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Grading the GT-R

The ultimate Japanese hi-po car? We analyse two Nissan GT-R models to find out...

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar and Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in June 2000.
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Crowds gather to gawk from the side of the road, street workers give the thumbs up when you drive past and fellow motorists simply stare with their mouths wide open. Yes, everyone knows that this is the performance car outa Japan - Nissan's all-conquering Skyline GT-R. Supras, GTOs, STis and Evos - forget 'em all. If you want pure driver involvement, excitement and performance, the GT-R is it. Or so everyone says.

We test a R32 V Spec II and a R33 GT-R to find out if they're genuinely all they're cracked up to be...

First Impressions

The elaborate factory-supplied key to a GT-R is a work of art. You just know it fits into the ignition of a very special kind of car. And when you open the driver's door for the very first time, you realise you're right. The moment you get your bum inside, it hits you that this is a real monster of a car. The heavily-contoured racing seats grab you like a long-lost Auntie, the low driving position gives you a go-kart sensation and the towering rear wing fills the glass of the interior mirror. It's all very Top Gun-ish, and it tells you to "get in and drive me"! You wonder how this could be anything else but the ultimate - this is a GT-R.

Then you turn the shining key, and that's when all the excitement begins...

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The 206kW RB26DETT engine is by far the most standout feature of the gun Nissan. It's a killer. But surprisingly, it's not the standard power that grabs us by the 'nads - more its ability to pull from idle revs all the way to an 8100 rpm cutout. Its flexibility, throttle response and smoothness are amongst the best of any engine made. It's liquid power that you can pour on - it just k-e-e-p-s on flowing.

An RB26DETT is nothing new though. All three new era GT-R models (R32, R33 and R34) use the common 2.6 litre six-cylinder bottom-end with a twin-cam, 24-valve head. More important to making power are the twin turbochargers, massive air-to-air intercooler, six throttle butterflies and, of course, full engine management. But there's no variable cam timing, no variable intake manifold, no sequential turbos....

Although we've said it's a supremely flexible engine, if you're pottering in a cruising gear, don't expect to be sucked back into a GT-R's seat - no matter how hard you put your foot down. The 2.6 litre six makes peak torque of 355Nm at 4400 rpm, so it still has to be driven like a true turbo car - if you wanna go hard, you need to row the gears. In contrast, what about the Toyota Supra's 3 litre 2JZ-GTE? With 431Nm delivered at only 3600 rpm that's an engine!

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Flat-strap in a straight line a standard GT-R is fast. But it doesn't hold all the cards - certainly not like it once did. To give you a typical real-world comparison, a WRX shopping-trolley with simple exhaust and boost mods can easily bully this "performance benchmark". And, of course, then there're Lancer GSRs, Galant VR4s, Liberty RSs, Celica GT-Fours and TX3 KF Lasers which - with mild work - all make a GT-R look over-priced and over-rated. The problem boils down to the fact that a GT-R's got a fat arse and needs to lose weight. STi Imprezas, Evolution Lancers and the forgotten ST205 Group A GT-Four Celica all have the same peak power - but with much less weight to lug around. In company with these pocket rockets, you could guess the 'R' in GT-R probably stands for roly-poly....

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Against the stopwatch, the test R33 GT-R (heaviest of all GT-Rs) accelerated to 100 km/h in 6.2 seconds, while the R32 left it for dead in 5.6 seconds. They're fast - but definitely not supercar times. Both cars were launched with a swift clutch release at around 3500-4000 rpm, which resulted in a moment of rear tyre smoke before the front wheels got torque. Note that our test R32 came equipped with an aftermarket 3-inch exhaust, which gave much improved torque at all revs and increased engine flexibility.

Giving it a serve like this, you can hear the RB26DETT engine busily working away with a demented woosh (not of its turbos, but from the viscous-coupled radiator cooling fan), chattery solid lifters and gearbox grumbles. That's the unmistakable voice of a GT-R - all rustle and hustle.

Handling The Twisties

Now, let's really get into it. The GT-R handling debate is ongoing, but all you need to consider is this: the GT-R becomes 4WD only when the chassis's already become loose. There's absolutely no sense of permanent security like there is in a constant 4WD. Certainly, anyone stepping into a GT-R from a constant 4WD will wonder what the hell's wrong with it - how come it's wheel-spinning and the back is sliding around like an ice-skater?

