With more computers than an early NASA rocket the latest Nissan Skyline GT-R should be almost as much of a blast. So why, ask Gavin Conway, does the sum not equal the parts?
It was the most awful car I have ever driver. Even a massive dose of technology had failed to redeem what was an execrable driving experience; the thing had a simply mind-bending number of different settings for steering and suspension feel, all available at the poke of a dash-mounted button. And all of them a slightly different shade of bad. That was more than five years ago, and the car was a Lincoln Continental with European aspirations. Ever since, I’ve had an abiding suspicion of cars that rely too heavily on software to deliver a good drive. But I’m no Luddite. The world changes. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. But there’s one thing that won’t ever change and that is this. The proof is in the driving.
A quick walk around the Skyline R34 GTR V-spec to get the atmosphere. Huge adjustable rear wing. Fat blisters of wing barely containing the most gorgeous 18-inch wheels in memory. A face with squinty eyes that evoke a Japanese Manga cartoon character. And an evil one at that. Atmosphere checked and registered, time to move on.
Thump home the GTR’s solidly hewn door, squirm down into Connolly-clad buckets that support every bit of you like you’re slung in a hammock. The view directly ahead is of a binnacle with a revcounter that doesn’t go red till 8000rpm. Just to the right, a speedo that reads to 200mph. Look up and out, trace the ominous arc and bulge of bonnet containing six straight-up cylinders. Dominating the dashboard is a large video screen, angled toward the driver and lit up in lurid arcade-bright colours. At the moment it is telling me how much turbo boost is occurring as I blip the throttle. Scroll through the menu and you’ll find a graphic G-meter, a lap time recorder, a display with exhaust temperature, air intake temperature and even the percentage of throttle opening at any given instant Little of this information is of any practical value at all. I mean, what exactly am I supposed to do with the knowledge that my exhaust temperature is 100 deg C? Or that I’ve got 20 percent throttle opening? Pointless.
Not pointless, actually. And a clue to why the car is the way it is. Skyline GTRs were never intended to be sold in volume in Europe. his, first and foremost a domestic market Japanese supercar; it was only growing pressure from grey market imports that prompted Nissan to bring them in officially. And back home, Skylines are routinely tweaked to more than 500bhp. Which means they go bang a lot Which also means that your average Japanese tuner is more than a bit interested in things like boost behaviour, throttle openings and intake temps. Because when it does go bang, you can download the data and get some idea about what exactly went wrong. Also, these guys like to race a lot Which explains even more of this car’s particular demeanour. More on that later.
Then there is the astonishing technology that Skyline deploys to get around corners, to give you a feel of its chassis at work. And to try and inspire, because that’s the whole point of the plot. After all, who needs finely judged but simple suspension geometry when you’ve got a 16-bit processor to call on? The highlights of this Skyline’s electronic arsenal are, firstly, its electronically controlled torque-split four-wheel drive transmission. The system works via wheel speed, throttle opening and lateral-g sensors which analyse the car’s traction and stability every one hundredth of a second. A processor sends signals to the central transfer unit, telling it to send up to 50 percent of the engine’s torque to the front wheels if, for example, the rear wheels are spinning quicker than the fronts in a corner, suggesting that the car is going to oversteer violently. The idea is to let you have a bit of slidy fun but to bail you out if things get a little too unstable.
There’s more. The GTR uses a four-wheel steering system, which controls the car’s rate of yaw by adjusting the angle of the rear wheels. The system figures out how quickly you’re turning the wheel and uses that information to determine the angle and rate at which the rear wheels should be steered. Turn in really sharply at a roundabout, for example, and the rear wheels will turn slightly in the opposite direction of the front wheels to help kill understeer and sharpen the turn in. To make sure that that doesn’t turn into lurid oversteer, the computer then sends out another instant signal to tell the rear wheels to turn in the same direction as the fronts. That’s not to say the rear wheels are flapping about Tesco-trolley style; the adjustments are so fine that you’d be hard pressed to say ‘there it is’ when it happens.
And here’s the thing. Looked at in isolation from the rest of the cat the four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer set-up works brilliantly. It’s the heart and soul of the Skyline, allowing you to do some quite spectacular things with the twin-turbo engine’s 277bhp (320 unofficially), firing off big dollops of power through that clackety mechanical six-speed Getrag box.
It goes like this: line up on your favourite, fast A-road roundabout Push the car in fast, and crank over the superbly accurate and feelsome steering wheel. Fantastically sharp turn in as the Skyline digs into the positive camber at the island apex. Get ready to catch it as the car gets a bit out of shape as the camber goes negative at the exit. Except it doesn’t, even though you’re still on the power. Play the engine out to 8000rpm as the next corner approaches, and then just dump the speed through those massively effective Brembo four-pot callipers. The thing is, this Skyline feels quite remarkably stable, but without being anaesthetic. There’s all the feel and involvement you could ask for, and more. Get hard on the power and the Skyline will slide its tail out with a progressiveness that is positively Caterham-ish. Better still, the speed and feedback of the steering enables you to wind off lock nearly as progressively. Because all the while, the central duff is discreetly feeding torque to the front wheels, keeping you just this side of trouble. Looking after you, without the nannying. It works, by God.
In isolation. A supremely competent tool for a nine-tenths thrash at a challenging road, the Skyline undoubtedly is. A rounded supercar with a broad portfolio of talent it most certainly isn’t; others — Caterham and Porsche spring to mind — have proven that you can deliver a fabulous driving experience with good refinement and ride. But the simple truth is that the Skyline’s low-speed ride, tyre rumble and roar and tramlining — the front wheels follow cambers and ruts to the point where driving a straight line can be hard work — are just about intolerable. Granted, our car had worn front tyres which always worsens tramlining, but not to the degree that fresh Bridgestones would overcome.
Andy Middlehurst of Middlehurst Motorsport — they’re the people who bring the Skylines up to UK spec — admits that the R34 GTR is a bit too stiff and uncompfiant for UK roads. It’s the ‘V-spec’ bit that’s to blame, with its hard damper ratings and stiffer springs. That’s the way Japanese enthusiasts want them, nearly race-spec stiff. Ask him to, and Middlehurst will fit dampers that will, he claims, largely resolve the ride and tramlining issue. That’s fine, but I wonder how amused buyers will be to find out that having paid £54,000 for an R34 GTR, it needs more work to make it right for our roads.
Back on the gas, you could almost forgive it. In spite of weighing as much as a large saloon at 1666kg, and in spite of communicating through a bureaucracy of microprocessors, the Skyline can thrill in parts. From a soft-edged rumble at idle, that twin turbo blares up to the 8000 redline with a brief lag-stumble followed by an unholy rush. It’s damn quick. Push hard, and still you know the GTR would have gone faster through that complex of chicanes if you’d asked.
It’s just the ‘in spite ofs’ that I can’t get around. The Skyline is heavy because a complex bur-wheel drive chassis just is. And while it deploys a mass of technology to deliver a rewarding drive, the same end can be achieved without any help at all from Bill Gates. The thing is, I’ve driven few cars that were as quick and composed from A to B as a Skyline R34 GTR. But I’ve driven a lot that were more fun to drive and which managed a good ride quality with it.
The Skyline reaches some remarkable heights, but I’m just not convinced that it has taken the best route. As an Irish observer might say, “if you’re going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”