GTS / GTSt buyers guide

by Fuggles
11 years ago
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Claire Williams (booty-licious) supercharged R33 GTS

Buyer’s Guide: SKYLINE

Words by Andy Butler Photography by Tom Wood

Think Nissan Skyline and you invariably think ‘ GT-R. After all, that’s the Big One. The one with all the power and sophistication that makes heroes out of fools and can be driven by anyone who can afford the juice and the insurance.

But concentrating on the Skyline GT-R means that it’s less powerful twin-brother, the GT-S, is often thought of as a bit of an under-achiever. In reality, it can be a fantastic car which offers tremendous performance for not a lot of outlay. In particular, the R33 version gives a great balance of ability for the cash, so this is the one we’re checking out here. The R32 and R34 derivatives are well worth checking out, too, so we’ll look at those another time.

After talking to enthusiastic owners and sellers, it seems that overlooking the GT-S is a huge mistake. Although it isn’t as focused and raw as the GT-R, that is one of its strengths. With the GT-R, you’re forced to sit up, take note, and drive all the time with little chance to relax. The GT-S allows the driver to chill out and cruise without the need to attack every bend as if it leads onto Conrod Straight. And, although it won’t object to a driver taking it easy for a while, the GT-S can still perform better than a lot of cars on the road – and can prove to be a highly entertaining drive should you feel in the mood.

There are how many derivatives?

When the R33 Skyline GT-S family was launched in August 1993, running alongside the R32 GT-R, there were plenty of models to choose from. The range included four-door saloons and two-door coupes, manual or automatic gearboxes, rear-wheel or four-wheel drive, six-cylinder, naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre motors, and a single turbo 2.5-litre to top off the range. In all, there were 16 variants in that first year, 25 by 1995, and 28 the year after that.

Radical culling meant only 11 survived into the final year of production but, for an import buyer, it means there are an awful lot of cars floating around with the Skyline badge stuck on the bootlid – some of which aren’t quite as awesome as you might hope or expect. It also means that, as a buyer, you have to be very aware of what you’re looking at.

A large percentage of garages selling imported vehicles recognise the Skyline badge and think they’ve got something special and a license to print money. In a lot of cases they are sadly mistaken. Even worse is that they often sell these cars to unsuspecting punters, who end up with an overpriced car that’s unsaleable when they want something else.

Of all the Skyline GT-S models, the most desirable ones are equipped with the 2.5-litre single-turbo motor, so we’re looking for a Skyline GT-S25t Type M. If you find a 2.5-litre non-turbo with two-wheel drive, you’ve either got a GT-S25 or a GT-S25 Type S. The GTS-4 is the four-wheel-drive variant that comes with the non-turbo 2.5-litre lump. There are 2.0-litre R33 GT-Ss available, but buy one and you’ll probably be stuck with it for some time.

Apart from the extra power, the main reasons for choosing the turbo seem to be insurance and tuning. All Skylines are insurance group 20, so you won’t really save anything going for the lower-power versions. In fact, most insurance companies won’t even have heard of anything other than a GT-R, so you should get in touch with a real insurance specialist to get a sensible quote. Contact the Skyline GT-R owners club or check-out specialist web addresses for more insurer details. The other reason for choosing a turbo car is that, if you do want a bit more power, it’s easier to start with a turbo’d motor rather than have to bring the non-turbo up to the same level.

On the subject of performance, a GT-S25t is going to provide 230-250bhp and, when de-restricted, should be good for around 150mph. But, being two-wheel drive means that what is a great handling car in the dry can become quite a handful in the wet. It you’ve been brought up on front-wheel-drive hot hatches, then R will definitely pay to take it easy and get to know the car before you try whipping down your favourite set of twisties when the weather’s a bit on the damp side. Even better, get out on the track with an instructor, who can show you the real fun of rear-wheel drive, so that you have a good idea of what’s coming.

To help out the car’s handling, Nissan fitted its HICAS rear-wheel-steering system, similar to that employed on the Nissan 300ZX. It’s purpose is to reduce or eliminate understeer. The HICAS system uses a small steering rack acting on the rear wheels to increase the rate of turn-in by momentarily turning out of the corner and then turning back the same way as the front wheels.

