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Story by Jack Baruth, photo by “bubba sideways”
I can’t count the number of times during my long and painful BMX career when I sat on my bike, sized up some dirt jump, wooden ramp, or fifteen-stair drop-off, and thought long and hard about how much I’d regret what I was about to do, should it go wrong. Most of the time, my pessimism was unfounded – I’d clear the jump, bound over the obstacle, land the drop. Every once in a while, however, I’d lose my balance, slip a pedal, or just plain run out of talent, and for a tiny, sickening fraction of a second, my breath would catch in my throat before I hit the ground to the accompanying “crack” of a broken bone. I never actually heard a bone break, mind you; it always felt like a really sharp pinch in a place where no pinching should be possible. The memory of that little “pinch” is what made me sit on my bike for an extra moment or two before cranking off towards disaster. There were times I’d have liked to just sit there until it was time to go home, but the difference between the rider and the poser is that the poser never stops just sitting there on the bike. You’ll never get hurt just sitting there.
If I don’t make the prediction I’m about to unleash – if I turn this column towards a safer topic, like E85 pricing or trail-braking techniques for FWD race cars – I won’t get hurt. There won’t be any hate mail. Zerin, my long-suffering editor, won’t get any calls from the manufacturers. It’ll be business as usual. I should really shut up right now.
Oh, the hell with that. Let’s pedal towards the jump and make a prediction. I believe that Nissan is making a potentially serious error in importing the new GT-R to the United States and Canada. I believe that they will eventually regret doing so, and that the GT-R will join that time-honored long list of big-money automotive marketing mistakes that contains everything from the Edsel to the Lincoln Blackwood. Yeah, yeah, I know. Some of my dear readers are already searching for the “Respond” button at the bottom of this column so they can make unpleasant and biologically improbable suggestions regarding my momma, while the more action-oriented among you are already GoogleMapping a very special trip for the purpose of beating my face in at the NASA season opener. (It’s April 12, at Mid-Ohio, if you must know.) If there’s anybody left who simply wants to know the reasons behind this particular piece of prophecy… you’ll just have to put the chainsaw down and keep reading.
Before we talk about failure, we have to define what we mean by success. From Nissan’s perspective, I think it’s fair to say that the GT-R will “succeed” if it accomplishes the following pair of tasks:
- The GT-R must create a “halo effect” that leads to increased showroom traffic, greater sales of less-expensive models, particularly performance models, and a greater and more positive awareness of Nissan and its products among the general public and the enthusiast market.
- The GT-R must break even in the North American market. Failing that, it shouldn’t lose too much money for Nissan’s North American operations.
Note that nowhere in there did we talk about selling a zillion GT-Rs, or dominating trackdays across the land, or cutting into Corvette and Porsche sales. We didn’t talk about that stuff because nobody with any sense thinks any of it’s actually going to happen. You see, there’s no real long-term market for the GT-R in North America. To understand why, you have to look at the truly successful entries in the $50,000 – $100,000 performance car market. There are really only two, and we’ve already named them. Both Porsche and the Corvette brand have hundreds of thousands of devoted fans, many of whom can actually afford their products. There are millions of men and women in the United States and Canada who grew up with 911 Turbo or C4 Corvette posters on their wall, and they’re now at an age where they can purchase the cars and enjoy them. There is a strong secondary market for used Porsches and Corvettes, encompassing everything from lightly used Carrera GTs to salvage-title ’84 Cross-Fire-Injection C4s. Not only is there an entire club for people who want to race Porsches on weekends – the Porsche Club of America – there’s an entire second club for people who think the people in the first club are insufferable pricks, and they call it the Porsche Owners’ Club. Meanwhile, there are so many people spending their lives restoring Corvettes that they have multiple sources to certify them – NCRS and Bloomington Gold. In my little hometown of Powell, Ohio, which barely has ten thousand residents, there are at least thirty dues-paying members of PCA, including myself, and there are dozens of Corvettes prowling the streets in the summers. The sheer magnitude of Corvette and Porsche devotion out there is almost unimaginable, and as a result, the two brands combine to sell more than sixty thousand new sports cars in the United States every year.
