Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few years, I’m sure you’d be well aware that Japanese cars of the 1980s and ’90s are the latest ‘classic’ cars to be exploding in value. As the Playstation generation has grown up and come across its own money, it’s caused the cars many of us spent countless hours virtually driving around in on games such as GranTurismo to go from clapped-out bangers to desirable classics worth well in excess of what they were when new.
Few cars exemplify this as well as the Nissan Skyline GT-R, however, which was always the fastest and most technologically advanced of the pack – and the most coveted in places such as America where it, unlike the Toyota Supra, was never offered given it was a right-hand drive proposition only.
But while the R32-generation – the one I always grew up yearning for the most seeing one regularly on the streets around my childhood home – was loved for its rawness, the R34 famed for its technological prowess that has informed many a sports car since, the R33 you see here always seemed to be the unloved and oft-ignored middle child.
Despite the fact it had the most storied racing pedigree of any GT-R and was also the fastest around the Nürburgring, as long as I can recall it’s been derided by jokes of it simply being an ugly boat given it was heavier than its predecessor despite all the evidence pointing in quite the opposite direction.
But now, in the strange year that is 2020, I had the ignition key to this stunning midnight purple example in my hand and was eager to put it through its paces and see whether or not the R33’s detractors had a point.
This particular example recently purchased by a good friend of mine is a 1995 V-Spec model, which important as this example being made during the R33 GT-R’s first year of production means that it’s now eligible for importation to the United States under its 25 year rule – something that I don’t doubt will cause R33 values to go up even more than they already have as this formerly-forbidden fruit becomes allowed on American shores.
The thing that does put a bit of an asterisk on this review, though, is the fact that this car has been modified, if tastefully at that. While normally when reviewing older cars such as this I look for examples that are as close to stock as possible – a note to Nissan Australia’s PR people, if you’re reading this and have a stock example of a Skyline GT-R hanging around somewhere, please give me a buzz – I feel I can make an exception to the rule here for a couple of reasons.
For one, the reputation the Skyline has as a tuner car means that not only is finding a stock example of one a bit of a tricky task, but it also makes modified ones actually quite representative of the era and scene they originate from. And, when it comes to this particular car, the no-expense-spared mod list means that it’s even more worth showcasing.
When I asked my friend to send through the build list for the car, the Word document containing it was three pages long, which gives you a good indication of how serious it really is, with the engine, exhaust, fuel system, suspension, brakes, electronics, interior, and body all having been extensively yet subtly changed given it presents very cleanly.
Visually, items such as the headlights, lips and skirts, vents, cowls, and other things have been tweaked with parts from other R33 variants to maintain an OEM-plus appearance, while the Work Emotion wheels look perfectly fitting on a Japanese car from this period. It’s a striking thing to behold in the flesh as the tasteful stance it has gives it some real presence, and the metallic purple that looks truly black in the shadows only adds to the look.
Inside, the OEM-plus style continues, as while it all presented as stock to my layman’s eyes a number of minor alterations had been made such as the Damsel Nismo gauge cluster with a 320km/h speedo, red-stitched shifter and handbrake boots, some various satin black trim pieces, and a GReddy boost controller.
For the most part though it’s a stock interior that’s been kept in immaculate condition – the lack of dashboard cracks are a clear sign of that – that actually surprised me with its spaciousness. While many of its rivals such as the A80 Supra were opting for a tighter and more cockpit-like interior, the Skyline actually feels very roomy inside given how far forward the dashboard is set by comparison. The standard suede-trimmed bucket seats were surprisingly accomodating of my 6’2″ frame, too, which at least had me thinking that the R33’s bigness was no bad thing.
But while it may certainly look the part both inside and out, the GT-R has always been more about the drive than merely its appearance given how understated they look in stock form. That’s why the real star of the show here is what’s going on under the skin.
Powered by the legendary RB26DETT engine – a 2.6-litre twin-turbocharged straight-six – an untouched example would have produced a claimed 206kW (that’s the 276bhp maximum agreed to under the gentleman’s agreement between Japanese performance car manufacturers at the time) and 367Nm, with a five-speed manual gearbox and all-wheel drive helping to channel that power to the ground.
