Driving Emotion

Posted on June 22nd, 2003 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Got to drive an N1 R34 V-Spec II GT-R Skyline the other day. Yes, that’s the hottest factory version of one of the hottest factory cars ever released. Anywhere.

And with the drive scheduled for the next day, did I have trouble sleeping the night before? Nope. In fact, it filled me with – literally – about as much excitement as I would have had when facing the prospect of driving any car that’s new to me. Like a Hyundai Getz, for example.

Trouble is, you see, my experience of Nissan Skyline GT-Rs has been sufficiently negative that I don’t regard them as anywhere near as good a car as – apparently – millions of others do. Of course, I have actually owned one – something the vast majority of those millions haven’t. I bought an Australian-delivered R32 GT-R back when it was near brand new, having been a believer in the fiction that I had read about them. You know, best-handling car ever, unbelievably good four-wheel drive system, fastest six cylinder you can buy – fables like that.

What I subsequently learned was that the car had a stupid amount of power oversteer and was only really quick when launched hard. Oh yes, and it was wearing to drive, had seats that gave chronic back-ache, attracted all the wrong sorts of attention, had steering terribly prone to tramlining – you get the picture. I fixed the handling with an adjustable torque split controller but it was never a car I particularly liked.

Too much hype, not enough reality.

I have since driven an R33 GT-R V-Spec (far better factory torque split control – nice power oversteer, not stupid) and another R32 GT-R (which drove just the same – ie as badly – as mine had).

So when the N1 R34 was lined up for a drive, I was interested but not excited. Not even one tiny bit.

In fact, to be honest, most of the hyped cars that I have driven have been way less than their reputation. Like a Clubsport R8 is a better car in most ways that count – including cost – than a 300kW GTS. Like a 1-year-old Impreza STi is in many respects a godawful car, something we said in print and which we were castigated for. (Recently I asked Peter Luxon – head honcho of major modifier APS – if he had ever driven a worse standard turbo car for lag and lack of response than an STi. After some thought he replied, “No.”)

So the more that people rave about a car, the less I get excited.

Click for larger image

This particular N1 was running more boost than standard; it also had huge Harrop front brakes and fully adjustable suspension front and rear. Its roll-cage and high-winged race seats helped tell the story – it’d just done very well in the road race that’s called Targa Tasmania, coming 12th outright.

Did I get any more excited?

I am afraid to say that I didn’t.

AutoSpeed contributor Michael Knowling and I picked the car up from the very generous Craig Dean (of Melbourne’s Sports and Luxury Cars) and headed out for a few hours. The car was warmed-up and so when I had done the U-turn on Burwood Highway I wound it out through the first couple of gears. It was slow to build boost but then shoved us back into the seats with an urgency that comes only from lots of power. And from a turbo car that is slow to come onto boost and then suddenly winds up those blowers…

I expected it to be strong; it was. Still not much excitement, though the push was definitely nice.

We headed up towards the ranges while I came to terms with the very sudden clutch (no doubt a race beastie) and started to enjoy the steering and ride. The ride on the modified suspension was really very good, especially when you consider the minimally-padded race seats. (Who cares about ride? Well, I am afraid I do. A good road car should have a decent ride as well as the handling – this car rode better than the awful Nissan 350Z… and surely would have better handling.)

And the steering was interesting. It was beautifully-weighted and superbly linear. There was none of the nervousness around centre that you’ll find in an Evo 6 Lancer, and none of the sneeze-factor that seems to be built with religious faith into so many cars. It was, dare I say it, something rather like the Mazda MX5 Miata steering: so good you didn’t have to think about it. At least I knew now that I’d be able to place the big car exactly where I wanted on the road. Unless of course I was fighting to keep it on the road in the first place…

The first corners were on the four lane road: constant radius on smooth bitumen. There was also traffic around so I just carefully loaded-up the suspension, much as you’d do on a skidpan or your favourite roundabout. Neither the front nor the rear of the car moved laterally a millimetre, instead the g-forces just built and built as the car sat flat and the speed rose. On its 265/35 road-race tyres it had amazing grip, so much that when I purposely said in a very casual voice “That’s fairly impressive,” Michael burst out laughing at the understatement.