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Low speed cornering in a GT-R is more dramatic than it is at high speed. You really have to be ready to catch it when the back lets go - and you also need to be brave enough to keep your foot buried even when there's a tree looming large in the side window. If you chicken out and ease of the throttle, you'll never get to the stage where the 4WD will power you out of the corner. You might as well be driving a rear wheel drive.

The R33 that we had apportioned torque to the front wheels a lot earlier than the '32. To give you an idea, it was putting about 2kg/m to the front even at a constant 60 km/h cruise - in the same situation, the R32 wasn't driving the front wheels at all. It was a similar situation in cornering - the R33 had fronts that were a lot more active. An earlier forward torque split after the apex means you'll get pulled out of a corner better and have more stability.

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The stage at which torque goes to the front wheels seems to vary from individual car to car - but based on our extensive experiences, we believe that the R33 is in general much more of a 4WDer than the R32. When you're punting a R32 GT-R hard, you need ten-tenths concentration, coz the 4WD kicks in so much later that you might find yourself heading sideways into trouble by the time it happens. An alert and capable driver is needed to push a R32 GT-R fast along an unfamiliar twisty road, that's for sure.

In these pics, it looks like the two cars are barrelling under power around a corner at an insane speed - and it feels it when you're inside too. In reality, they're doing a second-gear 45-50km/h and the corner isn't even all that tight...

In terms of suspension design, the mighty 'R is right up there. It uses the much-favoured wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear. The V Spec version of the R32 sports Bilsteins and an apparent increase in negative front camber. It was bone-rattlingly hard on metropolitan roads and it felt so heavily damped the ride was almost wooden. To get body roll in a V-Spec really takes some major cornering forces! In contrast, the R33 gave a sporty but not irritatingly firm ride. Sure, it had more body roll when pushed, but the compromise that made it comfortable to drive was most definitely worth it.

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Washing off speed in both the R32 V Spec and R33 are a brace of ABS-controlled Brembos. The front uses four-pot calipers, while the rears are twin potters. Beefy vented (but on these particular cars not slotted or drilled) discs are used all 'round and the combo works fairly well in the weighty vehicle. The pedal has good feedback, but you're never truly forced in anger against the windscreen.

Easing Back The Pace

When things are a little less frantic, there's the opportunity to focus on the detail of your surroundings. Certainly, the interior of both the R32 and R33 make quite a contrast.

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The R32's real Top Gun interior is a mixed bag. On the positive side, the seats hold you tightly, the wheel is grippy and the controls are well laid out (with a 10,000 rpm tacho thrown in!). The things that let it down include the choice of colours (which are so dark and boring it's a sin), abysmal instrument markings and an anti-social climate control system. The R32's awkward seating position in relation to the floor also causes strained legs and knees over time.

The inside of the next generation R33 is a lot more conventional and user-friendly than the 32's. Gone is the drabness and in its place is a lighter colour combination that's much more sunshine to look at. The very supportive seats are easier to get in and out of, the dash is much more modern looking (with trick - albeit fake - carbon fibre inserts) and there's driver and passenger airbags as well. Being newer, it also replaces the R32's radio/cassette with a radio/CD/stacker unit with integrated front tweeters. Though it'd be nice if the torque split gauge remained in the binnacle, not in the centre console.

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A lot of the GT-R's sexy external appeal comes from its Mr Universe-like presence and low, wide stance. Flamboyant boxed guards, side skirts, a deep front bumper and, of course, a massive rear wing (adjustable on the R33) are the ingredients that puts it above lesser model Skylines. Both models really strike you as scorching machines - but the R33 isn't nearly as boy-racer as the R32. It's a lot more mature.

The R33 is a significantly bigger car and can therefore afford a more graceful, flowing rear end - but at the same time, it's got bulkier rear haunches that counter any aesthetic improvement. Looking closer, aggressive xenon headlights span across the cars brow - a great visual unfortunately spoiled by indicator lights that look suspiciously like they've been stolen from a rental 6x4 trailer! At the opposite end are a couple of Skyline trademark round lights staring wide-eyed back at you.

