It's quickly becoming a classic battle. Chevrolet Corvette versus Nissan GT-R. An all-American, rear-wheel-drive, manually shifted V8 brute versus an all-wheel-drive Japanese technology tank with twin turbos and a dual-clutch transmission.
We've witnessed this match-up before, most notably in 2008 when we pitted the 480-horsepower GT-R against the 638-hp Corvette ZR1. The Corvette proved the winner in that shoot-out, completely wowing us with its brash, tire-smoking horsepower and impressive track performance.
But much has happened since then. The GT-R has seen multiple improvements, culminating in the 2013 Nissan GT-R Premium with an astonishing 545 hp and a more lively suspension. That's right. Nissan's wundercar has discovered oversteer.
Standing for the red, white and blue this time around is the 2012 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, which is one of the purest Vettes ever created. Our Centennial Edition test car features Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, Magnetic Ride Control suspension and Performance Traction Management; the last a torque-limiting traction control that manages spark, fuel and throttle at five different levels of intervention (previously only available on the ZR1). In other words, the beast of a Corvette has been tamed by technology.
This battle royal of two sports-car tyrants began at our test track, flowed out onto public roads and ended on a private road course where all their talents could be fully explored. Here's how it went down.
Since the Nissan GT-R's release five years ago, one of the selling points of the car has always been its relative bargain price compared with other supercars. Nissan can kiss that advantage good-bye, as the base Premium model now starts at $97,820 (including $1,000 destination), a $6,870 increase over the outgoing model. Our pre-production test car's only option — Super Silver paint — added $3,000, for an as-tested price of $100,820.
The 2012 Z06 starts at a more reasonable $76,500, but our test car was loaded with an astonishing $25,260 in options including the $8,815 3LZ Premium Equipment Group (heated sport seats with power-adjustable bolsters, navigation, premium stereo, Bluetooth); the $7,500 Z06 Ultimate Performance package (Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires); the $4,950 Centennial Special Edition package (special paint, badges, wheels, Magnetic Ride Control); and a $3,995 carbon-fiber package for a sticker-shock-inducing out-the-door price of $101,760.
Explosion of Propulsion
For 2013 Nissan upped the GT-R's power once again. Last year it had 530 horsepower, but now it's up to 545 hp at 6,400 rpm. There's also an extra 15 pound-feet of torque for a total of 463 lb-ft thanks to an increase in intake efficiency and larger ducting for the intercoolers. The six-speed dual-clutch transmission has been updated with a stiffer shift fork arm and a stronger fixing bearing for the flywheel housing in the interest of quieter and smoother operation. Yes, it still has its 4,000-rpm launch control.
The 2012 Corvette Z06 doesn't bother with weenie tack-ons like turbos or intercoolers. Instead, it makes its prodigious power, all 505 hp at 6,300 rpm and 470 lb-ft of torque at 4,800, the old-fashioned way — with 7.0 liters of displacement and pushrods. Not that the hand-assembled LS7 V8 is completely old-tech. It has titanium intake valves, titanium connecting rods and a dry-sump oil system, not to mention a two-mode muffler system that is thunderous heaven on earth when the butterflies open up under full throttle.
The GT-R's ability to get out of the hole quickly is well documented, with most of the credit going to its ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive and launch control. After a few finicky launch attempts, in which our GT-R didn't seem to be producing full power, all systems eventually clicked and the GT-R went into a grin-inducing four-tire-spinning launch, ripping to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds (2.9 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip).
It continued on until it ripped the quarter-mile in 11.1 seconds at 123.3 mph. Easy? You bet. As simple as releasing the brake and keeping the throttle mashed. It even takes care of the lightning-quick shifts for you.
The Z06, on the other hand, requires some actual driver skill. We tried Chevy's launch control, but found that it wasn't as adept at controlling wheelspin as a human. We also found the six-speed manual has reasonably short and defined gates, but the 2-3 shift proved balky if we weren't deliberate.
The rear-drive Z06 simply can't leave the line with the tenacity of the GT-R. Still, zero to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds (3.5 seconds with rollout) isn't something to scoff at, nor is romping through the quarter in 11.7 seconds at 122.3 mph. And unlike the GT-R, which sounds about as good as your wife's Hoover, the Z06's rip-snorting V8 is one of the most sonorous delights you'll ever hear from a driver seat.
Both cars feature state-of-the-art driver-adjustable suspension systems, the Z06's Magnetic Ride Control constantly adjusting to road conditions and doing a pretty decent job of curbing the dreaded Corvette Bounce over large bumps.
Nissan engineers tweaked the GT-R's suspension setup yet again (it's a yearly affair), with slightly stiffer spring rates and new bypass valves for the shocks. The car's structure around the engine bay and dash panel was reinforced as well.
The GT-R has always been a slalom stalwart, and that hasn't changed for 2013. It slithered around our little orange cones with an artful precision at 73.7 mph, including some entertaining power-on oversteer around the final cone.
The Z06 isn't a slouch when it comes to juking left and right, either. We were mightily impressed by the level of grip and control offered by the ultra-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires (which admittedly need some heat to work properly). It corners flat and the steering has a natural ratio, despite a heavy effort. And in a nod to the ability of Performance Traction Management, we went quicker — 74.7 mph — in PTM-3 (which makes use of the stability control) than we did with all nanny systems switched off. But even with ESC off it still wasn't an oversteering beast, instead proving driver-friendly and filled with feedback, chalking up a 74.4-mph run.
