GT-R RETROSPECTIVE: Warp Factor: HSV GTS-R v BMW M3 v Nissan Skyline GT-R

Okay, we'll tell you exactly how it feels: it feels like you're driving a car that's been dropped nose-first from an aeroplane. Engine revs screaming, wind and rubber shrilling, accelerative forces swatting you against your seat; in less than 15 seconds you must remind yourself to breathe again.

Dogfighting on the track, you are reeling like a fly clenched in a child's fist. Your immediate environment is comfortable and familiar, but larger forces are at work around you; forces like 300 horsepower or more, enough rubber to confound gravity and the weight of the best chassis and suspension-sorting brains available.

The BMW M3, Holden Special Vehicles' GTS-R and Nissan's Skyline GT-R V-spec are the ultimate expressions of their kinds. No other BMW 3 Series, no Holden Commodore and no other Nissan Skyline carries the same degree of engineering sophistication, attention to detail or, of course, performance potential. They are masterworks first, performance cars second.

Anybody who questions the need for performance cars has no appreciation of the skills both applied to, and gained from, the stretching of the automotive envelope. Motor racing and performance cars reside at its outer extremities.

Multivalve cylinder heads, fuel injection and variable camshaft timing weren't developed for fuel mileage marathons. Multilink rear suspensions with passive toe control didn't emerge in the quest for a better station wagon. They may end up there, but they came from performance cars.

These three may share their intent, but they end up different because they started out that way. A performance car can be cooked up from a number of key ingredients: a larger engine, a lighter car improved engine breathing, turbocharging, suspension tweaks, maybe active rear-steer, perhaps 4wd. Or maybe, in extremis, all of the above...

BMW's $131,750 front-engined, rear-drive M3 draws equally from the highly modern yet quite conventional E36 3 Series coupe, and from the motor racing experience of BMW's Motorsport annexe. It uses an outrageously efficient 3.2 litre, 24v six-cylinder atmospheric engine, installed in a relatively small, light and highly sophisticated rear-drive chassis.

Of course, you might not need a scalpel if a lump of four-by-two will do. The HSV GTS-R bolts a bigger everything onto a very traditional, mass-market family sedan. The cast-iron, pushrod ohv V8 gets more cubes and more pubes - 5.7 litres developing 475Nm and 215kW, plus another 15 to 20kW after optional ($10,500) blueprinting. A trick diff, fat tyres and a coffee table bolted to the boot are the $75,000/$85,500 GTS-R's major concessions to improving grip and handling.

Conversely, virtually every performance techno-gadget that can go into a car has gone into Nissan's GT -R, on the foundation of a rear-drive, sports-luxury coupe. A 2.6 litre, in-line six develops equivalent power to the others, thanks to 24 valves, twin (ceramic) turbochargers and intercooling.

The GT -R delivers its power through a five-speed box (against the others' six-speeders), computerised 4wd and limited-slip diff, and Nissan's HICAS four-wheel steering. Remember, the old GT -R was so good they could only kill it by changing an entire touring car category. This one, while 100kg heavier (at 1540kg), is better.

Nissan Australia reckons this GT -R - the only one in the country (and temporarily, at that) - would be worth $200,000 landed here. This, along with the hundreds of necessary, niggling ADR changes, means there are no plans to import even limited numbers. This car is on its way to an owner in New Zealand, where it'll also be unique.

Our Kiwi connoisseur will put up with a few missing luxury items. The GT-R matches the two rear-drivers in having 17in alloy wheels, ABS brakes (with four-piston calipers up front), climate-control, central locking and power windows. However, the Nissan lacks the others' seat height adjustment, remote locking, cruise control and (in the BMW's case), leather.

On paper, the car with the most toys underneath should win. But the term 'performance' isn't so straight or narrow as a drag-strip.

Still, it's a good enough place to start...

In a straight line, technology wins. Requiring some technique to get a cleanly boosted launch off the line, the Skyline's 2.6 litre turbomotor propels it to 60km/h in 2.5sec and 100km/h in 5.6sec.
In a subtle symphony of sandpapery engine growl, whistling turbos and phutting wastegates, the GT -R streaks past the 400m mark after just 13.8sec, already travelling at 165km/h. For its complete absence of wheelspin, drivetrain jolts, transmission snags and control heaviness, the GT -R could have been a Pulsar making an 18sec quarter. Except that a Pulsar doesn't leave your temples throbbing.

