Forget WRXs and Lancer Evos. Honda's S2000 isn't in it, either. The true heavy hitter in Japan right now, the car everyone is talking about, is the new R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R. Real-world Gran Turismo. A car with shattering speed that feels hewn from solid metal. Ten years on from the R32 that re-invented the Skyline GT-R myth in Japan, Godzilla is again upsetting applecarts.
Okay, so this R34 might not go down in history as the best -looking of the modern GT-R breed, but it is unquestionably the best sorted. As it should be, seeing as it's '99 state-of-the-art and has been lovingly bolted together by squads of die-hard Nissan engineers.
They spent long hours camped out at the Nurburgring in Germany working on the new 2.6 litre twin turbo/4WD Godzilla, perfecting its many dynamic functions to the point where they found it could lap the legendary 20.832km circuit faster than any Japanese production car before it. So what, you might ask. Its predecessor, the R33 GT-R (born in 1995), was hailed as the first production car to break the 8min barrier around the Ring. The fact Nissan says the R34 can now lap the Teutonic track 30sec quicker points to all kinds of advances in engine, braking, handling and roadholding.
In a straight line, the new Godzilla is not really so much faster than the old (Nissan claims 13.8sec for 0-400m, compared with 14.1sec for the R33, but we'll come back to that later). The point is, the new R34 communicates better at the helm. It's easier to place and, with tighter body and suspension control, Godzilla understeers less through the fast curvy bits. With stronger torque, new six-speed box plus the usual GT-R attributes of phenomenal 4WD traction and stopping power, the GT-R again qualifies as a simply fantastic driver's car.
Such is life, the Nurburgring wasn't on the menu this time. No worries. As well as day-to¬day roads, we got to hammer the new GT-R around the 280km/h bowl at Japan's JARI research institute as well as up through the hills above Tsukuba, to the northwest of Tokyo, where it stormed the straights and turned in with a speed and balance that was astounding for a car of its size and bulk.
Previous GT-Rs were brilliant in fast sweepers but demanded rather more of your attention in tight corners. The R34 feels immediately wieldy and playful, the steering low-geared (just 2.6 turns between locks) but wholly precise and full of feel. Weighty too, but then that's another GT-R characteristic that's part of the package, right?
Those who know their GT-Rs will recognise stronger front-end bite this time, those massive 18in wheels simply turning left or right to steering commands. The secret is hugely improved body rigidity. GT-R chief engineer Kouzo Watanabe says bending stiffness this time improves 56 percent while torsional rigidity doubles.
In slow-to-medium bends, the GT-R is now marvellously quick and (almost) Lotus-agile. While the R32 GT -R (and to a certain extent, the R33, too) could bite back if you suddenly backed off on the loud pedal mid-corner, this '99 Godzilla stays resolutely planted. It's the most accessible GT -R yet.
This user-friendliness is not just down to the new body structure. The GT-R crew has rebushed Godzilla's acclaimed multilink suspension and the Super HICAS four-wheel-steering electronics that check vehicle speed and steering input have also been reprogrammed. Nissan talks airily about the 4WD now incorporating model-following control procedures of jet fighters, whatever that means.
Nissan has also come up with some serious rubber -massive 245/40 ZR 18 Bridgestone Potenza RE 405. Specially developed for the car, they adorn one-piece forged 18in alloys (which save 16kg over the R33's 17 x 9] rims).
Godzilla now stands smaller on the road although, from the outside, eyeing up its brazen, muscled-up sheetmetal, you'd hardly guess: To reduce mass, Watanabe and his team have shortened the GT -R by 75mm and brought the front overhang back 20mm, too. The two-door shell is based off the new, downsized Skyline platform that debuted in Japan in mid '98. This also saves 55mm.
Fine, but having digested those numbers, the surprise is to find the GT -R still weighs the same. If anything, it's actually put on 10-20kg, depending on which version you order. The standard car tips the scales at 1540kg while the V-Spec tested here is 1560kg.
V-spec? This is Nissan code for the GT -R's smarter twin brother, the difference this time round starting with aerodynamics. The V -spec gets underbody diffusers (front and rear) for increased downforce which, in turn, helps handling, grip and straight-line stability above 80km/h.
Both GT -Rs wear that massive, two-pronged aluminium boot spoiler with adjustable 'attack angle.'