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Stepping back a generation, the R32 now looks old-school. Our R32 was a V-Spec and came with a couple of slight visual differences to the average GT-R - like revised side skirts and a lower ride height. Everything looks cohesive on an R32 though; nothing stands out in a negative way. Overall, it looks tougher than the R33 and its bulges are in all the right places. The usual R32 GT-R rides on forged alloy 16 inch wheels, but both the V Spec version we tested and the newer R33 move up to 17s (lacy BBSs on the R32 V Spec).

Living With A Godzilla?

Few experiences rival the adrenaline of taking a GT-R for a quick fang on the weekend or after a stressful day at work. But using one every day for all those usual mundane duties becomes very, very tiring. And there are numerous reasons why...

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The steering chatter - oh, God! Drive an R32 GT-R non-stop for more than an hour and the relentless tramlining and steering kicking and bucking is incredibly draining (the R33 model isn't nearly as bad). Over B-grade roads in the '32, you have to hang onto the wheel so tightly your knuckles glow white enough to light up the whole cabin! It's just plain crazy - you can never relax or put your elbow on the windowsill. Un-blinking concentration is needed from the driver at all times, or you'll inevitably find yourself embedded in the roadside scenery. Yuk.

Then, of course, there's the size issue - especially in the R33. These GT-R suckers are so big they're literally impossible to park in city spaces - and that turning circle is a shocker. Try manoeuvring an R33 and you almost need a vacant paddock! Compared to a STi WRX (against which the car sells in Australia) it totally lacks the ability to squeeze through spaces or to execute U-turns with ease - so as a city car, it's good on the open road! (And even there a Rex always has a road that feels about thirty percent wider...)

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Build quality improved markedly in the R33 model. The R32 isn't about to fall apart, but the newer car sure comes together a lot better. For example, the '32's B pillars move about noticeably when the door is shut, and there are daggy exposed MIG welds lurking under the bonnet. The R33 doesn't suffer these ailments and its interior fitment is also superior to that of its older brother.

But space utilisation in both cars is poor. A GT-R is a big vehicle, but you wouldn't know it in the back seat or when you pop the boot - although the R33 has some extra acreage thanks to is further pumped-up size. In both models, there's plenty of legroom in the front though.

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Seeing a real-life GT-R makes people do weird things - basically, it encourages everyone on the road around you to act like total dickheads. Geminis, Pulsars, Commodore sixes and the like - they all want to race you! Rrrrrm, right up close behind your bumper...not good for the nerves! Own a GT-R and you're constantly stressing about potential theft or vandalism to your baby. When you see the reaction of all the morons, you'll sure be too scared to leave it anywhere. And that's a pity, coz that makes it a car for only cruising/thrashing on weekends etc - not something you can enjoy on a daily basis. It's not uncommon for GT-R owners to have to make some huge allowances for their car. All of a sudden, you have to wonder who's ruling whose life!

There are, of course, pluses though.

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The clutch is light and easy to operate, the gearshift is precise and all other controls feel positive. The steering - despite the tramlining - is also very accurate and gives excellent input response. Reliability is another of the GT-R's strong points. The engines last forever; the only area of question is the longevity of the ceramic turbos. There're no gearbox hassles like a WRX has... And when you get the urge for speed, the 206kW are always there to be unleashed. Sure, other cars are as quick, but let's face it - a car that gets to 100 in easily less than 7 seconds is gonna satisfy most of us.

A GT-R is a great car to make a spectacle in too. Drive it like a mad person and it looks ultra-cool - just make sure you're capable of catching it...

Verdict

Is the GT-R still king? King of what? - that's the real question. As a track car, the GT-R has proven itself beyond a doubt. As a road car it's not nearly so formidable - especially when you consider what other equally fast cars you can buy for about the same cash. But for many people, it's hard to get past the fact that it is a GT-R.

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It's also odd that the R32 and R33 have such different characters - there was obviously a major philosophy re-think held around Nissan's marketing table when it came to designing the R33 model. In comparison to the '32, it's a lot softer car overall. The older car is very dramatic in all ways - styling, handling and the brisker acceleration. So if you're chasing a modern-looking GT-R that's reasonably liveable - chose the R33. If you want a more hard-edged racer, go the '32.

But if you need a more practical vehicle that does everything either of them can do and is also a brand new car complete with a factory warranty, go buy an STi...

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Let the hate-mail begin!

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