Nissan Skyline GT-R
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

In the movie business, they’re called hero cars. Despite big-name actors and directors, when the (inevitable) car chase happens, it’s the four-wheeled things that become the stars: the Highland Green Mustang in “Bullitt”; the Audi S8 and BMW M5 in “Ronin”; and the General Lee in “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Oh yeah, and the Nissan Skyline in “Gran Turismo.”

Strictly speaking, “Gran Turismo” isn’t a movie, of course, but it is a cultural phenomenon. The latest edition has sold over 15 million copies, and an entire generation of drivers – myself included – have GT coursing through their auto-enthusiast veins. And the undisputed star of GT since its inception has been the Nissan Skyline GT-R, a twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive monster that’s gone through two generations of development since the introduction of the original video game, but one which remains a favourite of GT pilots the world over. Thanks to Playstation, the GT-R is now a worldwide automotive phenomenon, even in places, like Canada, where you can’t buy a new one.

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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What is it about the GT-R? Partly, it’s the look. With its upright two-door body up in its signature gunmetal grey with gunmetal-coloured wheels, it looks like a weapon, the automotive equivalent of a blued-steel assault rifle. The styling isn’t so much styling as it is a sort of functional brutality: the wings and skirts and intakes are there for a reason, and the only real concessions to style are the four round Ferrari-like rear lamps and the iconic GT-R badge on the back.

It’s the engine: a 2.6-litre inline six that, despite a Japanese gentleman’s agreement among the car manufacturers limiting “official” outputs to 280 hp, was always producing significantly more than that. It’s the technology: an electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system that not only endows the GT-R with phenomenal grip and stability, but also the unique ability to handle with the agility and nimbleness of a rear-wheel-drive car.

Mitch Rajmoolie
Mitch Rajmoolie. Click image to enlarge

And it’s the tuning potential: thanks to its bulletproof innards, the GT-R’s engine can be cranked up to 1000 hp, should you, or your fictitious Gran Turismo budget, wish.

In a lot of ways, Mitch Rajmoolie is just like you and I: well acquainted with the myth of the GT-R, he wanted one badly. Unlike the rest of us, he did something about it, establishing a small company, JDM-Imports.com, to import and sell GT-Rs in Canada. Due to Transport Canada regulations, all of the GT-Rs he’s brought in – he’s sold three so far, and more are on the way – are more than 15 years old, but thanks to Japan’s relatively moderate climate, and original owners over there that are as fanatical about their cars as we are, they tend to be clean, low-mileage examples that look close to new.

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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In his garage when I visited was a stock gunmetal R32 (the bigger, later-generation cars are referred to as R33 and R34) GT-R with about 140,000 km, and his highly modified “company car”, a 47,000-km, white Nismo R32 with widened wheel arches, aerodynamic add-ons, bigger wheels, and an engine that had been tuned to produce a conservative 450 hp. Despite an almost total lack of rustproofing (which they didn’t do in Japan back then), their bodies were tight, their paint smooth and shiny. Their interiors were looking their age, with matte-finish plastics having gone shiny and some questionable eighties Nissan “ergonomics”, but all the electronics worked, and there were – remarkably – no squeaks or rattles.

Nissan Skyline GT-R

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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More than the Nismo’s astonishing performance, what was most impressive was how solid and well-sorted the car felt just driving around town. It took a bit of time to acclimatize to its right-hand-drive set-up (the first couple of corners are always interesting), but otherwise, even with lots of modifications, the Nismo was as easy as any modern high-performance car to drive. Its clutch and shifter were as friendly as a Sentra’s, its steering was linear and direct, and on its adjustable Tein suspension and massive summer performance, it even rode well on potholed, frost-heaved Toronto streets. The brakes were a bit sensitive, but hey, they kind of have to be right there when you need to slow all those 450 horses down.

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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While snowy conditions, summer tires and a license-preservation instinct prevented me from really pushing the GT-R very hard, even within a few feet, it was obvious that this car was a serious performer. It develops massive torque from a standing start, and the steamroller effect simply multiplies the faster and harder you go. Punch it down a freeway on-ramp, and you’ll soon find the mandatory Japanese “speed chime” ringing in your ear, even in third gear. Passing power is equally impressive, and you rarely need to downshift in order to ride the fat wave of torque produced by the tough inline-six.

Unlike the stereotypically high-strung power delivery of most Japanese six-cylinder engines, the GT-R’s motor is incredibly flexible, allowing you to dawdle along almost at idle, or rev like crazy, while always delivering a smooth, seamless rush of acceleration. Surprisingly, given the Nismo’s high state of tune, it remained pretty civilized, with only the burping and popping of the exhaust – and the giant sucking sound made by the intake when you were on the gas – as a reminder of its performance potential.

Nissan Skyline GT-R

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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There was no lurching or shunting from the driveline, and the flow of torque to the front wheels was seamless, with only the small gauge on the dash as an indication that you were using the front wheels’ traction as the rears’ struggled to handle the power of the turbocharged engine.

Toronto’s largely straight roads and the slushy conditions meant that drawing any real conclusions about the GT-Rs’ handling would be difficult, but on ramps and around turns in the city, it felt light, agile, and “chuckable” – like it would happily go wherever you pleased while staying stable and composed while doing so. Both cars feature an ATTESA E-TS all-wheel-drive system that acts like a rear-drive car most of the time, while juggling torque around in corners for optimum handling; the Nismo version features an ET-S pro system whose sensors read road conditions and the car’s cornering state with more frequency and precision. Neither car has any sort of electronic stability control – and the Nismo’s ABS has been binned along with a lot of other things, like the air conditioner, to save weight – but you won’t miss it. The cars really are that confidence-inspiring.

Nissan Skyline GT-R
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You will have to accept some inevitable compromises for driving a 15-year-old, right-hand-drive Japanese-market car in Canada, of course. The lack of rustproofing is one worry, though that can be fixed fairly easily. You’ll need to install a new radio, because Japanese-market ones surf the FM dial differently. Making left turns is a real pain, since you have to strain to see past oncoming traffic. But there are also many little pleasures of driving a GT-R: the looks and thumbs-up given you by anyone you pass that’s even remotely interested in cool cars; the novelty of passing people and seeing them realize there’s nobody in the “driver’s” seat; the feeling that these cars, save for some tatty interior fittings, are really built to last.

Nissan Skyline GT-R
Click image to enlarge

The best news is that, in 2006, some of the latest and best R32 GT-Rs are now eligible for importing into our country. Mitch has a Skyline on its way from Japan – he usually quotes a delivery time of 3 months to allow for shipping and preparation when it arrives in Canada – with less than 20,000 original kilometres on it, which is stunning for a 15-year-old car, especially one so tough. Though you’ll certainly pay more for an imported GT-R than a regular car of similar vintage (the unmodified grey car in the photos is listed at $17,900), you’re buying more than just a car here. Warts and all, you’re also buying into a legend.

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