Some people might struggle to understand, but if you’re a car enthusiast of a certain age, there’s something about an R33 Nismo 400R. For Nissan GT-R fans, short of a full Group A R32 at Bathurst, it’s the Holy Grail.
Just 44 examples of the 400R were hand-built at Nismo’s Omori factory and this car has covered just 42,000km. And it’s finished in perfect ‘LP2’ or Midnight Purple. Aside from Nismo’s own and unique yellow 400R as immortalised in the Gran Turismo game series, this is the Skyline colour. It just had to be Midnight Purple.
I think it’s only right and proper to declare my deep lust for this car from the outset. In fact, I’m pretty nervous about the whole thing. I mean, what if it’s terrible? Or, even worse, just a bit, well, ‘so what?’. I think I could cope with it being absurdly stiff, threatening to bounce me from the road, or some mighty, comedy turbo lag and spiky, heart-in- mouth handling. But if it’s a bit flat, a bit slow, a bit imprecise… that would be awful. Too awful even for the carbonfibre bonnet or those achingly cool LM-GT1 white-faced split-rim alloys to overcome.
I twist the elegant key and, before the big straight- six booms into life, a young female Japanese voice chirps something enthusiastically from a small and rather mysterious rectangular box attached to the underside of the dash above my left leg. I don’t know what the hell it means, but it makes me smile. This is going to be awesome.
So what exactly is this car? Stripped-out road- racer? Homologation special? Well, not quite either of those things, but with elements of both. The Nismo 400R was launched in November 1997, inspired by the Skyline GT-R LM that had raced at Le Mans in 1995 and 1996. The 400R is a comprehensive reworking of the already pretty extraordinary R33 GT-R. Nismo left no stone unturned in its quest to build the ultimate road-going Skyline. Forget a little bit of extra boost and some stiffer dampers; the 400R went much, much further. Out went the iconic RB26DETT engine and in its place came the Le Mans-proven RB-X GT2 unit engineered by Reinik, the motorsport department of Nissan Kohki (itself the in-house powertrain division at Nissan). The RB-X GT2 utilised a reinforced block that was bored and stroked to make 277lcc. It also featured Nl-spec turbos with steel internals, a forged crankshaft and connecting rods, a new engine management system, optimised cylinder head, revised intake and exhaust systems (titanium from the cats back), an oil cooler and a new intercooler system. The RB-X GT2 produces 295kW at 6800rpm and 469Nm at 4400rpm.
The solutions throughout the car were no less radical, from the 50 per cent lighter carbonfibre driveshaft to the titanium front strut-brace, carbonfibre bonnet, double-element adjustable carbonfibre rear wing, forged three-piece wheels with 275/35 ZR18 tyres, the new front bumper scooped out with various cooling channels and widened to accommodate the 50mm increase in track… the list goes on. The suspension was also retuned with much stiffer bushes, new Bilstein dampers and aggressive spring rates with a 30mm drop in height. The 400R still features that unique ATTESA ET-S PRO all-wheel- drive system with an Active LSD’ at the rear. It also features the Super HICAS four-wheel-steering system.
Inside you can’t see all of that technology. In fact the 400R feels simple. The seats, trimmed in a velour-type material, feel fantastically grippy and supportive. You sit low, legs out quite straight, and the pedals have a real heft and precision to them. Gone is the four-spoke airbagged steering wheel of other Skylines and in its place a| gorgeous 360mm Nismo item with a carbonhbre horn push emblazoned with the 400R logo.
The slim, cylindrical gearknob is titanium. Of course. The unique instrument cluster has a speedo reading to 320km/h and the rev-counter goes yellow at 8, red at 9 and doesn’t stop until 11. Even the three little auxiliary gauges on the centre console are unique: from left to right they still display the amount of power sent to the front wheels, oil temp and boost pressure respectively, but they show finer graduation for more detailed information, while the boost gauge reads up to 1.4bar. And you can see that heavily sculpted bonnet ahead, the plank of carbonhbre behind and the blistered arches when your eyes flick to the door mirrors.
The engine churns slowly at first and then booms into a heavy, tuneless idle. The sound is deep, powerful, the sort of noise that isn’t piercingly loud but jangles your bones.
Like the current GT-R, the Skyline has a feel of engineered heft to everything it does. And a real sense of raw feedback. The steering is heavy but quite quick, perhaps on account of the rear- wheel steering, and despite the weight there’s a really smooth, clean feel to the rack. The drivetrain somehow imparts a sense of inertia but also energetic response, too. The 400R is 1550kg and it feels it, but there’s an athleticism bubbling away under the surface. I’d expected a hellishly hard ride, but although the 400R jiggles and fidgets at lower speeds, it doesn’t take long before the dampers start to find their range even on these lumpy, jagged roads.
The RBX-GT2 is a gritty, industrial wonder. The lesser 2.6-litre straight-sixes found in normal Skylines have a real off-boost lethargy and in standard form they still feel held back even when the turbos are blowing hard. If ever an engine needed to be tuned with freer breathing and a tickle more boost, it’s the RB26DETT.
“It’s a living, breathing monster of an engine”
The 400R’s six is different. It still feels like a big, heavy engine but the throttle response is cleaner even when the turbos are only just waking up, and from around 3500rpm to over 8000rpm it chomps through each gear with a delicious roar overlaid with the hissing of the big cold-air intake system and the whistle and chirrups of the turbo plumbing. It sounds like a living, breathing monster of an engine and creates a character at odds with the technofest you might expect. The chunky five-speed ’box just adds to the physical drama of extracting the 400R’s performance.
The chassis has the same physicality. The ATESSA ET-S PRO system sends 100 per cent of torque to the rear wheels on corner entry and then uses ABS sensors, lateral and longitudinal G sensors and throttle opening information to determine when to apportion torque to the front wheels. Up to 50 per cent of drive can be sent forwards. The Super HICAS rear-wheel-steering system steers in the opposite direction to the front wheels initially to create agility, then switches to steering in harmony with the fronts to control the rate of yaw.
So the 400R turns in with real assurance, the rear-wheel-steer system effectively shortening the wheelbase. Body control is good, the car turning and settling in one clean action. The 400R never snaps into oversteer and with patience you can tune into its balance and gradually start to pick up the pace until you’re throwing everything at it. This car has uprated AP Racing brakes and they’re sensational – the pedal with that solid, heavyweight feel of a good racing setup – so you can brake right into turns, feel the rear axle drive the front tyres into the corner, and then unleash the howling RB-X GT2 engine. The 400R needs a bit of aggression to really start to make sense, and driven with this degree of commitment everything feels more natural. It actually starts to seem small and light, so much so that you find yourself flinging it around like a hot hatch rather than treating it as a big rear-drive coupe.
On one final drive, everything clicks. It’s a cool evening and the engine seems hungrier than ever for the dense air, the steering shimmies and wriggles over the worst bumps but is full of feel, and I manage to get the 400R in that sweet spot where it locks into corners on entry but floats out of them just on the edge of oversteer.
It feels sensational, a compelling mix of heavyweight engineering and lithe responses with a unique soundtrack and a setup that requires work to understand but then offers rich reward. Later I find myself daydreaming about taking it on a road trip to Spa or maybe down to the Route Napoleon.
Tokyo, Bathurst, the south of France… It’s all immaterial really. What matters is being in the 400R. I still love this car.