Most drivers are probably familiar with the Nissan 370Z sports car. But fewer are aware of an even higher performance coupe that has been in the Nissan fleet for more than three years.

At a base price of nearly $90,000, the Nissan GT-R is an elite track star that blows the doors off most street-legal production models and sends exotics like Lotus into a defensive posture.

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The 530-horsepower, twin-turbo V6 engine and track-tuned suspension performed amazing feats when I first drove it on a racetrack. But the car's real potential emerged when I rode with a professional test-car driver who drifted through hairpin turns without hitting the brakes, relying solely on the paddle shifters for the dual-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission.

I couldn't hope to reproduce that performance with a 2012 review model on city streets. But I discovered that the GT-R is actually serviceable in routine driving.

The GT-R has four seats, though the two in back are probably better suited for smaller folks. For the driver, visibility is as good as you would expect from, say, a Chevrolet Camaro.

2012 Nissan GTR Photo Credit: Handout

Despite its performance credentials, the GT-R presents a fairly conventional interior with intuitive controls on the dash and center console. Nissan's theme in developing the GT-R was "the ultimate supercar that can be driven by anyone, anytime, anywhere."

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GT-R is built on Nissan's Premium Midship platform, which creates the first independent rear transaxle, all-wheel drive system. The system places the transmission, transfer case and final drive at the rear of the vehicle, improving weight distribution and handling.

To adjust vehicle settings, the driver is provided by a "set-up switch" in the center of the instrument panel to set transmission shifts, shock absorbers and the Vehicle Dynamic Control among three settings: Normal, Special or "R," for performance handling.

For 2013 models going on sale this month, the suspension has been retuned and horsepower has increased to 545 horses.

The front end of the GT-R rides low to the ground, so extra caution is required in approaching driveway ramps. The supercar's aerodynamics were improved last year with increased down force and the coefficient of drag reduced to 0.26 from 0.27. A new front fascia with aggressive double rectifier fins and integrated high intensity LED running lights was also added, enhancing the muscular appearance.

Other exterior features include high-mounted LED stoplights, bright LED rear combination taillights, "super wide beam" headlights, heated door mirrors and flat-blade windshield wipers. Six exterior colors are available for 2013.

Sculpted performance bucket seats give the driver and passenger a comfortable driving experience, and soft pads on the dash in front of the passenger and both doors add a layer of comfort.

GT-R's cockpit-style instrument panel surrounds the driver, with all meters at the same height to require less head movement. A large center-mounted tachometer, with gear display on its upper right, gives the driver instant detailed information, which is considered essential for the performance nature of the car. A large, metallic-framed center console features an ergonomically designed shift lever and a red "engine start" button.

The centerpiece of the instrument panel is a display that includes mechanical and driving data, acceleration, brake pedal pressure, steering angle and a recording function with playback.

"It's our desire to keep pushing the envelope, to never settle for second best or second place -- a philosophy that makes Nissan GT-R one of the most coveted and affordable supercars in the world today," said Brian Carolin, Nissan senior vice president.


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WHAT'S NEW: 15-horsepower increase, new color options.

PLUSES: Performance, rarity, styling, user friendliness.

MINUSES: Cost, risk of speeding tickets.

BOTTOM LINE: A true supercar that costs less.

TYPE: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, four-passenger, compact coupe.

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PRICE: $89,950 base; $91,230 as tested.

WHERE BUILT: Tochigi, Japan.

KEY RIVALS: Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG, Jaguar XKR.

POWER: 3.8-liter, DOHC, twin-turbo, 530-horsepower V6; six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission (rear-mounted).

PERFORMANCE: 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds; top speed 193 mph.

FUEL ECONOMY: 16 city, 23 highway, 19 combined mpg; estimated annual fuel cost ($2,529).

CHASSIS: Unibody; independent suspension with front double-wishbone, rear multi-link; Bilstein DampTronic mono-tube shock absorbers, computer controlled, three-position driver adjustable; Nissan/Brembo Monoblock six-piston front and rear ventilated disc brakes; speed-sensitive power steering; 20-inched forged alloy wheels; Dunlop Sports Max GT 600 DSST CTT tires (P255/40ZRF20 front, P285/35ZRF20 rear).

LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT: 183.1 x 74.9 x 54 inches.

WHEELBASE X TRACK: 109.4 x 62.6/63 inches.

CURB WEIGHT: 3,829 pounds.

STANDARD: LED rear combination taillights; super wide beam headlights; heated door mirrors; flat-blade windshield wipers; entertainment system with a 9.3 GB Music Box Hard Drive and DVD video playback; Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System; XM NavTraffic with Real-Time Traffic Information and NavWeather; cruise control; power windows/locks; remote keyless entry; intelligent key system; Homelink transmitter; front-seat knee pads; auto climate control; carbon fiber interior trim; leather upholstery; front/side/head-curtain air bags.

OPTIONS: Floor mats ($280).