Why the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R Really Is the Greatest Performance Car Ever

A supercar, tuner car, and race car rolled up into one perfect kaiju. 

Among the Greatest of All Time pantheon, you’ve got Serena Williams, Queen, Lewis Hamilton, that football guy whose name I always forget, and of course Macho Man Randy Savage. There’s no denying their crowns. But GOAT is a title bandied about in the car community so often, it feels as if it’s lost all meaning. 

Yet, there’s only one that could ever actually take the crown: the R32-generation Nissan Skyline GT-R, aka Godzilla. 

Nissan diehards will be rallying around that statement, while others are likely readying their pitchforks and torches. But before fans of the Ferrari F40, McLaren F1, Bugatti Veyron, or 1969 Dodge Charger our own Hank O’Hop believes to be his lord and savior, ransack The Drive’s office (ha, jokes on you, we don’t have one), let me remind you how and why the R32 GT-R is Swiss Army Knife-perfection.

Not only do you get a brilliant factory enthusiast machine, but also a strikingly dominant racecar, an excellent tuner car, and a true every-person supercar killer. Even three decades after it stopped production, the R32 GT-R is still those things.

The predecessor to the R32 Skyline GT-R, the R31, was a pretty lackluster thing. It raced, and did ok, but Nissan wanted more. The company wanted to be a dominant force, and more importantly it had the cash to do it—this was the late 1980s, peak Bubble Era, when it had the fiscal reserves it’d kill for today. So Nissan’s execs tasked its engineers with designing a Group A monster. 

Most car dorks like myself know the R32 GT-R’s spec sheet by heart thanks to Gran Turismo. For the uninitiated, underneath its boxy hood was the now-legendary 2.6-liter inline 6-cylinder RB26DETT engine, making an stated 276 horsepower. The only thing is, it didn’t.

Underhood shot of Nissan GT-R's RB26 engine.
Built By Legends, Photography by Maruo Kono

Reality saw that metric closer to 320 horsepower, or about 45 horsepower more than advertised. Why? In 1989, the year the R32 debuted, Japanese automakers came together on a “gentleman’s agreement” that codified a 276-hp max output for future performance cars to avoid a horsepower war in a land where wide open roads are hard to come by. It lasted until around 2004—but you could argue it never really existed in the first place. Companies simply built more powerful cars like the R32 and the A90 Supra and the RX7 while publicly claiming they all made 276 horsepower with a wink. Sandbagging is a rich and sometimes annoying tradition that continues today, but it’s part of what helped the R32’s legend as a wolf in sheep’s clothing grow.

Nissan then threw a beefed-up 5-speed manual transmission sending power to Nissan’s ahead-of-the-times ATTESA E-TS all-wheel drive—which was designed to kill AWD understeer, while still being incredibly stable at high speeds and in corners, but just as nimble as other rear-wheel drive-only sports cars. Plus, the R32 got the company’s Super HICAS all-wheel steer.

Yet, though Nissan’s outward talk of improving cornering and reducing understeer seems perfectly reasonable for sports car development in isolation, you can actually thank Porsche’s 959 supercar for the inspiration of combining Super HICAS and ATTESA E-TS. As Porsche’s engineering was dominating the headlines of the day, Nissan aimed to beat the Germans with the GT-R. In fact, at the R32 GT-R’s launch, one Nissan engineer was quite candid with Car Magazine, stating Nissan wanted, “to out-Porsche Porsche. We reckon Porsche makes the best-handling cars. And the 959 is reckoned to be the most advanced supercar ever made. We wanted to beat the 959.” 

Though only a few years separated the two from their respective launches, the GT-R never went head-to-head with the Porsche. But if anyone has the keys to both and a circuit, my DMs are open and helmet is ready.

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Nissan immediately took the R32 GT-R racing and dominated. No, seriously, as when the company took it to Japan’s Touring Car Championship, it won all 29 races it entered. Then it took three Group A championships in Australia and won the Bathurst 1000 twice even though the officials threw an extra 309 pounds of ballast at it. 

And thanks to this, Australia’s motorsport body became so disgruntled over the GT-R’s reign that it ultimately banned both turbocharging and all-wheel drive from competition. This all but banned the R32 without actually banning it. This streak continues into today; in February, an R32 flat-out embarrassed a bunch of modern race cars at the Bathurst 12 Hour and prompted an official investigation in the process.

