It’s not every day that you get to test the veracity of a dubious automotive claim made by an entire nation of car companies for more than a decade. For me, that day was last Tuesday.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I took my Nissan Skyline GT-R to a dyno to measure how much horsepower it makes. You’d know all about this if you followed me on Twitter, because I posted a picture of the car sitting on the dyno, doing its dyno thing. We also had a little horsepower guessing game going. It was a nice time, over on Twitter.
But you wouldn’t know how much horsepower it actually makes. For that, you will have to read today’s column, or watch today’s video, or my personal favorite: do both. But before we get started, a few words about the Skyline’s original horsepower rating.
Back in 1989, when my Skyline first came out, all the Japanese automakers had entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” to limit horsepower to less than 300. This was done, ostensibly, for safety reasons. Apparently the thinking in Japan at the time was that a car with more than 300 horsepower would kill small children and possibly cute wildlife, while those items would bounce harmlessly off a car with less than 300 horsepower. Although this does not make sense to me, bear in mind that this is the nation that gave us tentacle porn.
So what many Japanese automakers did is, they claimed their cars made less than 300 horsepower, when actually they made way more. Inexplicably, several automakers decided they would stake their claim on 276 horsepower. I suspect this is like when you’re filling out your tax returns and you don’t want the IRS to realize you actually used all your receipts to blow your nose over the course of the prior year, so you “claim” a tax deduction of something like $7,345.27 in order to sound more believable. Not that I have done such a thing.
For an illustration of how stupid this whole thing was, consider this: when the R32 GT-R (that’s mine!) came out in 1989, it had 276 horsepower. Five years later, the R33 GT-R came out with a new design and new suspension and new features and a new all-wheel drive system and a new gearbox and new engine bits and all sorts of other new stuff. Horsepower rating? You guessed it: 276. Then four years after that, the R34 GT-R came out with a new interior, and another new design, and more new suspension, and new features, and more new engine bits. The horsepower rating? That’s right! Good ol’ 276.
The funny part is, Japanese automakers had absolutely no qualms about revealing the real figures in foreign markets. For instance: the second-generation Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 had a stated 320 horsepower in the United States. Meanwhile, the Japanese version featured the same powertrain, the same transmission, the same styling, the same suspension, the same equipment, the same everything. The power figure? Our old friend, 276.
So you can see why I’ve always wanted to bring the Skyline, which was never sold in America, to a dyno to find out how much horsepower it really has.
But there’s a problem: the Skyline is all-wheel drive. Now, it’s very easy to find a two-wheel drive dyno. Two-wheel drive dynos are everywhere, like bicycles, and rubber bands, and Tylenol. I even found one last year to measure my Ferrari’s horsepower. But finding an all-wheel drive dyno is like finding the perfect emoji: you search and search and eventually you give up, only to find out later that it’s under the tab with the bell on it even though you were looking for a goose.
Fortunately, I recently made friends with the good people at AWE Tuning, which is a well-known European car tuning shop that makes exhausts, intercoolers, intakes and other stuff right here in the Philadelphia suburbs. They have a four-wheel-drive dyno they use to measure performance gains in all-wheel drive cars they modify, from the Audi S4 to the Porsche 911 Turbo. And while they don’t normally let people use their dyno for this sort of thing, I begged and pleaded and wished and hoped, and eventually they said: Sure, you can bring in your Altima.
No, what they really said was, they’d be happy to let me bring the Skyline out and see what kind of power it’s making. And this how I found myself standing next to my Skyline as an AWE Tuning technician - and Mercedes E55 AMG wagon owner - named Dane accelerated it to the end of fourth gear without moving an inch.
Now, at this point, I know what you’re thinking: Come on! Show me the NUMBERS! You might also be thinking that there is no goose emoji. To which I would reply: have you checked the tab with the bell on it?
But before we get to the figures, one last quick word about dynos. Dynos measure horsepower at the wheels, whereas manufacturer-claimed horsepower numbers come from the engine crank. This is an important distinction, because wheel horsepower tends to be about 15 percent less than crank horsepower. So if the Skyline really is making 276 horsepower, it would have to be producing about 235 at the wheels. Unsure about whether I really believed the whole “underrated power” thing – and factoring in the car’s increasing age – I guess it would hit 237.
It actually hit 281.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen: not 281 crank horsepower, but 281 wheel horsepower, which translates to roughly 320 crank horsepower. Unsure of what to make of this dramatically-higher-than-expected figure, we did a second run, which resulted in… 281 wheel horsepower. So we gave it a third go. Once again, 281 horsepower. The dyno wasn’t the problem. The dyno was perfectly consistent. Something must’ve been done to the car.
My next action was to get in touch with the good folks at Japanese Classics, who sold me this car as a “stock, unmodified example” whose sole upgrade was an exhaust system. Did they lie? Does this car really have all sorts of unseen modifications? Installed by a crazy person? Will it blow up at any second? Is Tylenol really “everywhere”?
So I called Chris, the owner of Japanese Classics, and I told him we had put the car on a dyno and received some surprising results. Before I hinted at what the numbers were, he replied: “Let me guess. Around 320?”
After assuring me that the car is indeed unmodified - save for that exhaust and potentially some other hard-to-reach bits under the hood - Chris told me that many people who dyno stock, unmodified R32 GT-Rs with healthy, low-mileage engines like mine usually get a figure somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 horses. It’s not that the car is modified, Chris told me. It’s that “276 horsepower” was never an accurate figure to begin with.
And so, I think we can say that we’ve all learned a few things here today. Number one, the Japanese gentlemen’s agreement was real on paper, but a lie in practice. Number two, the “276-horsepower” Nissan Skyline GT-R actually makes 320 horsepower without any serious modifications.
And number three: I now have 44 more horsepower than I thought, which is nothing to sneeze at. Especially if your only tissue is an important business receipt.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.