GT-R DY­NASTY R32 to R34, we drive three GT-R hits from an un­for­get­table era


WHEN IT comes to come­backs, this one hit harder than cult comic Bill Hicks tak­ing apart a heck­ler. In 1989, Nis­san res­ur­rected the GT-R badge for a new kind of per­for­mance coupe and over the fol­low­ing two gen­er­a­tions ce­mented its rep­u­ta­tion as a leg­end.

There had been GT-Rs be­fore. The story ac­tu­ally starts back in the late 1960s with the PGC10, first a four-door sedan and, later, a KPGC10 coupe. Five decades on, the GT-R is now a stand­alone model, rather than a top-spec ver­sion of Nis­san’s Sky­line coupe.

But the GT-R’s rep­u­ta­tion was built largely on the back of three cars sand­wiched in the mid­dle – the R32 and its R33 and R34 suc­ces­sors. Through a com­bi­na­tion of mo­tor­sport vic­to­ries around the world, ex­po­sure to a new kind of car en­thu­si­ast via com­puter games like Polyphony’s Gran Turismo and the Fast

& The Fu­ri­ous movie fran­chise, the GT-R badge be­came as well known as M3 or GT3.

The GT-R’s cult fol­low­ing, and grow­ing re­al­i­sa­tion of this car’s im­por­tance in the his­tory of great fast coupes, means prices are ris­ing fast. You’ll pay more than dou­ble what th­ese cars would have cost only a hand­ful of years ago, and some of the rarest have smashed the $100K bar­rier. But a GT-R isn’t out of reach yet. We gath­ered three gen­er­a­tions of GT-R from R32-R34 to an­swer the ques­tion – which is best?

It’s easy to think of 1989 as year zero for the GT-R badge. Not just be­cause it marked the re­turn of those three let­ters after an al­most two-decade hia­tus fol­low­ing the demise of the Ken­meri KPGC110 back in 1973, but be­cause of the ground-break­ing tech­nol­ogy on board.

But there had been rum­blings for a while, mi­nor tremors picked up by GT-R seis­mol­o­gists that pointed to the model’s re­turn. And the big­gest of those was the HR31 GTS-R in­tro­duced in 1987, with the aim of dom­i­nat­ing Group A rac­ing – and it did so, win­ning the 1990 Aus­tralian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship. The R31 model line that had ap­peared two years ear­lier was the first to use the leg­endary RB tur­bocharged 2.0-litre straight-six en­gine, which de­liv­ered 154kW to the rear wheels.

It was a po­tent pack­age, but it might as well have been a 120Y com­pared to the R32 GT-R that fol­lowed two years later. Now the straight-six dis­placed 2.6 litres in RB26DETT form – good for a thump­ing 206kW. And in­stead of fun­nelling that lot to the rear wheels, this time the fronts were in on the act cour­tesy of ATTESA-ETS (Ad­vanced To­tal En­gi­neer­ing Sys­tem for All – Elec­tronic Torque Split).

If the tech con­tent still sounds con­tem­po­rary, so the styling still looks it. To our eyes the R32 has aged way bet­ter than its sib­lings, in­clud­ing the R34, and that was still in pro­duc­tion as re­cently as 2002. It looks lean and low, a Fight Club-spec Brad Pitt to the R33’s chunkier Troy ver­sion, its pinched waist ex­ag­ger­at­ing the rear whee­larch flares that man­age to look well-filled de­spite the tiny 16-inch rims in­side them.

The seats are el­e­gantly sim­ple and more sup­port­ive than they look. And the three-spoke steer­ing wheel is a mas­ter­class in how to de­sign one well. Ac­tu­ally, the steer­ing is great, full stop. Any fears a tech over­load might have ren­dered this chas­sis aloof and un­com­mu­nica­tive are quickly dis­missed. This is the light­est of the three cars and feels it, dis­play­ing a feather-footed ea­ger­ness to change tack, a trait aided by the su­per HICAS four-wheel-steer sys­tem.

Those rear wheels only turn by a mi­nus­cule amount, but the ef­fect is to point the nose into bends like a car with a wheel­base inches shorter, the lit­tle torque gauge in the in­stru­ment pod flick­er­ing as you get on the gas and the rear-drive bias starts to share some of the fun with the front wheels. Sorry, Audi fan boys, we love the Ur-quat­tro, but the GT-R makes it feel as so­phis­ti­cated as a Massey Fer­gu­son.

And about as fast. The en­gine’s a beast. A lit­tle laggy, yes, but smooth and soul­ful – and still stonk­ingly punchy when you let the rev counter stray into the se­cond half of its arc. With 206kW un­der the nose, the R32 could hit 100km/h in around 5.0sec de­spite a chunky 1480kg kerb weight. Back then, this was the next best thing to a Porsche 959. Lit­tle won­der it dom­i­nated on the track, earn­ing it­self the Godzilla nick­name. The ques­tion was, how was Nis­san go­ing to im­prove on it?