This means that the car’s back end moves out, increasing the yaw rate of the car and putting the vehicle into the turn more quickly. Then the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front to stabilize the car through the corner.  All this is done in fractions of a second and by minuscule amounts. The rear rack might only turn the wheels by half a degree, but it’s enough to make a difference.

Thinking about the various Nissans that use a similar layout of six-cylinder motor, rear- or four­wheel drive, you could almost have one of each and not need anything else. Just imagine – if you had a big enough garage and wallet – you could have a Stagea estate for heavy shopping trips, a Skyline four-door saloon for the family, a GT-S25t single-turbo for everyday cruising, and a GT-R for trackday fun. I think I need to go and lie down in a darkened room until this fever passes!

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Engine

According to GT-S specialist the RB25DET motor in the GT-S25t is absolutely bomb-proof. ‘If it’s well looked after it’ll run and run. It’s a brilliant engine.’ But, to be certain, this means ignoring the Nissan service interval that reckons on a once-over every 9000 miles and instead giving it an oil and filter session every 4-5000 miles.

Also, use only Super Unleaded 97-98 octane fuel to avoid potential detonation problems which can damage pistons. It pays to always have some octane booster in case this fuel isn’t available but, if you do end up having to put in some regular 95, play safe and drive gently until you can fill-up with the proper stuff.

With hydraulic valve lifters, computerised ignition and very little else for a technician to play with, servicing is pretty quick and reasonably priced. Just be sure that someone looks at the spark plugs on a regular basis and changes them at the prescribed intervals. Standard platinum plugs are fine unless you’re tuning the motor. Regular plug check-ups prevent them from getting stuck solid in the alloy head. A Helicoil repair to one of these motors isn’t a cheap deal, so add a smear of anti-seize compound to the spark plug threads.

One neat feature of the RB25DET motor is the NVCS variable cam timing system that helps the GT-S25t to perform so well at lower revs. Unlike a VTEC system which uses a cam with separate lobes for different valve timing, the Nissan arrangement is much simpler. It uses oil pressure controlled by a solenoid valve in the cylinder head that is actuated by the ECU at around 4000rpm – to shift the inlet camshaft relative to its drive pulley and advance the timing by five degrees. That might not sound a lot, but it makes a huge difference to the way the motor pulls at low revs and then keeps building power higher up the scale.

As far as motor worries go, the only problem we’ve heard about is exhaust manifolds warping – and even pulling studs from cylinder heads. A simple fix is to have the stud holes slightly elongated to allow some movement of the manifold, and then to have the mating face skimmed flat before refitting it. Simple, and it should stop the problem recurring.

Fuel economy – on Super Unleaded only, remember – is in the mid-20s, which isn’t bad for a car with a turbo six-cylinder lump this big. Manual or auto transmissions seem to have about the same thirst, so don’t go for a manual ‘box expecting to save money at the pumps.

Exhaust

The standard exhaust system is known for being a bit of a strangler, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that the Nissan pipe has been binned in favour of something a bit more sporty. You should make sure that either the catalytic converter is still fitted or, if it has been removed, that it’s available when you pick up the car. Cats are expensive to buy and you’ll need one fitted come MoT time, even if you take it off again as soon as you’ve got your ticket.

Transmission

Being a lot more simple than the GT-R’s 4wd set-up, the rear-drive GT-S25t transmission is as bomb-proof as the motor. Neither the manual nor auto have any real recurrent faults, so you shouldn’t come across crunching synchros or whining diffs. Most of the cars have limited-slip diffs, but a few don’t and, apart from checking chassis numbers (finding this info will prove very difficult, anyway), you’ll have to drive a car to find out whether it has one or not. It shouldn’t make itself known by making any weird noises, but LSD-equipped cars should find it easier to get out of a tight turn quicker without spinning the inside rear tyre.

Steering

The vast majority of the GT-S25t models are equipped with the HICAS rear-wheel-steering system and, in typical Japanese fashion, it doesn’t tend to cause any maintenance headaches or give problems. Enjoy the effect it has on the car’s handling, but you probably won’t be aware it’s lending a hand.