However, an array of extensive modifications this built engine has received – including forged CP pistons with an 87mm bore and 9:1 compression ratio, Tomei camshafts, an R34 cylinder head with ARP head studs, N1 Garrett turbochargers, an HKS intercooler and oil cooler, an ARC airbox, a dual-fed fuel rail with 1000cc Sard injectors and twin Walbro fuel pumps, and an R32 Nistune ECU with 5000rpm launch control just to name a few of the upgrades – has helped turn the power up in this instance to a meaty 360kW (483hp) at the wheels.
As such, it’s safe to say I was actually a bit intimidated to get behind the wheel of it, and my initial impressions told me that I was right to feel that way. With a twin-plate ceramic clutch rated to 1000hp, even just setting off in it was something I needed to be mindful of given how tricky the clutch pedal was to get a feel for off the bat. Mercifully for my ego – and, of course, the clutch itself – I managed not to stall it once, and after a bit of start-stop driving began to get the hang of driving it smoothly.
With that under control, I was then able to start getting into it a bit more and started to pitch it at a few corners, and the question I went into this asking was quickly answered. Any semblance of the 1540kg-plus R33 – which weighed around 100kg more than its predecessor – feeling like a boat was simply not to be seen, as it felt tight, flat, and agile through the bends.
Admittedly, it does have a set of Tein adjustable coilovers – which, for the record, were installed legally and above-board – among some other minor suspension upgrades to help it out in this regard which no doubt helps out a bit, but if the steering rack itself is anything to go by, which felt incredibly tight and responsive for ’90s hydraulic power steering, it’s an impressive thing through the corners. More impressive, certainly, than I was expecting given the clearly unfair reputation it’s garnered.
Further helping it in the corners, though, is the fact that this particular GT-R is the upgraded V-Spec variant, meaning it features the more advanced ATTESA E-TS Pro all-wheel drive system that adds an active limited-slip differential and allows for torque-splitting both front-to-rear and side-to-side, allowing you to maintain a trailing throttle through the bends with confidence that it’ll send the power where it needs to go.
Accompanying the tight steering feel was an incredibly informative throttle pedal, a firm brake pedal with which to instruct its big Brembo stoppers, and a direct shifter feel as you rowed between its five forward ratios, all of which amounted to the R33 feeling like the precision instrument you’d expect a car bearing the GT-R nomenclature to be.
Having spent some time feeling it out and giving the chassis a workout through the corners, it was finally time for me to tie it all together by getting a bit more game with the throttle pedal and exploring the full extent of its powerband.
Finally planting the pedal hard in second and continuing to do so through third and fourth was enough to leave me speechless as the built straight-six – which is every bit a ’90s turbocharged engine given how much turbo lag there is to contend with – finally got on song above 5000rpm.
If there’s one upside to its top-heavy powerband, its the fact that it builds up speed not only rapidly but also effortlessly, with it not feeling as though it’s even close to running out of puff when you’re well into lose-your-license speeds and continuing to keep the hammer down. Keep in mind that this is making quite a bit more power than a stock example but it does show just what this iconic engine is capable of, and how impressively the all-wheel drive system can actually put it down.
What perhaps impressed me most, though, was the gearing of its five-speed manual ‘box and just how well-suited to this engine it felt. The same one also used in the R32 GT-R, albeit with strengthened syncros in the R33, keeping it in second gear through tighter and twistier sections of road allowed you to keep it right in its 5000-7000rpm sweet spot which not only delivered the biggest punch between the corners but was also where the six-pot sounded sweetest, while holding it in third gear through longer sweeping bends allows you to ride out the engine’s mid-range and keep the power on most of the time.
Although the bar may have been set low by what the streets have long said about the much-derided R33, when you actually get behind the wheel of one it’s safe to say that you’re going to be far more impressed than you thought you were going to be.
More refined than the R32 but still very analog in comparison to the R34, the R33 GT-R feels easy enough to handle once you get into the swing of things but is challenging enough to feel all the more rewarding when you do finally get it right, and the reliance on gauges rather than screens to inform you of what’s going on only makes it feel all the more timeless in comparison to its comparatively space-aged successor.
Getting into one of these if you are interested in discovering the GT-R magic for yourself will certainly be a pricey affair, with values currently sat at around AU$80,000, but with R32 and particularly R34 prices already having skyrocketed in recent years, I don’t doubt it won’t be long before we’re looking back to the days of when you could buy an R33 for ‘only’ eighty-grand, and given just how good it actually is, it has every reason to be worth something in my eyes.
My thanks to @frenchy.evow for lending me this car for the day.