Some GT-R fans ar­gue that Nis­san didn’t im­prove on the R32 at all, at least not un­til the R34 came along in 1999. The R33 was the dif­fi­cult se­cond al­bum, sand­wiched be­tween the orig­i­nal car and the R34. It doesn’t have the R32’s mo­tor­sport pedi­gree, and as a street car it was heav­ier, to the eye and on the scales.

But let’s not lose sight of the facts: when the R33 ap­peared in 1995, it was the fastest Sky­line GT-R yet, be­com­ing the first car to lap the old Nur­bur­gring Nord­schleife in less than eight min­utes, beat­ing the R32 by a mas­sive 21 sec­onds. And it’s for­tu­nate for Europe’s car­mak­ers that Nis­san didn’t get its act to­gether to bring the car to the UK in big num­bers be­cause it was still worlds apart from the old-money elite.

Much of the hard­ware con­tained within the mus­cu­lar new body was car­ried over, in­clud­ing the RB26DETT, sup­pos­edly


pro­duc­ing the same 206kW, the max­i­mum al­lowed thanks to a Ja­panese man­u­fac­tur­ers’ agree­ment (known as the ‘Gen­tle­man’s Agree­ment’). In fact, it was pro­duc­ing more than 224kW, and mods like in­creased boost pres­sure and an im­proved in­ter­cooler helped pile on ex­tra torque for a 375Nm to­tal.

After the wacky R32 in­te­rior with its pod con­trols ei­ther side of the in­stru­ment bin­na­cle, the R33’s cabin is a bit of a let­down. Acres of plain grey plas­tic, a fat airbag wheel and, bar the trio of aux­il­iary gauges and a rev counter red­lined at 8000rpm, noth­ing to give the game away. Is this really the sem­i­nal mid-'90s su­per coupe or have I got­ten into a Nis­san Pul­sar by mis­take?

For­tu­nately the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is any­thing but plain. The R33 might be bur­dened with 50kg of ex­tra weight over its pre­de­ces­sor but the big six still man­ages to click off those dig­its on the rev counter al­most faster than you can count them. You need to keep north of 4000rpm to make the most of it, work­ing the five-speed man­ual 'box so you surf that ‘on cam’ sen­sa­tion when the in­duc­tion noise and push in the back take on a more se­ri­ous tone. Do that and, while it feels light years re­moved from the gut-crush­ing, plum­met­ing-el­e­va­tor that is a new R35 GT-R on full re­heat, it still de­liv­ers se­ri­ous pace.

But it’s more than an en­gine, this R33. Nis­san didn’t for­get the brakes, gift­ing all R33s the Brembo set-up that had been re­served for the ex­treme V-spec ver­sion of the R32, and hon­ing the four­wheel-steer, adding a Su­per-pre­fix to the HICAS four-wheel drive sys­tem to de­note the ad­di­tion of front and rear yaw rate con­trol.

Nudge the big wheel into a curve and you might be sur­prised by its ath­letic re­sponse. The R33 re­sponds more ur­gently than it looks like it should, putting paid to any thoughts that it’s some kind of poor re­la­tion, while wheels up­scaled an inch to 17 inches pro­vide no­tice­ably more grip. Give your­self enough room, though, and the ATESSA four-wheel drive sys­tem will even dump enough torque to the back axle to over­come it.

If your only ex­pe­ri­ence of quick all-wheel drive stuff is a Haldex-equipped VW Group ma­chine, you’ll be gob­s­macked the first time you let loose in a GT-R. And you’ll be equally amazed at just how dif­fer­ent an R34 Sky­line can feel.

Ex­cit­ing as the R33 is, its stand­ing only di­min­ishes after a turn be­hind the wheel of the car that re­placed it. This was Nis­san try­ing to re­cap­ture some of the dy­namism of the ear­lier R32. So the R34 mea­sures 75mm shorter be­tween the bumpers, but


5mm wider across the shoul­ders. It weighs 10kg more than even the burly R33, and sup­pos­edly has no more power, but in fact is both­er­ing its four cor­ners to the tune of at least 245kW, with more than 300kW just a few bolt-on mod­i­fi­ca­tions away.

Given the bravado of the body­work, it ought to be pack­ing at least 450. The pur­ple paint­work here may be an odd choice for some­thing so ma­cho (it’s the only colour R34 ho­molo­gated for use in the US, and con­se­quently se­ri­ously valu­able), but you can’t ar­gue with our fi­nal Sky­line’s road pres­ence. That Des­per­ate Dan jaw­line, that huge high-rise spoiler, those square-cut arches that are so mas­sive even the now-stan­dard 18s strug­gle to fill them... it’s like an R32 re­drawn as a grotesque car­i­ca­ture by some sea­side pave­ment artist.

Climb in­side and it doesn’t take long to spot some very cool de­tails that save the cabin be­ing the dull plas­tic marathon that is the R33’s. The seats, for in­stance, have pro­nounced bol­sters and strange lit­tle grippy cir­cles dot­ted across their sur­face to keep you planted. Then there is what looks like a mod­ern mul­ti­me­dia nav­i­ga­tion unit planted on the dash­top, which turns out to be a dis­play for all sorts of in­for­ma­tion – in­clud­ing g-force read­ings – you could never have time to look at if you were driv­ing this thing prop­erly.