Out on the Road
Hop in the GT-R and you're struck by how infinitely more modern and pleasing the interior is to use and look at than the Vette. There are lots of different textures, almost all of them soft-touch, while the Vette's center stack and controls just leave us cold. The GT-R also has a more upright seating position with a clearer view of the road ahead, while in the Vette you sit low and rearward.
GM did address one area of the Corvette's interior for 2012, though, and you probably better sit down for this one: The Corvette now has real seats with actual lateral support (even power-adjustable bolsters) and grippy microfiber inserts. No more flopping around through corners. Yet they're still comfy. In fact, we prefer these buckets over the GT-R's seats, which are too narrow and force you to sit more on the seat cushion bolsters than ensconced between them.
The GT-R is the more "normal" car of the two, more upright, more easily accessible and even has a rear seat, as useless as it may be for normal-size adults. Yet even with the cockpit-adjustable Bilstein DampTronic shocks set to full Comfort, the GT-R has a rock-hard ride. In contrast, the Vette's Tour mode could almost be described as plush. But the Z06's annoyingly low front airdam nearly scrapes Botts' dots, while its 285-width front tires follow every single pavement irregularity, sometimes nearly ripping the steering wheel out of your hands.
You can't do a proper comparison of two such track-worthy cars without actually taking them to a track. Well, you could, but it would be pointless. So it was on to Streets of Willow, a 1.8-mile road course north of Los Angeles. It's tight and ultra-twisty, yet both of these rockets achieved nearly 115 mph down the back straight.
The GT-R was up first. And what strikes you about Nissan's wundercar is how quickly it lets you get up to speed — and confidence is king around a race course. It's not just the all-wheel drive and the paddle-shift transmission either, as the GT-R's general demeanor is one of driver-friendliness. All of its systems are more intent on helping you go fast around a track, rather than a desire to send you off the track backward like some big-bore exotics.
That being said, this is also the most inspiring GT-R we've ever driven, as the extra power and edgier suspension tuning have made the 2013 Nissan GT-R livelier than ever, with a new willingness to rotate under drop-throttle conditions. And with 545 hp on tap, there's now true ability to steer the GT-R out of corners with the throttle, with power-on oversteer. The GT-R's new attitude not only makes it considerably more fun than previous GT-Rs, but also devastatingly quick. And even though it has a 3.7-inch-longer wheelbase, is 7.5 inches longer overall and is packing an extra 642 pounds over the Vette, the GT-R actually feels smaller and more of one piece. Its best lap time was a 1:23.8.
Romping out of the pits in the Z06 is a completely different sensation. It's a cacophony inside the cockpit as the 7.0-liter beast grunts, bellows and rips out a glorious V8 tune. You're shifting manually (although with its tall gearing, you shift less in the Vette), heel-and-toeing, real driving. The near-illegal Michelins take time to heat up, but with each lap we learn to trust their grip more.
Since it was chilly — about 50 degrees Fahrenheit — we ran the Z06 in PTM-4 (Chevy recommends PTM-5 for above 60 degrees F). The goal with PTM is to be able to mash the throttle pedal at or before corner apex and then let the system manage the car's torque for you. But the system only works if there is grip for the tires, and it will let you spin out since stability control is switched off in PTM-4 and 5. Because of the cool temperatures, we didn't fully trust the system enough to just mash the throttle like a goon at every corner.
The Z06 is thrilling beyond all imagination as it thunders from turn to turn, making up time on the GT-R under braking due to the confidence of those carbon-ceramic brakes and the grip from the tires. Brake fade was never an issue with the Z06, while the GT-R's pedal got slightly spongy on its final hot laps. And when the Vette did break its tires loose, it was in a more linear fashion than the violent nature of the GT-R's tires. When we checked the time sheet, the Corvette's best lap time was 1:22.7.
Godzilla or King Kong?
The 2012 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and 2013 Nissan GT-R proved spectacular on both track and twisty back roads, and both are better than they've ever been. Nissan's engineers have built more driver involvement and fun into the GT-R. No sane person would call it boring these days, and it's no longer simple to drive at its limits.
The Z06 surprised us with just how planted it was. We're used to Z06s roasting rear tires, but PTM has greatly quelled the car's desire to do so on track, even with that ferocious V8. Yep, the Z06 — with PTM, Magnetic Ride Control and carbon-ceramic brakes — has bridged the technology gap that the GT-R once lorded over.
And even though the GT-R is the more livable car — filling-rattling suspension notwithstanding — on a daily basis, the fact is we want the Corvette Z06. It comes down to driver involvement. A true manual transmission, rear-wheel drive for on-demand burnouts and powerslides, and that always-magnificent-sounding lump of an engine. And, let's face it, the Centennial Edition looks hot.
The Nissan GT-R is an amazing car and we respect it for what it can do, but it only really becomes thrilling when being pushed at eight-tenths or higher, a realm we rarely find ourselves in. The Corvette Z06 not only rules the track, it makes driving to the grocery store exciting. For $100,000, we would want both.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.