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.
THE R32 GT-R IS on its way to becoming a proper collectors’ car. Of all the Skylines, its shape has aged best and, while the interior is hideous by modern standards, it’ wonderfully Japanese.
DOT exemption for vehicles more than 25 years old has made the R32 GT-R hugely desirable in the USA. Prices have increased dramatically, with good examples previously available for as little as USD$10,000 now fetching more than twice that. In fact, many importers offer R32 GT-Rs complete with shipping and documentation to the US… for the right price.
On the flipside, the R33 GT-R represents fantastic value for money – especially for first-time GT-R buyers. The more rounded, swollen styling has given the R33 a stigma for being the ugly’ GT-R, but no Skyline has ever been considered beautiful.
The R33 boasts the same performance as the R32, with a much-improved interior, stronger gearbox and a more advanced 4WD system for a fraction of the price.
For many Skyline fans, the R34 GT-R remains the ultimate model thanks to its super-aggressive styling and godlike status, courtesy of the legendary PlayStation game, Gran Turismo.
Despite power remaining relatively the same, the R34 GT-R felt much more special than its predecessors, with bucket seats as standard and a super-cool on-board computer that gave readings including boost and g-force.
The R34 GT-R also featured a wide range of special editions, including the V-Spec II, N1, NUR, M-Spec and Z-Tune – each one more powerful, lighter and expensive than its predecessor.
In recent years, R34 prices have rocketed from about $40,000 to at least $80,000, with many fans considering it the last proper’ GT-R before the R35 arrived in 2007.
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 four-wheel-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.
THE MOST COMMON GT-R available is the R32, with a total of 43,934 produced, followed by the R33 (16,250) and R34 (12,175).
Buying a V-Spec’ model will give you a range of upgrades without the hefty premium associated with superrare limited editions.
The R32 received Brembo brakes and BBS wheels; the R33 gained an active LSD and lowered suspension, while the R34 benefited from a carbon bonnet, stiffer suspension and larger brake rotors.
Check the strut tops for rust. Water splash from the wheelarches gets in between the two metal skins used on the strut tower, causing rust over time due to poor sealant from the factory (especially common on R33s).
Expect to change the engine oil every 5000-8000km using a fully synthetic product.
Finding a stock GT-R is difficult, and you’ certainly pay top dollar for one that hasn’ been fettled. But don’ be put off by modifications provided they’ ve been carried out by a specialist using top-quality parts – the RB26 motor at a Stage 1’ tune will produce in excess of 300kW without the need for an overhaul or cooling/ transmission upgrades.
A typical engine refresh will set you back around $6000 while a gearbox rebuild can be in excess of $2000.
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.