See, this is not a car for pootling. Like its brothers, the ride is harsh by mod­ern stan­dards and the re­fine­ment not that great. It wants to go. So let it. Wind the en­gine out be­yond the 6800rpm power peak, throw some gears at it cour­tesy of the now six-speed gear­box, and lis­ten to the sound of those six in­di­vid­ual throt­tle bod­ies. Again, there’s some lag, but the throt­tle re­sponse is clean, and the grin on your face is a dirty great one when the boost ar­rives and thumps you squarely be­tween the shoul­der blades.

But it is in the cor­ners where the R34 really as­serts it­self. Com­pared with the R33’s bodyshell, the R34’s is half as stiff again, and you’re re­minded of this ev­ery sin­gle time you twist the steer­ing wheel. There’s im­me­di­acy, a pu­rity of re­sponse that you sim­ply don’t get with the ear­lier cars. And though we’re not go­ing fast enough to reap the ben­e­fits to­day, the R34’s im­proved aero mods, in­clud­ing that gi­ant rear wing and, on V-spec ver­sions like this one, a front spoiler and rear dif­fuser, prom­ise ex­tra sta­bil­ity. Oh, and ex­tra carpark ku­dos.

Rolling through coun­try ar­eas, our three-car GT-R con­voy causes quite a stir, and it’s the R34 that draws the most in­ter­est. In the used car mar­ket, that same strong in­ter­est means prices have rock­eted. You’ll pay more than $80K for an R34, but can still pick up one of its two pre­de­ces­sors for less than half that. Is the R34

worth the ex­tra cash?

Ul­ti­mately, the Sky­line series re­de­fines the per­for­mance en­ve­lope. Which­ever car you’ve owned be­fore, any­thing this side of a Porsche 911 996 Turbo will seem slow. See­ing as 996 Tur­bos are now head­ing over the $150,000 hill and be­yond, the Sky­line – even the R34 – rep­re­sents a com­par­a­tive bar­gain. We’d sug­gest that the Sky­line is also a much more in­volv­ing drive at at­tain­able speeds than the Porsche.

How­ever, which Sky­line do you choose?

The R33 clearly comes in third, but it’s no loser. At the mo­ment it’s a bar­gain com­pared with the R34, and a much more re­fined place to be than the R32. The R34 comes next – it’s the best car to drive here, hands down. And you would ex­pect that; it’s the last of the evo­lu­tion­ary line, after all. How­ever, you’re look­ing at sig­nif­i­cant start­ing prices (if you can find one) to get into one worth both­er­ing with. If you can stom­ach that, then we’d say it’s a com­fort­able place to park your money. If you’re more in­ter­ested in the driv­ing, then an R33 will de­liver 95 per cent of the thrills at around half the price. Well, for now...

Yet the R34 is not the win­ner from our trio. The R32, the Sky­line with the purest style, the rac­ing prove­nance and an achiev­able price tag (if you’re buy­ing a Ja­panese im­port), would get my vote. It’s still rel­a­tively af­ford­able, and though there are lots of them about, the cream of the crop will al­ways be sought after.

It’s the next M3 (E30), and we all know what hap­pened to them. Buy one now, while you still can.

MAIN Three gen­er­a­tions of Godzilla made for an im­pres­sive sight blast­ing through the Bri­tish coun­try­side

ABOVE R34 was the best of the three mod­els to drive. Note the dash-top screen – not Sat­Nav but for info you won't have time to look at

MAIN Godzilla has aged well since it ar­rived in 1989 thanks to sleek styling and pur­pose­ful stance

TOP El­e­gant five-spoke al­loys con­ceal brakes that weren't quite up to the R32's weight and per­for­mance

ABOVE R32's orig­i­nal five-speed man­ual gear­box is solid, but rapid stand­ing starts can lead to ex­pen­sive clutch re­place­ments

FAR LEFT The key to bru­tal turbo-six per­for­mance and four-wheel drive trac­tion and han­dling LEFT GT-R badg­ing has tra­di­tion­ally been sub­tle MAIN The show­room brochure may have said 206kW, but you could al­ways count on hav­ing a lot more than that un­der your right foot in a GT-R

BELOW More Pul­sar than su­per­car, the R33 model was let down by a generic plas­tic cabin that failed to do the im­proved model jus­tice

ABOVE RIGHT As with the R33, Brembo calipers were fit­ted to R34, the last GT-R to carry the Sky­line name­plate

MAIN With at least 245kW on tap, the much im­proved R34 really was a beast

LEFT Fa­mil­iar RB26DETT en­gine fea­tured big­ger tur­bos with ce­ramic blades in the R34, al­low­ing tuners to pump up the boost

ABOVE In Aus­tralia, just 100 R32 GT-Rs were com­plied and of­fi­cially sold from 1991 and at­tract a premium again over their im­ported coun­ter­parts

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