The world's most advanced road car: Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R driven (CAR+ archive, 1990)

Published: 06 July 2016

The Porsche 928GT, fire-engine red and driven by a professional German racer, could not stand the pace. At the end of another lap of the Nurburgring's 13.02-mile Nordschleife circuit, with the Nissan Skyline poised to overtake, smoke started to billow from the rear of the German car. The incapacitated Porsche, smoking impotently, silently pulled off the circuit. The Nissan hurtled on its way.

On the Nurburgring's long back straight, just before the blow-up, the Porsche had actually pulled a couple of car lengths on the Nissan. A 928GT, after all, has more power than a standard Skyline GT-R. It's more aerodynamic, too. But on the winding mountainous part of the circuit — which, to be frank, is the rest of the Nurburgring — the Japanese car was convincingly it superior. 

The Skyline neatly and quite effortlessly strung together the brows, dips and apices that constitute this most dangerous and challenging of racing circuits. The Porsche, indomitable by conventional front-engined supercar standards, was leaning and scrubbing, sliding and screeching. It was being out-manoeuvred. Not by a conventional supercar, mind you. The Porsche was being licked by the world's most advanced road car. 

With the Skyline, Nissan's engineers were given a free hand — in the words of one, of them — 'to out-Porsche Porsche. We reckon Porsche makes the best-handling cars. And the 959 is reckoned to be the most advanced supercar ever made. We wanted to beat the 959.' 

Nissan also built the GT-R to win international group A races, against the likes of the Cosworth Sierra and the BMW M3. A minimum of 5000 will be built although, such is the demand in Japan, the volume is likely to be considerably bigger. There are no plans yet for European sales. 

The starting point for the GT-R is fairly humble: a standard three-door version of the Skyline, Nissan's Toyota Cressida rival. Add big butch metal wheel-arch flares, ellipsoidal headlamps (with lenses like a projector's), and meaty 225/50R16 Bridgestone Potenza tyres riding on starfish-pattern alloys. To reduce weight, the bonnet and front wings are aluminium. Fully kitted, the GT-R looks fairly discreet, especially in the gunmetal grey of our test car (the most common colour). 

To give this new road-racer some bite, Nissan's long-serving big straight-six gets twin-cam, four valves per cylinder heads and, more important, a pair of ceramic turbos. Maximum power, for the 2.6-litre unit, is claimed to be 280bhp but one of the Nissan engineers on hand at the Nurburgring explained that Japanese manufacturers have a gentlemen's agreement not to build cars with more than 280bhp: 'In fact,' he whispered, the GT-R has an easy 300bhp, and we can tweak it to give more.' The ceramic turbos are a novel touch; they have far better heat resistance than conventional steel turbo rotors. 

Far more important than what's in the nose is what is under the floorpan. The drivetrain — dubbed Nissan's Electronic Torque Split 4wd system (E-TS for short) — is a rear-drive-biased set-up that can deliver anything between zero and 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels. In simple terms, the front wheels get the driving torque that the rear wheels can't handle. When the GT-R starts to oversteer, or breaks traction in some other way at the tail, power is fed to the front. 

The 'brain' of the system is a microprocessor that gathers signals from sensors monitoring lateral g, throttle opening and engine speed. This chip, in turn, is linked to another chip also used to control the ABS —which measures wheel speed and longitudinal g. The main microprocessor gathers all the relevant information and, in turn, actuates a hydraulic pressure control valve which varies the engagement pressure on a wet multi-plate clutch—the main mechanical component in the 4wd system. 

This clutch, in the heart of the transfer unit, feeds torque to the front wheels. By varying the level of hydraulic pressure applied to the clutch, the front/rear torque split can be continuously controlled from rear-drive only (0:100) to a rigid 4wd mode (50:50), or any split in between. When the multi-plate clutch is engaged, drive is fed to the front wheels via a chain linked to a forward-facing driveshaft, and the front differential. Drive is fed to the rear wheels via the main shaft of the transfer unit, just as in a conventional rear-drive car. 

The endless variability of the front-to-rear torque split is one of the keys of the system: most performance 4wd vehicles, which usually feature viscous coupling control, have some degree of variability, but nothing like the range of the GT-R's system. Nissan reckons its electro-mechanical system is superior to that of a viscous coupling controlled centre diff: the VC is sensitive to rotation, whereas the E-TS system is torque-sensitive. 

The Porsche 959 also has an electro-mechanical set-up, but it always has a minimum 20 percent of the torque fed to the front wheels. The fact that some of the torque goes forwards compromises the 959's ultimate handling : any car with some torque being fed through the front wheels is more likely to understeer than a properly set-up rear-drive car. The Nissan behaves like a rear-drive car, until the eventual want of rear traction summons the front wheels into action.

The high-tech theme of the GT-R doesn't end with the transmission, though. Four-wheel steering helps turn-in, and improves the stability of the car while cornering. Unlike the cruder systems used by Mazda and Honda, the GT-R's four-wheel steering is used to improve handling, rather than parking ease. The rear wheels counter-steer to help the Skyline turn into the corner, and then steer in the same direction as the fronts, to help stability. The rear wheels on the 4ws Honda Prelude, by comparison, counter-steer only in very tight corners and during parking; on the 4ws Mazda 626 the rears counter-steer only when parking. 