From just 2.6 litres, the Skyline makes 220kW at 6800rpm (on its way to an 8000rpm redline!) and 368Nm at 4400rpm. Sure, it's nowhere near as tractable at low rpm as the HSV's fat V8; in fact, it has more of a low-end lag, big-boosty top end feel than the previous GT-R (easily fixed by keeping it beyond 5000rpm). People who say there's no substitute for cubic inches must be talking about the vacant space between their ears, because this is certainly one.

The BMW M3 is another. The 3.2 you'll only pick from the 3.0 by its different wheels, clear indicator lenses and 12 percent more power. Along with the capacity increase comes double- V anos variable camshaft timing (now on the exhaust cam as well as the inlet), a higher compression ratio, new electronics and a six-speed transmission with tighter 1-2-3 ratios.

The result is probably the most powerful car here, allowing for Australia's 95 octane premium unleaded and HSV's uncertain guarantee of what a $10,500 blueprint actually buys you.

With 236kW at 7400rpm (slightly more than the magic 100bhp per litre) and 350Nm at 3250rpm, the M3 is more than adequately equipped to haul its 1440kg mass.

Make that ass. The M3 grabs the road and grunts like a baby bull to 100km/h in just under 6.0sec, sprinting past the 400m in 14.3 (at 157km/h) and on to 160 in 15.2. The only hitch in its seamless, surging delivery is a slightly snagging gearshift action under pressure (in fact, Skyline's shift is the nicest of this bunch).

Equally important, however, is the BMW's in-gear performance. It beats or meets the GT -R turbo in every increment up to our national highway limit, and is dead-equal with the GTS-R's torque-monster V8 for flexibility. No turbo lag, no V8 thirst. In fact, its combined AS2877 city Ihighway figure of 9.4 L/100km is exactly the same as a Commodore 3.8.

Speaking of which, you won't see any other Commodore - or any other Australian car - this side of 15sec over 400m.

The GTS-R banana-blaster is the pick ofHSV's bunch, its 215 (plus?) kW at 4S00rpm and torque of 507Nm at 3600rpm betraying its big-bellied brutality.

HSV's own figures give the 'stock' six-speed GTS-R a 14Asec quarter and the blueprinted version O.4sec quicker. Two-up, and with full fuel, we managed only to dip into a 14 to record a two-way average of 15sec neat, at 14Skm/h. The old imperial ton came up in 16.7sec, after a few plunges of the heavyish, long-travel clutch and lengthy gear lever throw. Like we said, its in-gear times were equal-best with the BMW M3.

Agreed, neither of the nancy-boy techno cars sounds remotely like the big VS. Actually, it didn't really sound like a VS either, having more the bellowing blast of a huge, high-pressure water rilains. Could have been all that fuel going through the lines...

And yeah, it does make a difference. In virtually identical running which included performance testing at Eastern Creek and a handful of hot laps at Oran Park, the slurpy Skyline and juicy GTS-R sucked up 16.3 and 16.9 litres per 100km, respectively. The miserly M3 managed all of the above on just 12.9 L/lOOkm.

Flashback to Oran Park. Two of these cars are road cars being tested on a racetrack. The other was a racing car that was driven there on the road.

Many elements of the Skyline GT -R - its hollow, lagging bottom-end power, its belly-jiggling suspension and savagely tramlining steering, its hard, low seating and its metal-on-metal brake feel - leave it less pleasant than the others on the road. On a smooth, sinewy circuit, it all comes together better than any roadable car has a right to.

Out in suburbia, the GT -R tracks surely over backstreet minefields and takes tight corners the way Mr Magoo just drives right up the side of a building, but its around-town suppleness relies largely on the size of your butt. It probably didn't help that the car we were in was the top-shelf 'V-spec', with stiffer spring and damper rates and a 10mm lowered ride height.

All that NASA-on-acid underneath the GT -R makes it a car to make you look good. With a crisp and firm turn-in (albeit, after overcoming the rock-hard brakes and the arm-wrestling wheel), the GT-R just sorta skates out into a dead-flat and predictable mild oversteering attitude.

Where one normally plays with the car's cornering balance at about this point, the Skyline seems only to alter its cornering attitude by slipping around on a horizontal plane. It's like an oversized, indoor go-karting buzz.

"Well, is that where you wanna go? Over there? So, what are you waiting for?" Your foot already to the floor, the tyres shrilling and subtly slipping, the GT -R holds its slight tail-out stance as it fires out of corners like a golf ball off the tee. It's an eye-opening, bum-puckering perftnnance.

