There's a particular type of fast car the Japanese have made all their own. Once, Japanese car makers sought to emulate European or American ones with varying degrees of success, but nowadays their most interesting cars have a strong identity. Look at the cult following for the Mitsubishi Evo or the Subaru Impreza Turbo. Or that for the greatest of them all: the Nissan Skyline GT-R.
Model: Nissan GT-R
Price: £52,900. On sale late 2008
Engine: 3,799cc, V6 cylinders, 32 valves, twin turbos, 480bhp at 6,400rpm, 434lb ft at 3,200-5,200rpm
Transmission: six-speed sequential paddleshift with auto mode, four-wheel drive
Performance: 195mph, 0-62 in 3.5sec, 23.2mpg official average, CO2 not yet quoted (but high)
The hottest Skylines have long had powerful six-cylinder engines and four round tail-lights. Now, though, the GT-R thread is so strong that the latest version has become a car wholly separate from the mainstream Skylines. It's now called, simply, Nissan GT-R.
This proudly Japanese interpretation of the ultimate road car emerged at the last Tokyo motor show, complete with a Manga comic book setting out the story of its gestation. The design lends itself perfectly to the Manga portrayal, crisp and cartoonishly exaggerated. It's immediately recognisable in Japanese car culture.
Not only that, but it has set a new lap record for a production car at that most snaking of racetracks, the Nürburgring in Germany. On standard road tyres it lapped the 14-mile circuit in seven minutes and 29 seconds.
The GT-R is an image-builder for Nissan. It cannot possibly make a meaningful profit, because it shares barely a single component with any other Nissan. It has a twin-turbo, 3.8-litre, 480bhp V6 engine able, via the four-wheel-drive system, to launch the GT-R to 62mph in 3.5 seconds and continue its outpouring of energy until 195mph is reached. This goes against all current notions of automotive correctness, but as a technology showcase it's mighty impressive. Bear in mind that all this is on offer for £52,900, a startlingly low figure for the pace on tap.
Now I'm sitting in GT-R in the pit lane at Estoril racetrack in Portugal. On my right is the test driver, Tochio Suzuki, from Nürburgring. Off we hurtle, V6 melodiously vocal, gearshifts near instant because the GT-R has a six-speed, double-clutch transmission controlled by a pair of paddles on the steering column.
Mr Suzuki makes it seem effortless as the GT-R brakes, turns, accelerates, all with maximal pace and minimal drama. This looks too easy. Can we have some slides? Of course; out slithers the tail, screech go the tyres, arms flail accurately as the GT-R's 1.7 tons are neatly gathered up. That's a lot of weight; that it can be moved so suddenly shows just how much energy the engine can generate.
My turn. "Race" mode is selected, which means the stability system is relegated to the background and the suspension dampers are rendered firm. The driving seat is ultra-supportive; the rest of the interior is made from expensive but resolutely functional materials with an ambience more competition car than grand tourer.
Blast off, through the gears, into the first corner. Despite its weight the GT-R is eager to turn, partly because the weight is divided equally front to rear. Mounting the gearbox by the back axle helps here, even though that means there has to be another propeller shaft heading forward to the front wheels for the four-wheel drive system.
Left to its own devices, the transmission sends about 97 per cent of the engine's efforts to the rear wheels. But this can change quickly – within a 10th of a second – when needed. Typically between 10 and 30 per cent of torque will head to the front wheels when cornering vigorously, keeping the rear wheels loaded with thrust which helps you to use the accelerator for adjusting the cornering line in driver-pleasing fashion, but not overwhelming them.
There's a high-speed slalom test, through which the GT-R slices with tidy efficiency. Powering through the fast corners I can feel the tail stepping out a little, as intended, helping to settle the GT-R for the next straight. The grip is huge, but the constantly changing distribution of the torque between the axles and the solid, dead-accurate steering help the GT-R to talk to me, to tell me what it is doing. It feels properly alive, with the technology second-guessing my intentions rather than taking over. Driving this monstrously fast machine is almost too easy.
Does that make the GT-R too clever for its driver's own good? GT-R chief engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno says that Nissan set out to build a supercar accessible to anyone. That means there will be little scope for honing finer driving skills, once the initial rush of excitement is over. Driving this car ought to be a greater challenge, and it ought to invoke awe in its driver. That it doesn't is a little frightening in itself.
BMW M3: £50,625
It has a 420bhp, high-revving V8 and some fuel-saving trickery, but for all its pace the M3 is unsatisfying to drive. Numb steering and a clunky transmission are the reasons why.
Mitsubishi Evo X FQ360: £35,849
A cheaper take on the Japanese cult car, the Evo is cost-starved inside but goes like mad and grips like glue. GT-R-like character but more "real world".
Porsche 911 Turbo: £99,920
Nearly twice the GT-R's cost, similar power, pace, 4WD and frustration because you never dare to use its pace on a public road. Buy a Porsche Cayman and have more fun.