What’s the Nissan GT-R’s market base? Well, it’s primarily made up of people who play Gran Turismo and its descendants, plus a smattering of kids who thought the car with the Impala-esque taillights in 2Fast 2Furious was pretty cool. Most of these people live in the basements of their parents’ homes. Do you see the problem with the idea of marketing a $70,000 car to people who still live with their parents and who spend all night on XBOX Live? If you don’t, allow me to point it out for you: These kids don’t have any money. They may be tremendously knowledgeable car enthusiasts and very nice people, but when I was seventeen years old, I was a knowledgeable car enthusiast too, and I don’t remember buying any $70,000 cars with my minimum-wage earnings from working the parts counter at David Hobbs BMW.
“Oh, Jack, you’re being deliberately ignorant.” I can hear you now. “There are plenty of wealthy, adult car enthusiasts who know and respect the GT-R.” Well, that’s true. There are plenty of Google employees, “Gold Collar” kids who, although they live with their parents at the age of 27, are earning a GT-R payment by working at Abercrombie & Fitch, and bored rich people who will buy anything that’s new and hot. Hey, there were a few people who laid out a hundred grand for imported Motorex R34 Skylines, right? All of those people might buy a GT-R. The only problem is that very few of these people spent their youths dreaming of the GT-R, and if they did, they were dreaming of the icy-cool, JDM-to-the-max R33 or R34, not this porky monster G35x that Nissan is preparing to bring to these shores. A lot of these people are going to get their seventy grand together and be struck by the undeniable fact that they could buy a Z06 Corvette or Carrera 3.6 with that money! For kids who dreamed of hammering a Nine Eleven down the autobahn, the prospect of slumming down to the Nissan dealer and buying a Nissan from the Nissan dealer who sells Nissans (have I repeated “Nissan” enough here? I hope it’s enough to make the point) is just not gonna happen.
You know what, though? It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Nissan can sell 1,500 GT-Rs a year to Silicon Valley geeks and rich kids who want to indulge their Brian Earl Spilner fantasies, no problem. The Acura NSX sold pretty well at first, too, mostly due to the novelty factor and the fact that people were tired of having their Ferrari 348s towed out of their garages twice a month. All this talk about doing five thousand units a year is sheer bravado, meant to convince the dealers to spend upwards of $300K each to upgrade their shops for “GT-R capability”. This will be a low-volume car, poking along at the bottom of the sales sheet with its distant cousin, the Infiniti Q45, until the cost of a new-generation EPA certification causes Nissan to knock it off the price list. It isn’t the prospect of slow sales that makes me pessimistic about the GT-R. Rather, the real problem, from Nissan’s perspective, is what it will do to their brand, their fans, and their existing cars.
