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TG on ice: Nissan GT-R vs Tesla Model S P100D

The future takes on the past in an icy tech-off between electric and internal combustion

Published: 29 Mar 2018

Though my grasp of maritime law isn’t all that firm, I’m reasonably sure Kvarntjärnen, our icy home for these few halcyon days, doesn’t count as international waters. So let’s call this a technicality. You join me cloaked in thermals, hiking boot resting on the pedal of a Nissan GT-R. I’m not strictly allowed to drive it.

Seriously. In the UK, press demonstrators of Nissan’s ultimate speed machine come shackled to an over-30s-only insurance policy. It can be negotiated, but for my entire life so far, I’ve been too young to drive one on a public road. But atop a metre of frozen water walled by trees hiding kamikaze elk, surrounded by expensive sports cars and a certified lunatic on a snowmobile, this is legit. Funny old world.

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Words: Ollie Kew   Photography: Mark Riccioni 

First things first: void Rowan’s long-termer’s warranty. Prod the traction-control toggle for a couple of seconds and a red light indicates the nannies are off and the balloon’s gone up somewhere in the Nissan HQ supercomputer. OK, in for a penny. Let’s default to the transmission in angry R mode and the GT-R’s infamously rigid suspension in Comfort, because not five minutes ago Ollie Marriage and his new best friend, a sort of Swedish centaur – half man, half snowmobile – were rocketing up and down this once pristine surface, and the GT-R has got trenches to traverse.

Right, we’re ready for launch. No point in priming the engine with a blare of revs in this terrain. And this would be the opportune moment to confess, as a rapidly departing Tesla rudely deposits a cloud of finely chopped snow onto the Nissan’s windscreen, that all of these carefully considered pre-fight checks are futile. Sorry.

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We’d hoped to definitively settle the row between the two Official Cars of YouTube by having a showdown on neutral ground (water?). I drove the Tesla Model S P100D direct from Tesla’s dealership in Trondheim, Norway, yesterday morning, on its 1.5mm-studded Nokian Hakkapeliitta tyres. And then we waited, forlornly, as the delivery of the GT-R’s equivalents fail to arrive. Lost in transit.

So the mighty Godzilla is relying on Dunlop SP WinterSports. Two sprinters showing up for the 100m dash, one wearing running spikes, the other in Nike Airs. Short of breaking off the Nissan’s brittle switchgear and wedging it into the tyre tread, no amount of fiddling will save the GT-R here. The Tesla has long faded into the whiteout.

Negotiating an internet ceasefire will have to wait, but that actually opens this pairing up to more than just a binary drag race.

We simply couldn’t have assembled two vehicles with more contrary methods of supplying motion to all four wheels. The Tesla Model S houses a pair of induction motors, sandwiching the famous skateboard of battery ballast. The front wheels make do with 255bhp – more than the Ariel Nomad’s engine – while the larger rear motor develops 496bhp.

The amount of moving parts in that ‘drivetrain’ can be counted on one hand. I invite you to compare and contrast with ATTESA ET-S – Nissan’s clearly not versed in the art of an acronym rolling off the tongue, then. Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-terrain with Electronic Torque Split (breathe) “only” has 562bhp of V6 brawn to marshal, but it does so by juggling it from an engine that lives ahead of the dashboard, to a six-speed, twin-clutch gearbox and limited-slip diff behind the rear seats, and then shafting up to half of it back up to the front wheels, while the rears get 98-per-cent drive in standard driving conditions. Well, we haven’t got any of those.

As all-wheel-drive cars go, the Tesla is a MacBook, (though not an Air, one of the heavier ones that give hipsters sciatica one-strapping it to Starbucks). The fiendishly, fantastically complex, almost Brunellian Nissan is more like Alan Turing’s Bombe, which filled a room, cracked the Enigma code and shortened the Second World War.

If that sounds like I’m having a millennial-with-text-neck downer on the Nissan for being ancient, I’m not. As an education of how an intensely clever, over-engineered all-wheel drive works – and a mind-blower in how it can surprise, baffle and delight, the GT-R is beyond reproach.

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We’ve had one on this very lake before, years ago – wearing studded tyres, ironically – and it was so content rescuing itself from backwards-entry drifts that the exhausts clogged with snow and strangled the engine. So good at being foolproof, it choked itself. I love that.

I adore feeling a drivetrain working so hard too, splicing mechanical and electrical intelligence. From the moment the GT-R’s 16-bit computer senses slip (analysed ten times per second), up to 50 per cent of drive heads forwards. Meanwhile, the rear diff apportions thrust intelligently between each rear tyre, but because Nissan’s intent was an AWD system with a penchant for oversteer, it analyses your steering lock and forces more drive to the outside rear. So, what does that theory feel like? Gloriously, easily sideways, basically, but always under drive. With the steering wheel nigh-on straight, rev needle bent double around the stop, atomised snow swirling from the arches like liquid nitrogen, the GT-R summons huge purchase. Switch the transmission to Defcon Relaxed and the GT-R is less sideways, and maintains friendlier, tidier transitions.

The Tesla is never as dramatic. Oh, the P100D is hugely impressive, its two-point-many tonnes slamming the studs into the ice. But it’s lacking a sense of humour. Model S ‘Ds’ are programmed to ease off the front motor at launch, so the rear axle, where traction is maximised, does most of the work. When the front stops rearing, it’s allowed the full berries. That’s partly why it’s a drag race king and so effective here. But in corners, the Tesla can’t mimic a limited-slip diff or minutely focus power fore and aft. That’s not its fault. The notion of sustaining slip wasn’t on the radar in its conception. However flamboyant the Scandinavian flick, or touchscreen fingertip ballet to try to renounce traction control, it’s only interested in pointing straight and true ASAP, and pulverising onward. It would have walked the drag race. But a Tesla remains mind-blowing when demonstrating what it can do for you, not what you can make it do. 

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