The car won a host of European races too, ruffling a ton of continental feathers throughout the paddock. Extra ballast was a routine penalty for the R32, but that didn’t stop a GT-R from taking pole and winning the 24 Hours of Spa in 1991. A few folks even took the car to Pikes Peak, where an R32 won the Open Production Class with Akira Kameyama hustling the car up the mountain. 

But while its racing history is astounding, what makes the R32 GT-R that much more relatable is that it was, and still is, pretty attainable. It wasn’t limited like many of those other would-be GOATs, as normal people could walk into a dealership and actually buy one. You didn’t need to be on a list, you didn’t need to know someone, or already have 16 Ferraris. You just had to have the cash. 

Nissan made a total of 43,937 R32 Skyline GT-Rs over the course of its production run, which is a lot more than the 1,311 F40s. It also wasn’t as expensive as the iconic red supercar, as it launched with a starting price of around $30,000 in 1991. That translates to roughly $66,000 today, which is still a solid deal considering you got a world-class sports car in return. 

You couldn’t buy one here in the States, though. And there were other editions that cost a pretty penny more, including the N1 and V-Specs. Nissan also offered all manner of go-faster parts available directly from the factory that raised prices, too. But even out of the box, the GT-R came with enormous potential.

And while ’80s and ’90s halo models routinely sell in the six-figure range today, decent, driver-condition R32 Skyline GT-Rs aren’t really trading hands for that much higher than their inflation-adjusted initial prices. You can find solid examples on the used market for around $50,000-$70,000 from legitimate importers like Toprank International Vehicle Importers. They may need some work, but the vast majority that are arriving in America are within that price range. 

Nissan GT-R by Built By Legends along a Japanese street at night.
Built By Legends, Photography by Maruo Kono

And as with cars actual people can afford, and Nissan leaving enough performance on the table, the tuner community grew exponentially. R32 parts and builds are everywhere, including some recent builds that replicate what Singer did for the Porsche 911. A bunch of aftermarket companies sprouted up in the era, too, including HKS which still manufactures parts for the R32. The company will even build you an entire RB26-derived engine but punched out to 2.8 liters and developing a lot of friggin’ horsepowers. 

GT-Rs are also relatively easy to work on. Despite the complicated all-wheel steer and all-wheel drive, at its heart, it’s still a very analog car and swapping parts is pretty straightforward. I actually feel confident enough in my wrenching capabilities that general maintenance and modification wouldn’t be difficult. Even EV-swapping it is possible if that gets you going, though Nissan has the weight of the entire company behind that particular project.

Now here’s where I have to address the elephant in the room: the other GT-Rs. 

R34 generation Nissan GT-R at Cars and Coffee.
Maddox Kay

There are those who will point out that the R34 GT-R is faster, wider, had better aerodynamics, and to some, is better looking. And it certainly pulls more cash, as R34s—though only somewhat legal—routinely sell for over $100,000. Yet, the R34, and prior R33, were essentially just mid-cycle updates to the R32, and they owe everything to the original engineering Nissan did in the ‘80s. They just lack the same gravitas and originality of the R32.

There’s also the R35, but I’m sorry, it feels too heavy, too complex, and too disassociated to the act of driving. It’s a grand tourer with a lot of tech to make it quick around a circuit.

≈along a highway.
Built By Legends, Photography by Maruo Kono

The R32 has a raw, visceral tension to it, though. The engine screams to nearly 9,000 rpm, and its chassis feels both part of the pavement and simultaneously up on its toes, ready for a knife fight. It’s buzzy and you can’t help but giggle, grin, and aim it at the closest squiggliest road, unleashing all hell to manic hilarity. I’ll never forget the first time I drove one.

A lot of cars could be GOATs based on their performance, rarity, or provenance alone. But of those cars mentioned above, as well as those that’ll offered in the comments below, all lack what makes the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R great, and that’s that it did it all. It defeated supercars, it was a force on the track, affordable to average enthusiasts, and still isn’t unobtainium. 

It was, and is, the end-all, be-all performance car. No car made since has even come close to being as successful in those categories, let alone all of them at once.

All other “GOATs” more closely resemble the weak-sauce fish-eating, French-roast advertising, lizard-like Godzilla Matthew Broderick once took a picture of. Whereas the R32 is the truly unstoppable, atomic fire-breathing, city-destroying, possibly god-adjacent kaiju we see in Hideki Anno’s ‘Shin Godzilla’, i.e. the real GOAT. 

Got a tip or question for the author? Contact them directly: jonathon@thedrive.com