Let’s be honest: the greatest thing about the R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R was that we couldn’t buy it here. In countries where you could buy Nissan’s super-sedan with little difficulty, such as the UK, customers were staggeringly indifferent to “Godzilla”, preferring instead to have a nice Porsche, or maybe a hairy-chested TVR. The only place where the Skyline sold well was Japan, for the same reason the Mustang GT sells well over here: the price/performance ratio was right and it was a domestic-market hero for angry young kids with time on their hands and a few yen in their pockets. Still, Nissan made some hay over here with the legend, which greatly surpassed the reality. Go ahead, tell me that when the “Spec V” Sentra SE-R came out, you didn’t think it was cooler for having that badge on the back. I sure as hell did, and I know I wasn’t alone. Plus, those Cheetos-munching PlayStation addicts of whom we spoke earlier might not have a GT-R’s worth of scratch, but they do have parents who are willing to buy ’em Sentras with the “sport package”. The actual merits of the Skyline were utterly irrelevant – not when the closest you can get to one is clicking “Buy This Car” in GT4. As the old quote goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Will that legend, of improbably fast ‘Ring times, thousand-horsepower “Big Birds”, and parking-garage races in Tokyo, still sell Sentras and Altimas when the real GT-R is sitting right next to them on the showroom floor? The answer is a resounding No. It’s one thing to be a Sentra-driving GT-R fan when the real GT-R is safely on the other side of a whole ocean, but what happens when that same kid drives his Sentra to the local community college and sees that his rich-kid classmate has an R35 GT-R? We haven’t even considered what the effect will be on Nissan’s current performance flagship, the fierce and fantastic 350Z. The minute the first GT-R hits these shores, the 350Z becomes the “Nissan with panties”, tucked sadly in the shadow of its mighty stablemate. And with a forty-thousand-dollar price gap between the two, it’s hard to imagine too many 350Z owners trading up to the Car Formerly Known As Skyline. The “halo effect” of the GT-R is going to be very dim in your local Nissan showroom.
I can’t help but think that Nissan had a better option than bringing us a 3800-pound Angry Catfish with a Porsche-sized Monroney slapped on the window; namely, a 500Z. We all know the FM platform will accept the soul-stirring Infiniti quad-cam V8 – it’s already resident in the FX45 and M45 – and there’s no reason a little light tuning wouldn’t result in four hundred horsepower, easy. Add the Track Package Brembos, seam-weld the chassis in the fashion of the Nismo Z, and charge $45K for it. Maybe they could widen the tires a bit for those of us who find the stock Z just a little too reluctant to turn in sometimes. Sure, it might not beat the 997 Turbo around the ‘Ring, but it would hang with an LS3 ‘Vette on Saturday night, and that’s a lot more important on Main Street USA, where the buyers are.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. It could all turn out in storybook fashion. The dealers won’t mark ’em up so high they never leave the lots, (see GTO, Pontiac, 2004 for more details on this self-defeating strategy) the basement-dwelling hobbits will earn magic sacks of cash in World of Warcraft, enabling them to buy a healthy allocation of GT-Rs year after year, the mandatory annual “tuneup” won’t piss everybody off so badly they dump their Not A Skyline and buy a Z06 after all… it could all happen according to Nissan’s plan. I’m a bit of a Datsun/Nissan fan, you know. My first car was a bad-assed two-tone 200SX fastback. I made the hilariously stupid decision to sell Infinitis when I graduated from school simply because I loved the Q45 and I wanted to have one as a demo. (That wish was never granted, by the way, as it was hard enough to sell those cars without six thousand miles on them.) I still smile when I see a young person in a 350Z. It reaffirms my hope that automotive enthusiasm in this country hasn’t gone the way of the Prius, I mean, the dodo. Nissan makes good cars, and I think the GT-R is going to be a good car. I’m having a hard time swallowing all the hype, but make no mistake: the people who do purchase a GT-R are unlikely to regret their purchase.
In the era of the aforementioned Toyota Pious, it’s also important to recognize the magnitude of the chance Nissan has taken by building this R35 model. The GT-R is a moon shot of sorts, an honest attempt to build the best car possible, consequences be damned. I admire that sort of effort; in fact, the last time I saw a car like this – a car which promised to transcend the boundaries of branding in pursuit of matchless excellence – I put not one, but two examples of that car in my driveway. Great cars, too. They show exactly what can be done when a mass-market manufacturer builds a cost-no-object eighty-thousand-dollar vehicle and ignores all the issues of despicable dealers, non-existent brand prestige, and a vanishingly small pool of buyers. You could say that the builder of my cars had a terrifying set of double jumps in front of them, and they pedaled as hard as they could, knowing they might crash but hoping they would soar over the doubters. It was a tremendous effort, and I really, really love the result, my perfect pair of Phaetons…