But grip isn’t handling: in fact, in many cars, lots of grip results in a fast breakaway when the available grip level is overcome. The ‘grip-grip-grip-then-oh-shit!’ scenario. I would have been astonished if the car didn’t grip well – although even at this level of cornering I could tell that the four-wheel drive system was set up nothing like a horrible R32. Even with these sticky tyres, the R32 GT-R driver would have been spending most of the time looking out the side window at Impreza WRX drivers waving their fists as the GT-R slid into their lane…

The road emptied itself of traffic and narrowed: now it was a winding secondary strip of bitumen with moderately quick corners. I upped the pace – considerably, you might say – and enjoyed the feel of the steering and the feedback through bum and hands. The car wasn’t sliding but it was still talking: I started to realise that this was a delightful car to drive quickly. Neat and precise and – if you remembered to get on the throttle a couple of heartbeats before the power was really needed, very linear. The modified brakes – lacking a booster and with twin master cylinders – needed a BIG push, but with the pads up to temp the retardation was strong.

It was coming together, without histrionics or misbehaviour, just extremely good handling.

But we only realised how good it was when Michael started calling out speeds: I was a mite busy to be looking at that instrument. Then we were astonished to find that we were consistently 50 km/h faster through each corner than we would have estimated. That’s simply unbelievable.

Hmm, maybe this was a bloody good car.

I started getting excited. Very excited.

And braver and bolder.

I turned up an empty climbing side road: narrow – surely too narrow for a GT-R to be neat and fast – and started driving hard. Real hard…as in the huge Harrop brakes later got severe fade. The corners were tight: I was rocketing up, downchanging and braking and then turning-in at suicidal speeds. And the N1 was talking – no, it was yelling – at me. The steering was letting me know to the individual degree the amount of slip angle; not from the tyres squealing (they always stayed absolutely silent) but from the feel through the wheel, the feel through the car.

Michael gasped as the car understeered wide on one corner overlooking a substantial drop, but my heart rate didn’t change because I knew it was just a settling motion that wouldn’t go far. All that the car was doing was telling me that the turn-in needed to happen just a little slower, thanks. And then there was the right moment to get onto the power, the rear sliding into a superbly subtle oversteer as the car scrambled for grip, turbos up on full boost, the steering and the suspension alive and working with me.

And then the next corner, and then next. But then the Harrops fading, ABS kicking in as fear lent the strength of a weightlifter to my leg; then the trickle back down the hill, Michael stirring me about my breathing panting in and out as I tried to speak and breathe and laugh with the sheer enjoyment of the best handling car I have ever driven.

A car with an enormous level of grip but that lets go progressively and gently.

A car which when on boost is ultra strong and yet never feels overpowered.

A car that talks and talks, never doing anything that it hasn’t telegraphed first.

A car with steering that’s progressive, fast and yet not twitchy.

A car that as soon as it is turned into a corner is immediately settled, waiting for driver direction on cornering line or power – or preferably, both.

A car which rolls so little and yet is precise and never nervous.

Perfect? Nahhhhhh. The engine in a sequential twin turbo Supra is far more usable in its spread of torque, while the tramlining under brakes always required an assertive hand on the wheel. You could also – rightly, I think – argue that driving it on the very edge of adhesion with a throttle connected to that slightly surgy and laggy engine would require a lot of skill… more than I have, that’s for sure.

But in the way it went around corners – not just in speed but in feedback and communication and predictability – was something I have never before experienced.

Absolutely blindingly good. A true redefiner of benchmarks.

And I sure have never said that before of anything with a ‘GT-R’ badge.

Finally, here is a car that lives up to the hype.

One Response to 'Driving Emotion'

Subscribe to comments with RSS

  1. Dale W said,

    on September 20th, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Great articles mate. There isnt much this car doesnt have in the way of engine/suspension wise. A real street weapon, not some straight line fairy