The Nissan Skyline GT-R is one of the greatest performance cars ever built. Almost all generations of Nissan’s top-of-the-line icon have been praised by critics, adored by owners and lusted after by fans outside Japan. “Almost” is the key word here. The porky, blocky R33 Skyline from the mid-1990s is kind of the ugly duckling. But does it deserve to be?
To try and figure it out, I was given the keys of the rarest of them all: one of just 102 V-Spec Le Mans to ever come out of the Nissan factory in Musashimurayama.
(Full Disclosure: JDM-Expo is an exporter of quality forbidden Japanese fruit. I asked them if I could drive this R33 in exchange for a story with a mention of who they are, and they said sure.)
I arrived 30 minutes late but the R33 was there, ready for me, sparkling neon blue in the sunlight. People say it looks fat, that it’s the ugliest Skyline of the bunch. I feel that way less and less as time goes on.
It doesn’t have the beauty or grace of the KPGC-10 Skylines of the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the aggro looks of the slightly newer R34 and R35 GT-R, but that’s all kind of the point here.
It’s more discreet than an R34 and far less common than the ‘80s-tastic yet more popular R32. The perfect GT-R for someone who wants something different, but doesn’t want a car off a poster on a teenager’s bedroom in 1999. It’s a GT-R for grownups, yet the car still has a bad rep today. Too big. Too heavy. Not the R32. Not the R34.
This one was the only GT-R I had yet to drive, and the first GT-R I was allowed to take to its limits, so I was genuinely curious if all that flack had merit. I remember the first bit of criticism I encountered was in Initial D, of all places:
“A failure.” Damn, that’s harsh, even from a guy who screams like a caveman when he gets sideways. But it’s one thing to make claims like that and another thing entirely to see for yourself how a car holds up.
The name “V-Spec Le Mans” sounds cool, but this was little more than a cosmetic package meant to commemorate Nissan’s run in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, which included a Skyline GT-R finishing tenth overall. Improvements include the Championship Blue color, a carbon fiber rear wing, GT-R N1 front brake cooling ducts, a new bonnet lip and some stickers.
But under that hood lies the mighty 2.6-liter RB26DETT twin-turbo inline-six, officially “rated” at 276 horsepower (wink, wink) but in reality putting out closer to 330 HP. A five-speed manual—almost quaint by 2017 standards!—sends power to all four wheels via the ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive system, which included an active limited slip differential. More on that shortly.
All good specs, yet remember a GT-R is seldom a lightweight beast, and this one weighs in at nearly 3,400 pounds.
It succeeded in holding my attention. Heading toward Suzuka Skyline, a scenic and fittingly-named road in Mie prefecture, I noticed the steering had that perfect on-center feel that most regular cars do not have today.
The throttle was very responsive, even though turbo threshold is somewhere around 3500 to 4000 RPM, leaving it more or less unused during everyday commutes.
But the most surprising part of the regular driving experience was this: comfort. Maybe I’ve spent too much time driving ‘80s sports cars and crappy kei-cars to remember and appreciate an actual comfortable car, but I checked reviews and tests of the R33 GT-R before getting in the driver’s seat and everyone, almost unanimously, complained at how stiff and rigid it was.
I can’t say I agree. Sure, it’s not a BMW M5 or a turned-up Mercedes, but as far as performance cars go, it’s much better than any tuned Honda Civic. And who buys something called “GT-R V-Spec Le Mans” and expects the ride quality of a Lincoln? Get outta here.
Arriving at the bottom of Suzuka Skyline, I was finally able to give the R33 a proper go. The road was narrow but the car, despite feeling too heavy when such nimbleness was required, still proved it possessed a worthy degree of agility. Sudden changes of direction, even under throttle, got the car to rotate nicely into corners, which is not something very common for stock all-wheel drive vehicles, more apt to rotate solely when off throttle.
And this is where the R33 GT-R stands out. It’s not really an all-wheel drive car. It’s a rear-wheel drive car that asks for the front wheels’ help when needed.
See, a regular all-wheel drive performance car like a Subaru WRX STI will throw more or less power to the rear and front wheels depending on what is needed. As much as 80 percent of the power will go solely to the front or to the rear. A Mitsubishi Evo will even have a front-drive bias most of the time.
But the GT-R sends 99 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, 99 percent of the time. You drive around in the city, cruise on the freeway or drive at 5/10ths on mountain roads, and your car is almost entirely powered by the rear wheels.
The V-spec is also coupled with a variant of the ATTESA E-TS (which stands for something that could only come from a Japanese command of the English language: Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-wheel-drive—Electronic Torque Split), Nissan’s AWD system: the ATTESA-E-TS Pro. They sure have a way with names.
When the rear wheels lose traction in a normal R33 GT-R, the regular AWD system sends power to the front wheels immediately in order to bring the car back on track. The transition to when front wheels start coming into play is actually extremely smooth and barely noticeable.
The “Pro” version, on the other hand, allows the driver to play around with the car a little more, and doesn’t do anything to correct the oversteer unless some countersteering is applied. This allows the car to maintain a few degrees of slip angle, but most of all, this means that when the first hairpins come, the GT-R V-Spec allows you to do something few other AWD allow: power-oversteer.
And holy crap, is it fun. The R33 GT-R V-Spec is one of the easiest cars to control that I’ve driven in the mountains. As the rear starts to go and as you start correcting, there is absolutely no need to be gentle with the throttle like you would in a RWD car. The more throttle you apply as you start counter-steering, the more power gets transferred to the front wheels, bringing the car back on track and launching you with tons of grip out of the corners.
The car simply is RWD with an AWD nanny. No need to fight with the wheel either, which makes everything even simpler to handle.
Downhill, the GT-R felt a bit less at ease, plagued by its weight and propensity to understeer under braking into corners, making it noticeably more attracted to the walls and ravines than usual. A lot more caution was required there. This particular car also had fairly old brake hoses, which made brakes a bit mushier than they should and did not help with confidence under heavy braking. I mentioned it when I got back and those were replaced immediately, along with pads, most certainly transforming the brake feel.
Do not think the R33 GT-R drives itself though, like people often say the R35 does. This is still a heavy car that doesn’t feel perfectly at ease on the tiny Japanese touge roads. All this simplicity of control and driver-error forgiveness can quickly transform into over-confidence, sending the driver into a flight down the mountain.
For all the hate this Skyline received over the years, a solid day behind its wheel proved me that it’s very much not deserved. Its only crime was to come out right after a race-winning legend and before the pinnacle of the series.
The R33 is the middle child of the family. That’s why it lends itself to dismissal. Just as good as the other two, but not the oldest and not the youngest; stuck in between them, taking care of its own life and not bothering to try and prove what it’s worth anymore. You Americans can even find out for yourselves starting next year, when R33s are legal to import. You’ll have to wait a tad longer for the GT-R to be eligible, though.
But if you’re wondering if you can buy this particular piece of Skyline history, well, you can’t. As I’m writing these lines, the car is on a ship bound to Australia. There are 13 others somewhere.
Not cheap though. Not cheap.
Flavien Vidal is a French guy born 30 years too late who now lives in Japan. He likes anything on four wheels, granted that it’s not a soulless econobox.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of V-Spec Le Mans cars built. It is 102, not 14.