Brakes

Check for any wobbles felt through the steering while driving, and that the car brakes in a straight line during the test drive, and then have a good look at the discs for scoring or cracking. Also, try to see how thick the pads are to find out if you’re going to be faced with overhauling the brakes as soon as you’ve driven home. If anything looks questionable, get it replaced or get some money knocked off. A set of brake discs and pads can be quite costly.

Suspension

No nasties here, either, with dampers lasting well without leaking and springs remaining at the correct height without sagging. The only bush problem we heard of was with those in the rear cradle going soft. White Line offers an uprated bush kit that will cure any knocking noises and eliminate axle tramp on fast launches.

Wheels and Tyres

Although the majority of GT-Ss are rear-wheel drive – it seems very few GT-S4 four-wheel drives have made it over here – they don’t seem to eat rear tyres any quicker than fronts, unless the car is driven very hard. The suspension set-up is robust so, unless the car is kerbed hard, the odd knock shouldn’t affect the tracking unduly.

However, if you’re buying a car with bigger rims, it pays to check the tyres thoroughly to make sure there isn’t lots of wear on the inside of the tread. It’s known for some big-rimmed GT-Ss to eat the inside edge of the rubber to the steel webbing and leave the outside looking fine. This leaves you with a dangerous car that could suffer a blow-out at any time, and a possibility of endorsements and fines from the Plod.

Check the rubber on full lock to make sure this isn’t happening, and have a shufty at the rears just in case someone’s swapped ’em around so the better ones are on the front. It does happen.

Bodywork

Apart from checking that the usual Nissan shut gaps and panel alignment are as good as the factory intended, and that there aren’t any questionable repairs hidden under the surface, all you need to find out is how good the anti­corrosion protection is. In Japan, salt corrosion isn’t an issue, but it is here, so getting a decent coat of underseal on your grey import is vital if Tokyo tinworm isn’t going to strike.

Apart from that, the only other things to check are easy enough to spot, as long as you don’t mind getting on your knees. By looking under the sills you can see the chassis legs that run down either side of the floorpan from front to rear. In the middle they are joined by a small weld that often pops open if the car has been shunted with any force. If the top side looks OK, but the tell-tale weld has split, you know there’s some unwanted accident history hidden away.

If the welds are fine, just have a look at the rest of the chassis legs to make sure that some idiot hasn’t been jacking up the car on them and crushing them flat. It’s all indicative of a lack of TLC from a previous owner.

Another item that might look bad is a scuffed or cracked lower splitter on the front spoiler. While you might think this shows the previous owner

was a bit reckless when parking, it might simply mean that the boys who put the car onto the transporter from the Japanese auction were a little less than careful. The same goes for the people who load the large boats that bring the cars to the UK – it’s not their car, so they won’t be bothered about scuffing the odd spoiler. If the rest of the car looks mint, a split spoiler shouldn’t be too much of a worry.

Finally, check the windscreen for chips and cracks. If the car needs a new ‘screen and you haven’t got glass cover on your insurance, you’re looking at almost a grand to fit a new one. Ouch!

Electronics

Skyline electronics seem to hold no fears for the second-hand buyer but, if you are the first owner of a recently imported car, make sure the battery is new or in good nick – unlikely after weeks parked up and on the boat. And if any items have been added or swapped – like a new stereo or some form of engine goodies – check that every­thing’s wired in correctly and that every function, functions. If it’s the original Jap-spec radio, it won’t work here on most stations without a signal expander, but it’s probably better simply to change the unit for a new one.

To get the all-important theft cover on your insurance you’ll definitely be asked for some form of alarm or immobiliser, and it will have to be fitted according to Thatcham-approved guidelines, which means professionally fitted, too. A 20-quid Argos special won’t do.

Insurance

Although we’ve mentioned that Skylines are pretty hefty on the insurance front, there are a few specialists out there who recognise the car and its driver type to be a reasonable risk. And quite a few won’t ask for lots of extra security measures like tracking devices. If you know your sort of motoring isn’t going to put your car at risk, you could save yourself some extra expense by having a good ring-around and checking the insurers’ security stipulations.