Sensors monitor the steering angle, the speed with which the steering wheel is being manoeuvred, and the vehicle's velocity. The information is fed to a microchip which controls a solenoid valve which, in turn, controls the oil flow to a rear hydraulic actuator. The rear actuator steers the rear wheels via a pair of track rods. Unlike the original Nissan HICAS 4ws system, there is no compliance in the GT-R's set-up. The track rods can articulate the rear wheels to a maximum of one degree. At high speed, though, the maximum movement— in both directions — is approximately 0.3deg. 

A final avant-garde touch is the use of Nissan's new all-round multi-link suspension — also seen on the new 300ZX, and to be a feature of the next-generation Bluebird (to be called Primera). The front suspension —the more intriguing — is based on the double-wishbone principle, but uses a third link at the outer end of the upper wishbone. This articulates the upper arm's behaviour, improving ride and camber control — and thus steering feel. Another advantage: the multi-link set-up is supposed to improve damper control : every inch the wheel moves, the damper moves by exactly the same amount. Anti-roll bars are fitted front and rear and, compared with the normal Skyline, the springs and dampers are noticeably stiffer. 

On paper, then, we have a technological wonder car. Out there, we had the Nurburgring, the world's most testing circuit. We joined a small group of Japanese journalists, flown to Germany to try Nissan's new supercar on the toughest course imaginable. Quite by chance, the German magazine Auto Bild also hired the Nordschleife part of the 'Ring —in effect, the old Nurburgring, minus the newly fettled grand prix track— and a few professional racers to help with a comparison it was doing between a 928GT, a Mercedes 500SL and the new BMW M5. It soon became clear: in terms of lap times, the GT-R driven by journalists was faster than the German trio driven by professionals. It was an unexpected bonus for Nissan. 

Inside, the Skyline is new-school Japanese. All the gargoyles and gimmickry of old Japanese performance cars are gone. Instead, you're left with a sombre, subdued cabin: dark colours, a nicely sculpted dash, and a full house of analogue instruments — including one I've never seen before: a torque-split gauge, which shows exactly how much muscle is being sent to the front diff. 

The seats are big, and hug the thighs and torso. The driving position is straight-ahead, and perfect: the pedals are placed by people who know what drivers like. The steering wheel, three-spoked and leather-rimmed, looks beautiful and feels good. The gear lever, leather-crowned, selects first a little notchily, but flows through the other ratios. Only the switchgear — hard plastic, and rather cheap — spoils the upmarket effect. 

It was time to try the 'Ring. The clutch is firm, the engine pulls comfortably from low revs, growing increasingly truculent as the revs build. The deep engine note turns into a growl, and then into a bellow. The turbos come in quite smoothly, but when they're engaged, the GT-R surges forward: even in a straight line, it feels like a pukka supercar. To boot, the big six is smooth, refined. 

Turn right out of the Nordschleife's pits, onto the circuit proper, and soon you're through a left-hander and surging downhill—with the new grand-prix track clearly in view off to the left — heading to the tightest complex on the circuit. It doesn't take long to realise that this Skyline is different: it turns into corners with an extra, artificial eagerness: it's quite pronounced. 

On these tighter corners, the car is a basic understeerer: but there's less nose plough than on an Audi Quattro, or even a Porsche 959. The rear counter-steer helps overcome initial understeer. So does the fact that, on tight corners in the dry, no power whatsoever is being fed to the front tyres: driven wheels tend to have larger cornering slip angles. Nissan's engineers reckon that in fast driving on a dry road, no more than 20 percent of the available torque is fed to the front.

Through the tight bits, on the first kilometre of the circuit, body roll is well checked, and the car neatly strings together the corners. Soon after, the circuit opens up: blind crests lead to fast corners. The circuit dips and curls, winding its way between pine forests, lined with Armco, but with worryingly small run-off areas. Leave the track, and you'll almost certainly end up kissing the barriers — hard. 

On the faster corners, the car's behaviour is also foreign. The car obediently turns into the bend — helped by the tail counter-steer — before drifting neutrally through the turn. Stability is helped by the rear wheels which, when cornering, turn in the same direction as the fronts. Keep the right boot down, and you'll probably just start to feel the onset of oversteer —the tail is just starting to swing wide of the nose — and everything you've been taught tells you to back off and wind on some opposite lock, to check the rear-end slide. But in a GT-R you keep your foot hard down, and don't have to worry about any steering correction. 

Just as the tail starts to move, it is denied some of the power — which instead is fed to the front. The rear tyre slip angle is thus reduced, and the front increased. And by keeping the car on full throttle — and thus losing no time the car magically straightens its line, and exits the corner tidily and neatly, with no tail-out nonsense. No need to correct the steering, or to back off. No need to do anything except steer the car normally. The car does the correcting for you. 

No car, of course, can totally overcome bozo driving : plough into a corner way too fast, and you'll still end up arguing with the crash barrier. Instead, the GT-R flatters your driving, making ham-fisted drivers smoother, and giving extra traction and security where a normal car would bite. 

