the grip from the Bridgestone Potenza RE070s is considerable. If your driving skills slot anywhere below that of an SCCA road-racing champion, you'll probably go faster in the GT-R.
On the flip side, the Corvette is a sweat-inducing workout that requires good footwork, quick hands and serious concentration. We alternate between jamming our knees into the dash to hold ourselves in place and sawing at the wheel to get the car pointed in the right direction. Don't get us wrong — it's worth the effort, but it is an effort.
The adjustable suspension actually proves too jittery in Sport mode, so our best lap times are made in the more pliable "Touring" setting, which helps keep the chassis settled over some of the rougher sections of the track. There are a few missed shifts, but most of us concede that the ZR1's shifter is probably the best Corvette setup available. And the brakes are nearly flawless, with a good initial bite plus stopping power that never fades, even after repeated hot laps.
The Corvette Wears the Crown
This is far from a perfect Corvette, but the ZR1 is pretty damn close. If you can afford the $100 grand to buy it, then you can probably pop for a pair of Recaro seats and a decent set of wheels, too. There's little room for improvement after that.
Any more horsepower and the tires would never stop smoking. Bigger brakes probably won't even fit the 20-inch wheels. The tires already rub the front wheel wells during fast driving at the track, so there's no more room for extra rubber either. Why bother anyway? The 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 is already one of the world's quickest, fastest and most capable production cars as it is.
So where does that leave the 2009 Nissan GT-R? It'll be just fine, we suspect. It delivers similar performance in a package that's far less intimidating and infinitely more usable. Sure, the ZR1 has the capability on the track, but exploiting that performance on the street is another matter. This Corvette will blow anything out of the water in a straight line, but on a twisty mountain road all that power is difficult to harness.
And don't forget, Nissan has more in store for the GT-R when it comes to performance with the >upcoming V-Spec model.
But that's next year. The ZR1 is here now, and there's nothing you can buy that will touch it. Nothing.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
GT-R vs. ZR-1. Not an easy choice. One is the current king of the hill, one is the former king of the hill. And both deserve the honor.
It's hard to go wrong here. Both of these cars will warp physics in direct proportion to their driver's urges. Both are quicker in any contest of speed than virtually anything else on the road. And when compared against one another, I contend that the differences aren't as great as their numbers indicate. I've driven both these cars. Together. Same road, same time. And there's not a significant enough difference in the way they drive on the street to sway me one way or the other.
The Vette is the quicker of the two in a straight line, but reality says that many drivers will lack the skill or cojones to take full advantage of the Vette's full accelerative abilities. Getting the launch just right in the ZR1 is far more difficult than the switch-flipping required in the GT-R.
Plus, the real world, with its bumps, camber and ruts is a great equalizer. And the GT-R, which is far less compliant, powers through the real world with hardly a nod to its irregularities. Plus, it will always be easier to drive. This is the long way to say that it's just as quick down most roads.
But all this — the acceleration, the handling, the overall similarity in speed — pales in comparison to the real reason I'd have a GT-R. Exclusivity. It's simply far less common. And that makes it more desirable.
Here's the thing: Anyone can have a Vette. And the ZR1's various bits of carbon accoutrement only serve to make it gaudy in my book. There's little here to distinguish it as a special car. Instead, most of the changes simply make it a caricature of itself. And I don't care who you are; if you're spending this kind of money, exclusivity matters.
Because of this, the ZR1 isn't a destination for me, but the GT-R will remain one for quite some time.