When approaching the Skyline from behind, the rear flanks create a distinctive profile. Good or bad? You decide. As Skyline tradition demands there are, of course, those four distinctively round tail-lights. Up front, you get a massive bonnet under which resides that rumbling RB 26 DETT straight-six: Another integral part of modem GT -R folklore. All told, this is a brutal-looking car, a cousin of sorts to the BMW M Coupe.
Its twin cam 24-valve 2568 cm engine must redefine the word strong. For '99, this fabled warrior gets worked over again, with new cams for improved valve timing and a pair of twin ball bearing ceramic turbos for sharper throttle response.
When it comes to power, Nissan has again bowed to an industry 'understanding' in Japan and printed 280PS in the catalogue so as not to get Transport Ministry bureaucrats (who don't like 300bhp and above) all excited. Catalogues, however, have been known to give a fairly liberal interpretation of the truth... So with power officially capped, the other way to increase GT -R speed is through torque. The cams and ECU changes see pulling power upped 6.5 percent to a formidable new 392Nm at 4400 rpm. Torque of that order might seem to make gearchanging superfluous and around town, in traffic, you'd be right. Why bother to stir the cogs when the GT -R is flexible enough to pull smoothly away from 1000rpm in fourth? Impressive, that.
What helps is that Nissan has also brought a new six-speed Getrag box to the party. The effect of this is to lower the gearing and bring ratios one to five closer together. Sixth is out on a limb as an overdrive. Like the whole car, this gearbox has a solid, heavy, very deliberate feel about it. In fact, it feels great. Start testing Godzilla G-forces and its monoform bucket seat (with side airbags) will hold you resolutely in place. Better still, it's actually quite comfortable.
Nissan has kept the cabin simple and to the point. Sturdy three-spoke wheel, conventional instruments, logical minor controls. It's all new gear, though. But Nissan couldn't resist doing a zillion-function LCD display atop the centre console, telling you everything about the car's mechanical workings. Front/rear torque split, boost pressure and oil and water temperature for starters. There's heaps more, like injector pressure, throttle angle, intake air temperature as well as routine stuff like 3D real-time satellite-navigation.
The R34 comes with that familiar deep-seated growl that builds to a powerful, all-enveloping crescendo as the tacho needle starts to wind right. In the background, you hear a faint turbo whistle. Nissan has set the red line at 8000rpm again, but there is now a warning when you have 500 rpm to go. In truth, you really have to be pretty determined to seek out that final 1000rpm, because the engine is definitely happiest and does its best work between three and six grand. The turbo boost is now strong and progressive; from 3000rpm up, the GT -R is really trucking on. While the R33 could feel laggy, the new Godzilla never does.
Authoritative test figures /Tom Japan's Car Graphic magazine reveal the good-and-bad news. First, the bad news. Testing V-spec editions ofR33 and R34, the old car proves quicker to 100 km/h (4.4sec vs 4.9sec) and for 0-400m, too (12.7sec vs 13.1sec). That wasn't in the script, surely, and certainly contradicts the Authorised Version from Nissan.
Where Godzilla, the new generation, scores is in third, fourth and fifth gear acceleration, especially at either ends of the scale like 20-40km/h and 140¬160km/h. But figures show that, for flexibility, it's actually quicker right across the board. More likely, though, you'll be making full use of the box because it shifts so well (the gate is meaty yet precise) and the new close ratios let you keep Godzilla deliciously 'on the cams'.
The GT-R chassis is one of the most sophisticated in the business and, on the GT-R V-spec seen here, the electronics not only vary the torque split, front-to-rear depending on how maniacally you drive it, but between right and left rear wheels, too. The whole system is then integrated with ABS.
For the most part, though, Godzilla acts like a good rear-driver. A tight corner, power on and it will let you kick the tail out. While the electronics are then scrambling to divert torque to the front axle, you wind off some lock to control the slide.
Not that Godzilla is perfect, mind. The suspension's pretty stiff and the ride is hard, becoming knobbly over patchy or broken surfaces. Ruts in the road can also cause the GT-R to tramline quite badly. Steering, for all its new accuracy, also brings a frustratingly wide turning circle. It's areas such as this where the mighty and magnificent GT-R still can't match the complete Carrera 4. But it remains the best Gran Turismo game you'll ever play.