It's well-suited to the Nurburgring : to the twists and brows and turns, for the handling is the most impressive aspect of the car. Just as important, no driver can learn the Nurburgring in the short time (barely a day) that we had available. As a result, we were all making small mistakes, as we misread corners. The Skyline compensated for our misjudgments. 

The most memorable lap was when I followed the bright red Porsche, which was being driven hard by a man who knew the circuit better than I. The 928GT, of course, is among the finest of all rear-drive cars: stable, poised, and fast. Yet, slowly but surely, the GT-R narrowed the gap. Whereas the tail of the Porsche would sway quite alarmingly at times, the GT-R would be smoother, more composed. The GT-R was quicker around the bends —particularly the slower and medium-speed turns.

I reckon I pulled in about 10 car lengths on the 928, in the course of a lap. Sweeping down to the chicane that slows the cars before completing a lap, the 928 had had enough : smoke billowed ominously. An hour later, the Porsche was going again, so the problem cannot have been catastrophic. Yet the Skyline had beaten the German car, fair and square. 

For the 13.02 Miles, my best lap — timed rather haphazardly on a conventional wrist watch —was a few seconds under nine minutes. Nissan's fastest test driver, who tests frequently at the Nordschleife, has nipped below 8min 30sec. That's an average speed of more than 90mph. It's the same average speed that Fangio managed, when setting fastest lap on his way to winning the '57 German Grand Prix, in a Maserati 250F. That, incidentally, was one of the Great Man's greatest drives. 

But whereas Fangio's lap must have been full of lurid oversteer slides, and must have summoned every last ounce of talent from the world's greatest-ever racer, the Japanese gentleman who matched his speed in a standard Nissan road car probably barely raised a sweat. The car's talent helped make him a Fangio. Although not the most inspiring, accelerative, or beautiful of cars, the Skyline is now surely the world's most awesomely competent road machine. 

Counterpoint – Kevin Radley

A week before flying to Germany to drive the new Nissan at the Nurburgring, I took delivery of my own GT-R. For two years I'd been hearing stories about the forthcoming new super Skyline. Nissan engineers were unanimous: this was the greatest road car ever to come from Japan. The new 300ZX, developed concurrently, and subsequently lauded by the world's press, generated far less enthusiasm. The enthusiasm became infectious. Even before driving a GT-R, I ordered one. In Japan, it costs just under £20,000 —which makes it about 40 percent more expensive than a Toyota Supra Turbo or a fully loaded Celica GT-4.

The moment I knew that I had chosen something special came on a race track, when I first drove the car in Japan. After a learning lap, I picked up the pace and entered a tight left-hander a bit too fast, bringing the tail around. In itself, the car's behaviour was benign, with good feedback from the front tyres and plenty of evidence of the developing yaw. 

My first reaction was to ease off the accelerator. That's what I had been taught: a rear-end slide is caused by wheelspin, so contain the wheelspin to control the slide. But in studying the literature explaining the new E-TS (Electronic Torque Split) four-wheel-drive system I had noticed that wheelspin would be reduced by the system's own devices, and that the result would be better cornering behaviour. Having already determined that there was sufficient space to contain a spin, I slammed the accelerator pedal to the floor. 

The sudden surge of power increased the amount of wheelspin at the rear, causing the car to yaw, but as the rear wheels spun, the E-TS computer tightened up the multi-plate transfer clutch connecting drive to the front wheels, so that a gradually increasing proportion of the engine's torque was deducted from that going to the rear wheels and went to the front wheels instead. The ET-S reduced the wheelspin that was causing the rear to slide, and put the car on course for recovery. 

The system can also be used to tame understeer. The natural chassis balance is towards understeer, but if it builds up, the driver can counteract it with a boot-full of power to start the rear sliding. That will work in almost any high-powered rear-drive car, but in most of them the driver is then faced with catching a rapid increase in yaw. In the Skyline GT-R, however, the actions that follow are the same as if the car had started in a slide, and the end result is just as benign. 

This revolutionary ability to use the variable torque split to control the car's attitude makes the Skyline a virtually foolproof handler. Aided by fine basic suspension geometry, and the clever ministrations of Super-HICAS four-wheel steering, the GT-R is an easy car to drive hard and fast, and I was able to dive into my first lap at the Nurburgring with an enthusiasm and confidence that a previous drive in a less powerful rear-drive car had not allowed. 

By comparison, Gavin Green drove the car with more delicacy and precision, to keep the car cornering as a racing car should. Driven in that manner it is as quick as any current production car, bar a Ferrari F40.  But it seems to me that he was not using the car's full ability. He has years of racing experience which have taught him to anticipate certain limits that, I believe, the Skyline transcends. For him, the Skyline probably requires an unlearning period, and in the hands of Nissan test drivers who have unlearned already, the Skyline is demonstrably superior to rivals. 

But the point about it for me is not what its final ability might be. More important for the average enthusiast, is the ability to go quickly and have fun straight away. And I don't know of any car that achieves that aim better than the GT-R. That's why I just had to have one. 

Read more CAR+ iconic cars features

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

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