By comparison, GTS-R and M3 at the racetrack are merely great - for earthlings. The Holden feels almost as big as it is, rolling with authority into corners, its weight over the outside rear. It's a roll-oversteerer, and doesn't have quite the rear-end grip to cope with full-wood exits. When the tail steps out, it means it.

The M3 is crisper, flatter, and more responsive. Its steering also follows surface contours, more than the GTS-R but lots less than the Skyline, while it hauls down under the most progressive, grippiest braking of the bunch. It's less tail-happy than the Holden and certainly less prone to wheelspin; even in the wet, the M3 gets its power down unimaginably well.

On badly off-camber corners, it will hold a neutral-to-understeering attitude while the Commodore's tail wants to flop into the grass. The four-wheel-everything Skyline, meantime, 'rests its hand on its hip while you sink the boot in, scrabbling up the camber.

But the Skyline isn't the most enjoyable on the road. It's too hard, too fast, too... good. The M3 delights not only with its guitar-string-taut throttle and almighty torque, but its whole package of poise, grip, responsiveness and ride.

You point the Skyline and hang onto it; you drive the BMW and enjoy the rewards. On the road, these three cars well illustrate the comfort vs handling balance: over there is comfort, this one is handling, and the baby-blue Bimmer is balance. The M3 has its limits but is loved for its willingness to try anything. It's eminently well controlled and, beyond, eminently controllable.

In concert with the M3's excellent chassis, the aggressive Michelin Pilots simply defy common sense in sheeting rain, carving through vast puddles and begging for firmer and earlier throttle coming out of corners.

While the HSV's Bridgestone Expedia S-015 contribute a lot to the car's grip but are less progressive in their slip, the Skyline's Expedia S-07s are progressive but prone to slip sooner. The HSV's tyres compensate for its chassis; the Nissan's chassis compensates for its tyres; the BMW has the perfect marriage.

In any other company, the HSV GTS-R would feel firmly suspended, tight and well controlled. But here it's up against a surgically sharp slotcar and a well-practised Wagnerian symphony.

There's not the same palpable body stiffness or roll control, not the telepathic communication between the GTS-R's tyres and the driver's seat, nor the confidence for direction changes of truly female-brain suddenness.

Mind you, the big Holden steers really nicely, very nearly matching the turn-in precision of the other two but with none of the aggression through the wheel. Despite its size and weight, the HSV also has the second-best brakes (after the BMW) in tenns of progressiveness and feel for road use. Only the Holden's tallish tail hints at tippy-toeyness under a big ask. I zinkfor sure anozzer sree degrees' rear wing...

The Holden's weight actually helps it towards having almost the best ride quality, behind - shock me - the M3 again. Where the Skyline's rock-solid (and strut-braced) body tends to rumble and shoulder its way over ripples, the HSV-banana soaks them up with only a mild, directional squirming.

The BMW masks its seriousness with an initial compliance for which German suspensions are often noted. It's taut, comfortable and controlled.

Likewise the M3 has to win for cabin comfort. It has easily the best seats and driving position adjustment. Its pedal spacing doesn't quite equal the Nissan's, but a nice touch (as in other 3 Series) are the extensions behind clutch and brake pedal rubbers to stop shoe soles snagging.

The Skyline's seats are virtually racing buckets with backrest angle adjustment but no cushion height variability. They work just great on the circuit but lack padding and lumbar support for road use.
The HSV's seats boast the most generous range of adjustment, with cushion height and lumbar support added, along with height and reach adjustment for the steering column. Even so, they are a little too plush and the cushion is too steeply angled when combined with short legs and a long-travel clutch pedal.

The BMW and Nissan are, of course, clearly better designed, built and finished than the HSV GTS-R. As they bloody ought to be, at very nearly twice and thrice the price, respectively.

WouId we have a single BMW M3 in preference to a pair of GTS-Rs? Probably! A single GT -R over an M3 and a GTS-R? Nope - but it's the M3 that seals the deal.

The differences between these cars are more fundamental than their price, quality and finish. It's a thematic thing. The HSV GTS-R is a mass-market sedan whipped and worked into a high-performance sports sedan. You'd compliment your next-door neighbour on buying one.

The Skyline GT -R really is a racing animal which has sustained minimal compromise in becoming a hyper-performance road car. You'd have a totally filthy affair with it - for about a year.

And the BMW you could live with all the time. Competent on the racetrack and complete on the road, in the brilliant M3 you're never merely wingin' it.

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