This feature first appeared in Wheels, May 1991
After testing 12 affordables, we plotted and schemed to bring together the most exotic, high profile machines in the business to determine the title Best Handling Car: Ferrari Modial t 348 vs Honda NSX vs Skyline GT-R vs BMW M5 vs Carrera 4.
Mercedes-Benz would not provide a 500 SL. It was inconvenient. There were no 348 tb examples to be had from importers, dealers or private owners. The best we could muster was the Mondial cabrio, with similar power output to the 348 tb but slightly different engine specifications, and a longer wheelbase.
As the cars wheeled into Eastern Creek, preparations were already well underway. There was the exacting task of prepping the circuit for the 12 hour day that lay ahead: laying the reflective speed-trap tapes; arranging double lane change and slalom chutes to the standards laid down by the Society of Automobile Engineers; calibrating instruments like our Leitz Coreveit EEP-3 and Valentine Researach Inc. G-analyst - all done before a wheel could be turned in anger.
Handling is an inexact science, an art form often misunderstood. Ask a group of aficionados to explain the difference between handling, grip and directional stability, and you'll get a dozen answers.
We define it simply: it's the way a car performs up to the limit of its adhesion and beyond. There are obvious influencing factors like suspension and tyres. Less obvious are throttle response and adjustability, weight transfer and distribution, centre of gravity, wheelbase to track ration, and a host of other highly technical factors the boffins describe with terms like yaw and pitch, and polar moment of inertia. All of them can be measured, plotted, graphed and analysed... and still produce a car with all the predictability and easy manner of Saddam Hussein.
It's a special car, the GT-R. And Kevin Bartlett agrees.
"Beautiful, just beautiful. Because the Skyline's four-wheel driven you have to point it in the right direction and be precise, but if you make a mistake it doesn't do anything stupid. You . just slowly apply the power, slowly let it off. Anything violent and it will only continue to do badly what it's already started doing."
"It's not heavy in the steering and turn-in is gradual. It's predominantly an understeerer on turn-in, if you don't toss the car a little bit. If you toss it, the GT-R then becomes a slight oversteerer. When you get plenty of throttle in it stops that oversteer and will actually come back to understeer.
"Through and out of the chicane it's just absolutely amazing. Third gear, low torque, 100 kays and you're pulling 120 on the exit. It's just like a rodeo, when they open the gate and the bull comes rushing out. Directional change is good and it has beautiful throttle control; more so than any other turbo car I've ever driven. Just fabulous.
COMPUTER ANALYSIS: Although its price is lower than the other four, the incredible Skyline GT-R generated bigger numbers on our test equipment. The Nissan hit a 1.10 lateral G peak, an amazing achievement for a car on road tyres. It was fastest through Corner 1 , despite its entry speed being slowest of all. That its exit speed from this comer was the only one above 100 km/h is tribute to both the outright grip of the GT-R and its ability to maintain very high cornering levels at the same time as accelerating hard.
At the higher speeds demanded by Corner 2, the GT-R's advantage was not so marked. The M5, NSX and GT-R gave practically identical averages through this turn. Close analysis of the G-analyst printout doesn't reveal any evidence of nasty vices. It's clear the GT-R is responsive to throttle inputs. And the absence of jagged peaks on the lateral G curves points to its chassis' reactions to right foot adjustments being perfectly benign. Consistency of response is evident here, too.
It doesn't lack for agility either. Through both the double lane change and the slalom the Nissan was quickest. Its advantage was most pronounced through the slalom, where its four-wheel drive system made it visibly more neutral in attitude between the orange cones.
ON THE ROAD: In a word - extraordinary! This is the world's newest benchmark, no risk. The Skyline GT-R is an awesome car, because its enormously powerful engine doesn't overpower the enormously proficient chassis. Simply squirting the GT-R hard in a straight line is a real buzz. Doing so while blasting out of a comer is a rare experience.
And to do so when the exit is rippled like a washboard is an absolute revelation. The thing just grips and goes, and you feel like you've been shot out of a cannon. The GT-R's handling qualities start with a good driving position and a proper driving seat that glues your bum and shoulders to the car. The ride's fairly firm, a bit choppy across small bumps and corrugations, but not uncomfortably sharp.
Cornering has an uncanny sense of assurance. On entry, the GT-R turns in to corners like a weather cock into the wind, without understeer or front end push. You point, it turns. If there's time to glance at the torque gauge, you'll see the front end's share varying to suit the speed and grip.
Try very hard and you can unstick the GT-R's rear end, or ultimately both ends bodily together, but even then the whole thing stays finely balanced, very predictable and superbly controllable. . . if you're as quick as it is. Our only problem with the GT-R is wondering what Nissan can possibly do for an encore.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
The instruments all agree. Nissan's Skyline GT-R is emasurably superior to the Honda NSX, BMW M5, Porche Carrera 4 and Ferrari Mondial t 348. In such exalted company, that's anincredible achievement . But not only did the Nissan impress the silicon chips out of our computerised equipment, it felt fabulous to the flesh and bone testers, on both track and road.
Such a blend is as breathtaking as it is rare. The GT-R goes nearer to a handling nirvana than any of the four supercars Wheels gathered for this confrontation. Nissan has given the world proof positive that four-wheel driving and four-wheel steering, intelligently applied, are an aid to dynamic excellence, not simply an excuse for covering a car's flanks with a horde of acronyms.
It turns into corners with crispness and accuracy, then launches on exit with incredible force. Nissan's sophisticated steering and transmission systems are always effective, never intrusive.
Behind the conquering GT-R the order is not so clear cut. Honda's NSX has the second best set of computer numbers and was well regarded by the on-road test crew. But Kevin Bartlett's criticism of the inconsistency of its off-throttle oversteer at the limit makes the decision difficult.
While the M5 can't quite match the outright grip of the NSX or GT-R, its behaviour at the limit is impeccable for a car of its size and type. Its grip might be fierce, but forgiveness is also oart of the M5's nature.
Though far from sluggish, neither the Porche nor Ferrari could quite match the withering pace set by the other three cars. The Carera 4 noses ahead of the Mondial t 348, however, with its higher Gs, greater corner speeds and turn-in response.
Times are certainly a 'changin' when Japan has Europe's measure and Nissan beats Ferrari in a painstakingly fair fight.