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Godzilla Italiano: Driving Nissan’s $1.5-million Italdesign GT-R50 concept car – Roadshow

Not many things have enough draw to get me out of bed at 4:15 a.m. on a Sunday. But as Nissan representatives unload the one-of-one, $1.5-million Italdesign GT-R50 concept out of an enclosed trailer and onto my street, something tells me the lack of sleep will be worth it.

Both the Nissan GT-R and Italian styling house Italdesign celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year, and the GT-R50 is the result of a sort of ceremonious collaboration between the two companies. It officially debuted in Europe this summer, and following a number of media test drive opportunities and several appearances during Monterey Car Week in California, the GT-R50 would make its final US appearance, not at an auto show or other major event, but at a Sunday morning cars-and-coffee meetup in Woodland Hills, California. That's where I come in.

Godzilla in an Italian suit

A lot of cars don't photograph well, and the GT-R50 is one of them. It's hard to get a sense of just how long and low the concept car is, and how the new bodywork creates a new silhouette that's totally unique, yet at the same time, distinctively GT-R. Gold brightwork accents the hand-built, gunmetal body panels, outlining the new nose and sweeping down the car's liftback and rear fascia. The hood's prominent power bulge retains the GT-R's nostrils. The 21-inch wheels are borderline comically oversized. And those floating taillights are some of the coolest lamps fitted to any car, production or otherwise, ever.

Underneath this fancy skin is mostly stock GT-R Nismo running gear. That means power comes from a 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6, albeit with new turbochargers borrowed from the GT-R GT3 race car, larger intercoolers, stronger engine internals and axles, and a slightly revised dual-clutch transmission.

This revised powerplant is said to be good for 710 horsepower and 575 pound-feet of torque, though Neil Reeve, a Nissan engineer who's also the concept car's handler, tells me this specific GT-R50 is only making about 650 horsepower. You know, only 85 more horsepower than the already-insane base GT-R. The Bilstein adaptive suspension has been retuned to handle the GT-R50's extra power, and larger Brembo brakes are fitted to cease all madness in a hurry.

The 50 has hideaway door handles like a regular GT-R, but they're sort of sharp around the edges and not as easy to grasp. You have to duck a bit more as you carefully step inside, a byproduct of the roofline having been chopped by 2.1 inches compared to the stock coupe. Sitting inside the car for the first time at 4:45 a.m., it's hard to see exactly how different the 50 is from a regular GT-R, but the first elements I touch -- the steering wheel, gear shifter and that same freaking plastic turn signal stalk from every other Nissan car -- feel totally familiar. The infotainment screen is gone, the dash is finished in Alcantara and a vast majority of the interior panels are now made of carbon fiber. Even the gauge cluster is different -- and totally digital, though actually a bit 8-bit in its appearance.

No infotainment screen, a digital gauge cluster and carbon fiber everywhere. The GT-R50's interior may be familiar, but it offers a unique visual experience.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Unique, yet familiar

Driving a concept car is a weird experience, and you never really know what you're going to get. Remember, these are hand-built prototypes largely designed to drive on and off stages, and in and out of transport trucks. So no matter how robust the internals, there's still an overarching aura of fragility to even the most thoroughly constructed concepts.

Yet the GT-R50 fires up like any other GT-R, and for the first few minutes of my drive, it all feels remarkably similar. Merging onto the 10 freeway heading west toward Santa Monica, I can tell the ride quality is stiffer, sure, and the exhaust is a little louder, but this feels less like a hand-built project car and more like a GT-R that's seen some aftermarket tuning.

The biggest reminder of the GT-R50's conceptual status is its lack of visibility. The lower roofline, huge rear pillars and decidedly small rear hatch glass opening all impede my outward sight lines, and the superthin, definitely-not-DOT-approved side mirrors are basically useless. Oh, and it also doesn't have headlights. Yeah, the GT-R50 has cool, horizontally oriented running lights, but like the LEDs on a production car, they don't provide enough light to safely illuminate the road in darkness. Of course, no one at Nissan had ever driven the concept car at night before, nor had anyone ever intended to.

On a relatively empty, well-lit freeway, the lack of light isn't a huge problem. But as I head northwest out of Santa Monica on Pacific Coast Highway toward the canyon roads of Malibu and Topanga, it's only prudent that I let one of Nissan's chase cars lead the way -- driven by an engineer who's not letting the fact that he's in a sedate Rogue crossover keep him from enjoying some of Southern California's finest backroads.

Headlights? Not great. Taillights? Cool AF.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

A normal GT-R can attack canyon roads with incredible poise, and the Italdesign concept proves to be just as rewarding. The car immediately responds to inputs, matched with great weight and high levels of communication through the steering wheel. The Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires offer more grip than I'll ever need in this brisk-but-not-too-quick situation, and the adaptive suspension is both compliant enough to not jostle the fragile concept too much over broken pavement, but allows for GT-R-appropriate flat cornering characteristics.

Nothing about the incredibly capable GT-R experience is lost in this one-off prototype build. I can't say for sure if it provides an experience that's noticeably better -- I'd need a longer test to really suss that out -- but the important thing is that Godzilla's fancy new Italian suit hasn't watered down the experience.

Production intent

That's a good thing, as Nissan has every intent of putting the GT-R50 into production. It'll be super limited, of course -- only 50 will be made -- and each one will be a bespoke creation. Reeve tells me every GT-R50 will be individually customized by the buyer, and Nissan will not allow any two to look the same. Of course, at over a million dollars apiece, buyers should expect nothing less.

Nissan is looking for 50 well-heeled customers to make deposits in order for the project to get the green light. If this happens, Reeve says production can start as soon as early 2019, with the final deliveries happening before the end of 2020.

Judging by the Woodland Hills cars-and-coffee crowd, there's certainly interest. But in reality, people are less hopeful about the possibility of a limited-run Italdesign GT-R50, and more curious about what, if anything, this concept foretells about the next production GT-R.

If the GT-R50 goes into production, Nissan says no two will look the same.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

"I don't think we know yet know we're gonna go with the next GT-R," Reeve tells me. And speaking of the GT-R50 when it launched earlier this year, Nissan Senior Vice President of Global Design, Alfonso Albaisa, simply called it "an exciting celebration of two anniversaries in a provocative and creative way."

All I know is, the GT-R50 is a concept that's a proper tribute to the greatness of Nissan's iconic sports car, both in design, and especially in its feeling. It's definitely worth waking up for.